Each week, USHL.com will preview five games from around the league and take a look at the matchup and storylines surrounding each contest.
Sioux City enters the weekend holding onto the sixth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, while Muskegon sits fourth in the East, making this two-game set a big series for both teams. The Lumberjacks will welcome back a healthy Wyatt Bongiovanni to the lineup, who was one of the hottest players in the USHL before he got injured. Along with rookie scoring leader Matej Pekar and USHL scoring leader Anthony Del Gaizo, Muskegon will look to start loading up and trying to get fully healthy heading into the home stretch of the regular season. The Musketeers made a splash this week, as they acquired Colorado Avalanche prospect and former Des Moines Buccaneers defenseman Nate Clurman. The highly-touted blueliner has tallied seven points (1G, 6A) in 39 games this season and will look to make an immediate impact both offensively and defensively to help Sioux City keep rising in the standings, along with forward Sampo Ranta and goaltender Matt Jurusik. Saturday's game will be free for fans to watch at USHL.HockeyTV.com.
2. Saturday, Feb. 24, 7:05 PM ET - Omaha Lancers at Youngstown Phantoms
This matchup features the top team in the Western Conference and one of the top-two teams in the Eastern Conference facing off in the second game of their Thursday-Saturday series. Omaha defeated Youngstown 8-1 on Thursday and will be looking for the series sweep and to increase their lead atop the USHL, while the Phantoms will look to earn a split and keep pace with Team USA atop the East. Eight different goal scorers found the back of the net for the Lancers on Thursday - Filip Suchy, Noah Cates, Brendan Furry, Ethan Price, Christian O'Neill, Jack Randl, Chase Brand and Nick Perbix. The offense is clicking on all cylinders for Omaha, and with the strong goaltending of Zach Driscoll, it's easy to see why Omaha is the best team in the USHL. Despite the loss on Thursday, the Phantoms still have plenty to be optimistic about. Matt Barry remains the fifth-leading scorer in the USHL with 44 points, and reigning USHL goaltender of the week Ivan Prosvetov has won five of his last seven starts. Along with the veteran skill of Chase Gresock, Curtis Hall and Max Ellis, Youngstown has to feel good about their chances of splitting this intra-conference series and getting on a roll in the last quarter of the season.
3. Friday, Feb. 23 and Saturday, Feb. 24, 7:05 PM CT - Sioux Falls Stampede at Dubuque Fighting Saints
Sioux Falls has quietly been the hottest team in the USHL over the past month. The Stampede have won seven of their last 10 games and have picked up points in nine of those contests to move into a tie for second place in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, Dubuque has also been one of the better teams in the league lately, as they now sit just one point out of the top of the Eastern Conference standings. While Sioux Falls doesn't have any players that will "wow" on the statsheet, there are a remarkably steady, consistent group, with Nolan Walker (34 PTS) and Adam Dawe (32 PTS) leading the way offensively. Combine that with steady play on the blue line from veterans such as Jack St. Ivany, along with the strong goaltending of Winnipeg Jets prospect Mikhail Berdin, and you have a recipe for success that the Stampede have used throughout the course of the season. For Dubuque, they will look to Ohio State commit Quinn Preston to take over. Preston has been one of the hottest players in the USHL over the past month, with 12 points (5G, 8A) in his last 12 games. Matias Maccelli has also come on strong as of late too, with 11 points (5G, 6A) in his last 13 games. This looks to be a fast-paced, exciting matchup between two very strong teams.
4. Friday, Feb. 23, 7:05 PM CT - Green Bay Gamblers at Chicago Steel
This game features two teams that are hanging on to the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference but are trending in opposite directions. Green Bay has won three of their last four games to sit in fifth place in the East, while Chicago has dropped each of their last three contests to hold a one-point lead over Madison for the sixth seed in the conference. Gamblers goaltender Maksim Zhukov has seen a surge in his play as of late. The Vegas Golden Knights prospect has won each of his last three starts and has allowed two goals or fewer in seven of his last nine appearances dating back to Jan. 20. He is now sixth among all USHL goaltenders in GAA (2.32) and 10th in the league in SV% (.914). He he continues to play at this pace, don't be surprised to see Green Bay go on a tear in the final quarter of the season. For the Steel, even though they have lost their last three games, there is still plenty of reason to be optimistic. In the last month, Chicago has had many players step up offensively in addition to leading scorers Jack Dugan and Blake McLaughlin. In the last month, Samuel Bucek (15 PTS), Robert Mastrosimone (13 PTS) and Aaro Vidgren (12 PTS) have put together strong performances as well. It will be one of the top offenses in the USHL against one of the top goaltenders in the league, which always has potential for an exciting game.
5. Saturday, Feb. 24, 7:05 PM CT - Lincoln Stars at Waterloo Black Hawks
Waterloo is firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff picture, sitting in a tie for second with 54 points, while Lincoln has won five of its last 10 games to set just two points out of the conference's final playoff spot. Over the last month, the Black Hawks have boasted four of the top 25 point-producers in the USHL. Jackson Cates leads the way with 18 points in his last 11 games and sits fourth in the USHL in scoring with 45 points (23G, 22A). Jack Drury is not far behind with 41 points and has picked up 12 points in his last five games. Ben Copeland has 11 points in his last 11 games, and Florida Panthers prospect Ben Finkelstein has been a revelation on the blue line, leading all defenseman in scoring over the last month with 14 points (3G, 11A) in 10 games. The Stars have a great chance to gain ground in the standings with this matchup, but it will be a tough test against a strong opponent. Fortunately, with veterans such as leading scorer Casey Dornbach (39 PTS) and Dominick Mersch (25 PTS) leading the way, in addition to the strong goaltending of Nashville Predators prospect Tomas Vomacka, Lincoln has the tools on both sides of the puck to be able to steal a win from their conference rivals.
Below is a full list of this weekend's USHL games:
Friday, Feb. 23
7:05 PM ET - Central Illinois Flying Aces at Team USA (U18)
7:15 PM ET - Sioux City Musketeers at Muskegon Lumberjacks
7:05 PM CT - Tri-City Storm at Cedar Rapids RoughRIders
7:05 PM CT - Green Bay Gamblers at Chicago Steel
7:05 PM CT - Waterloo Black Hawks at Des Moines Buccaneers
7:05 PM CT - Sioux Falls Stampede at Dubuque Fighting Saints
7:35 PM CT - Fargo Force at Lincoln Stars
Saturday, Feb. 24
7:05 PM ET - Central Illinois Flying Aces at Team USA (U17)
7:05 PM ET - Omaha Lancers at Youngstown Phantoms
7:05 PM CT - Fargo Force at Cedar Rapids RoughRiders
7:05 PM CT - Tri-City Storm at Des Moines Buccaneers
7:05 PM CT - Sioux Falls Stampede at Dubuque Fighting Saints
7:05 PM CT - Madison Capitols at Green Bay Gamblers
7:05 PM CT - Lincoln Stars at Waterloo Black Hawks
Sunday, Feb. 25
3:05 PM ET - Youngstown Phantoms at Team USA (U18)
3:05 PM CT - Central Illinois Flying Aces at Chicago Steel
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