The Dubuque Fighting Saints have known for two weeks that they will be in the playoffs. What they still don’t know is who they will match up with in the first round. Whoever it is, the Saints will have to travel to face their opponent. The best of three series will take place on the road starting Monday, April 15th and lasting till Wednesday the 17th at the latest. Though the math hasn’t determined who the Saints will face yet, it has narrowed it down to one of three teams: The Youngstown Phantoms, the Chicago Steel or the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. With those three teams separated by a single point, it is very likely the Saints won’t find out who they play in the first round until after the conclusion of their final regular season game. With that in mind, we took a look at each of the possible opponents for the Fighting Saints and what a series against them might look like.
CHICAGO STEEL- (35-21-4-0, 74 PTS, 2ND EAST)
The Fighting Saints and the Chicago Steel split their season series, with each team winning both games played on their respective home ices. The Saints have the most recent victory and also the most decisive, a 5-0 shutout of Chicago in which Matthew Thiessen made 44 saves. In both of Chicago’s wins, they capitalized on the man advantage to make the difference in the scoring. The team that has scored the first goal of the game has gone on to win just once in the four games. The Steel were 3-8 to begin the season series on the power play and have since gone 0-6. Riese Gaber and Matias Maccelli each have at least a point in the four games this season. Gaber has scored goals in three of four games and Maccelli has scored a goal in all four games against Chicago this season.
Where They’re Good:
Chicago can beat anyone in the league when they are connecting offensively. The Steel have the second ranked offense in the league, behind Team USA. Their 229 goals so far equate to 3.81 goals per game this season. The Steel are one of the deepest teams in the league. They feature the USHL’s leading scorer Nick Abruzzese who has 76 points. They also have six additional players with at least 40 points. When Chicago is at their best, they roll four lines and can score with any of them.
When They’re Not:
Just simply flip the script. Chicago relies on their offense because their defense has struggled this season. When they are going well, they don’t have to rely much on their defense because their offense can carry the team. However, if the offense struggles, the defense doesn’t always pick up the slack.
It stems back to the defense once again. Justin Robbins is the x-factor for Chicago. The netminder has solid win-loss numbers, but when you dive deeper it isn’t as promising. Robbins is 24-14-2, but he has a 3.17 goals against and an .876 save percentage. Robbins has given up at least three goals in each of his starts against Dubuque this season.
YOUNGSTOWN PHANTOMS- (34-21-1-4, 73 PTS, 3RD EAST)
The Youngstown Phantoms are 3-1 against the Fighting Saints this season. The two teams haven’t played since the turn of the calendar, however. Dubuque won the season opener 4-2 in Pittsburgh and then Youngstown won the next three 4-3, 6-3 and 4-3 again. The Phantoms haven’t had much trouble offensively against Dubuque and the Saints have struggled to contain their power play. Youngstown is 5-16 against the Saints on the power play in their three wins this season. The Phantoms have won the only game played at Covelli Centre, as their other “home” game was the Dubuque win during the USHL Fall Classic.
When They’re Good:
Youngstown is good when their power play is on and they are getting solid goaltending. In other words, they have been good for the last two months-plus. Ever since the Phantoms acquired Chad Veltri, it seems they have found their missing piece. Youngstown got off to a league worse start, losing their first seven games. However, Veltri has a 15-6-1-1 record with Youngstown. In addition, he has a 2.68 goals against and a .908 save percentage. Youngstown is a physicaly team that can impose their will, but the key lies in a sound defense which Veltri has provided.
When They’re Bad:
When Brett Murray and the Phantoms top line isn’t going, Youngstown can falter. Murray looks to be one of the favorites for Player of the Year in the USHL. He leads the league in goals and is second in scoring. Murray skates on a line with Connor MacEachern and Jack Malone, all who have at least 50 points this season. If that line doesn’t click, Youngstown’s production can severely drop off.
Anybody but Murray. He has been so good and so consistent for Youngstown that if he doesn’t produce, anyone who picks up the slack becomes the x-factor. This isn’t to say that Murray is the only offensive weapon that Youngstown has. However, it is to say that he has been so darn good this year that it is almost expected that he pops on to the scoresheet nightly.
CEDAR RAPIDS ROUGHRIDERS- (34-21-3-2, 73 PTS, 4TH EAST)
The Fighting Saints struggled this season against the RoughRiders but ended the season series on a good note. Dubuque won the final contest, 4-3, but Cedar Rapids came away with the season series 6-3. The RoughRiders lost only once on the road against Dubuque and were beaten twice on their home ice. However, they rattled off four wins in the last five games against the Fighting Saints. Most of the matchups against CR have been close, and the RoughRiders have been the more opportunistic team. In all of Dubuque’s wins, they have scored four goals or more. In their six loses, they have failed to reach four goals once. Matias Maccelli and Riese Gaber once again lead the way for the Fighting Saints in terms of point production in the season series. For Cedar Rapids, Nathan Smith and Jason Polin are the top two scorers.
When They’re Good:
When CR is on, no one in the league is better defensively. The team plays a suffocating style that lends itself to playoff hockey. The RoughRiders are second best in the USHL in terms of goals allowed per game, averaging just over 2.5 per. At home that number drops to just over 2.2 allowed per game. Cedar Rapids is one of the best in the USHL at playing a cohesive team game that limits opportunity for the opposing team and maximizes their chances for good opportunities.
When They’re Bad:
The defense falters and the offense can’t capitalize. CR relies on their offense to bury chances without giving themselves as many opportunities as other teams get. Their defense is so good that they rarely have to worry about scoring more than three goals. However, if the game turns in to a shootout, Cedar Rapids can be on the ropes. The RoughRiders don’t have elite talent the way some of the other top teams do. If they lose their defensive structure, they lose their ability to dominate teams because the offense can’t be relied on to dominate consistently.
Nathan Smith is solid, Jason Polin has a wicked shot, but Grant Silianoff can be a gamebreaker. The first year USHLer is having a very solid season, with 41 points in 53 games. The Notre Dame commit has already said he will be back for another season with Cedar Rapids. He has tremendous speed, a plus-shot and he is a tough player to play against due to his willingness to play a gritty game despite his size, or lack thereof.