They're here. The Dubuque Fighting Saints have made it to the Clark Cup Playoffs for the tenth consecutive season. It lengthened the longest active USHL playoff streak. Their opponents, the Chicago Steel, trail them by six. It took until the last game of the regular season for the Saints to get in, as their 6-0 victory over the Green Bay Gamblers effectively sealed the deal and got them into the postseason dance after suffering a 1-10-0 start through the first eleven games of the season.
The Fighting Saints went 23-13-5 the rest of the way and saw their season helped by performances by leading scorer Robert Cronin, who added 28 goals on the season, top-flight NHL-caliber prospect Matt Savoie, who helped with 21 goals and 38 points in 34 games. GM Kalle Larsson added a diamond in the rough in Andrei Buyalsky, a Kazakhstani speedster who scored 32 points in 36 games. Lukas Parik, who joined the Saints from the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs, solidified the goaltending position and scored 15 of those 23 wins needed to be a playoff team.
The Saints, as usual, boast significant depth. Eight players on the team have scored double digits in goals, and 30 or more points (Cronin, Halliday, Savoie, Buyalsky, Kurth, Fletcher, Dzhaniyev, Lemyre). They also improved their power play throughout the year, and finished the season with a 22.2% success rate, good for fourth-best in the entire USHL. Their 3.83 goals-per-game rate is fourth-best in the league.
Dubuque's bugaboo has been the defensive side of the puck. While they have been able to keep pace with teams like Chicago, with a 3-3-2 record against the Steel, they have had trouble keeping the puck out of the net as a whole. In 16 of 52 games this year, the Fighting Saints lost by a margin of three or more goals. Their 4.08 goals-against-per-game mark is third-highest in the league. And, while they took the fewest minor penalties in the league by a longshot (180), their penalty kill dragged, with a 74.8% success rate (13th).
Spot Dubuque the lead, and they can hold on to it. They put together a 19-5-0 record when scoring the first goal, and a 21-2-2 record when leading after two periods of play. They had trouble digging out of a deficit, with a 1-15-1 mark when trailing after one, and a 1-19-1 record when trailing after two periods of play.
The Chicago Steel set the pace for the entire USHL and were crowned Anderson Cup champions for doing so. They finished the year with a 38-11-5 record, the league's top overall scorer, top goal scorer, top offense, top power play, among other top-flight finishes. They are the class of the 2020–21 season because of what they were able to accomplish on the offensive side of the puck.
The two-headed monster of Sean Farrell, who finished the year with 101 points in 53 games, and Matt Coronato, who scored 48 goals in 51 games, were the two biggest headaches for the opposition to game plan against. Only five times in 53 games was Farrell held off the scoresheet, and in 29 of 53 games did he add multiple points. Coronato, who will be a first-round pickup for an NHL club this summer, had ten multi-goal games, and two hat tricks. He shot an insane 25.1%, scored 19 power play goals, and 8 game winners.
Chicago's true forward depth goes six players deep. Farrell, Coronato, Josh Doan (70 p), Erik Middendorf (68 p), Mackie Samoskevich (37 p) and Adam Fantilli (36 p) are the top six from hell that the Fighting Saints will need to contend with. The Steel's secondary scoring falls flat past that point, with only Dawson Pasternak's 23 points on the year coming close.
The Steel enter the playoffs with a 21-5-1 record at home, and an eight-game winning streak heading into the playoffs. They will be a tough team to face in terms of special teams, with a 29.2% power play percentage at home (2nd), and an 85.9% success rate on the PK at home (2nd).
Chicago's weakness has been their team save percentage. Between the three goalies that have seen the most ice time for the Steel, none have above a .900 save percentage, and they own a .878 save percentage as a team.
1. Time and space. Star players thrive on time and space. Gap control just inside the defensive blue line will need to be on point more often than not to deny Chicago's opportunities off the rush.
2. Relentless attack. Keeping the play in the offensive zone and competently sustaining zone time will be crucial. Dubuque has significantly more depth than Chicago at the forward position. The Steel cannot afford to take any shifts off.
3. Lukas Parik. Goaltending wins championships. If the LA Kings prospect can put forth the effort he did in the last few weeks of the season, including a shutout in the final game of the season, the Saints will have the edge in that position throughout the series.
4. The effect of parity. Chicago has cruised to where they are at with a skill game. The Saints have had to dig out of a massive hole just to get here. If Dubuque is to showcase a more physical, grinding style, it may shut off the motivation of the opposition's skill players and allow the Fighting Saints to dictate the terms of play.
12/4 vs. Chicago Steel - L 4-1
1/3 vs Chicago Steel - W 2-1
2/13 at Chicago Steel - OTL 3-2
2/14 at Chicago Steel - W 4-3
3/19 vs Chicago Steel - L 7-3
3/20 at Chicago Steel - OTL 3-2
4/2 at Chicago Steel - W 5-4
4/3 vs Chicago Steel - L 7-2