It took Game 60 for the Green Bay Gamblers to secure home ice in the opening round of the Clark Cup Playoffs. It's a return to the postseason for Green Bay for the first time since 2016, after missing out last season by just two points. The last time the Gamblers made the postseason, they ran into a stacked Dubuque Fighting Saints club that bested them in four games.
One player remains from that postseason run, and he is the focal point of the entire series. Clarkson University commit Josh Dunne is the ultimate player to watch in this series as Green Bay's top center, and not-so-secret weapon in the series. The Gamblers, with matchup superiority due to home ice, will utilize him in more favorable situations, along with his linemates McKade Webster and Nolan Moyle.
Green Bay has leaned hard on goaltender Maksim Zhukov the entire season. The Vegas Golden Knights prospect appeared in 53 games this season for GB, or 88.3% of the team's games. His 2.45 GAA ranks ninth in the league, and he won three of his final five starts to get Green Bay into this position.
The Gamblers' top strength is their stingy penalty kill (86.1%)—which is even more stingy at the Resch Center (91.2%). The Gamblers have only given up 11 power play goals on the season on home ice, which is far and away the lowest number against at home. Their mix of aggressive work along the walls force turnovers and clears, and Zhukov works as the eraser of mistakes in goal.
A perceived weakness for Green Bay is their bottom six forward group, as many of them are not overwhelming offensive players. However, their bottom six came through in the two games in Dubuque, as noted agitator Paul Maust picked up a crucial goal on Saturday night, and Jack Perbix, who had been on an extended point drought, added two assists on the weekend.
The Gamblers are a good home team as well. At 17-10-3, they picked up the third-most home wins in the USHL. However, in past years, the Resch Center was near impossible to win in. In fact, in the 2015–16 season, the Gamblers had 23 home wins, but even then, the Saints found a way to split on the road. Difference is, there's no such thing as splitting on the road. All three games are in snowy Green Bay.
Under the direction of first-year head coach Oliver David, it took complete and utter resilience to get through the mountains of adverse conditions. The Saints' three NHL-drafted talents all suffered season-ending injuries, and many others saw stints out of the lineup due to a debilitating sickness during the team's longest road trip of the season in January. It has been hard to field a complete lineup, but even amidst that, the Saints are a scrappy bunch looking to keep that mentality rolling into their eighth consecutive appearance in the Clark Cup Playoffs.
A testament to that resilience is their involvement in 33 one-goal games—more than half of their season. More than half of the team's wins were by a single goal, and 41 of the team's 64 standings points came in those games. This experience steeled the group into finding a way to keep games close against any team in the league, and forced them to never play to the scoreboard, but stick to the game plan.
The obvious wild card for this team is its potential performance in playoff-style overtime. Dubuque went 5-13 in their 18 overtime games played at 3-on-3, including very little success in the shootout. Thankfully, none of those conditions exist in the Clark Cup Playoffs.
The Fighting Saints will need to lean on its top guns to provide the offense, and the defensive group that has continued to be one of the best in shot suppression in the league. Alex Steeves (7th) and Quinn Preston (T-8th) are amongst the league's top scorers overall, and top goal scorers. Chayse Primeau (21 goals) and and the red-hot rookie Tyce Thompson (13 points in his last 9 games) will be counted on to bring the thunder.
Defensively, the Fighting Saints give up just under 28 shots on goal, which ranks third-best in the league behind two of the best teams in the entire league, Waterloo and Fargo. Plus side, in a playoff-style game, the Saints held Green Bay to a single shot on goal in the first period on Saturday, and 18 overall for the game.
Dubuque has never been at full strength this season, but this bunch has surprised just about everyone in this season by not letting that get them down. Anything goes for the Saints in this playoff run.
1. Goaltending - When isn't goaltending the key to the series? Maksim Zhukov and Cole Weaver have been the team's workhorses all season. Weaver has played in a massive amount of the team's one-goal games (and 37 games overall), and as previously mentioned, Zhukov has played in the lion's share of games for Green Bay.
2. Power play must look like Friday - Against the league's top penalty kill on Friday, the Dubuque Fighting Saints dissected them, going 3-for-6. Now, in the comforts of the Resch Center, a monstrous penalty kill swirls amidst the blizzard of adversity facing Dubuque. Can they break through?
3. Score the first goal, and end the streak - It has been 13 games since the Fighting Saints scored the first goal in a game, dating all the way back to March 7—against Green Bay. The Saints have gone 18-6-1 (.720) when scoring the first goal this season.
4. Experience is the ultimate teacher - Taking a page of out Jason Lammers' playbook, experience in being 33 one-goal games can only help the Fighting Saints in the playoff run. The downside—the Saints won just 14 of those 33 one-goal games. The upside—13 of those losses came in a situation that won't exist in the playoffs. Will experience be the teacher?
GAME 1: Dubuque @ Green Bay - Monday, April 15 - 7:05 p.m.
GAME 2: Dubuque @ Green Bay - 7:05 p.m. - Tuesday, April 16
GAME 3: Dubuque @ Green Bay - 7:05 p.m. (if necessary) - Wednesday, April 17
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