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A Force to be reckoned with; Fargo advances to Clark Cup Finals with five-goal third period

Cole Knuble scores four goals as Fargo clinches the Western Conference title against Lincoln in wild fashion

Fargo celebration 2.JPG
The Fargo Force celebrate after their 8-4 win Monday night in Lincoln. With the win the Force clinch the Western Conference title and advance to the Clark Cup Finals for the sixth time in franchise history.
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

LINCOLN, Neb. — The Fargo Force and Lincoln Stars combined for five goals Sunday night and 13 goals through the first three games of the USHL’s Western Conference Finals.

However, the Force and Stars combined for seven first-period goals alone Monday night and 12 total. After a wild start to Game 4, the Force netted the game's final five goals en route to an 8-4 win at the Ice Box.

With the win, Fargo will advance to the Clark Cup Finals for the sixth time in franchise history and now awaits the winner of Chicago and Youngstown.

“I’m just so proud of this group and we’re not done yet, but this is what we’ve been working towards,” said Fargo forward Cole Knuble, who had four goals and five points in the win. “A lot has led up to this moment and a lot of work has gone in, but we’re excited to get this one tonight and keep working towards our goal.”

Getting the win Monday night was an adventure, however. After playing three relatively tight games to open the series, Game 4 was wide open.


The Force wasted little time silencing the home crowd as Owen Mehlenbacher found the back of the net just 52 seconds into the contest, giving Fargo a quick 1-0 lead.

But little did the 2,336 fans inside the Ice Box know what was in store from there.

Game 4 Mehlenbacher bench Fargo vs. Lincoln.JPG
Owen Mehlenbacher leads the Force back to the after his first-period goal. Mehlenbacher scored the game's first goal Monday night in Lincoln. “We talked quite a bit today about getting off to a fast start and Owen did that,” head coach Nick Oliver said. “He drove to the net and put that first one in, and that was big for us at the time. Owen was a big-time player for us tonight.”
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

Lincoln’s Doug Grimes — who had a four-point night (2-2-4) in the loss — tied the game just 27 seconds later but Knuble gave Fargo the lead right back at the 2:48 mark with an incredible individual effort, knifing through the slot and putting a shot past Cameron Whitehead.

Knuble’s goal was his third of the series and his first of four on the night. The Notre Dame commit finished the series with eight points (6-2-8) over four games.

“Just another big-time performance,” Oliver said. “Cole is such a quality player and leader and I think through this run he’s continued to be exactly that. He elevated his game again tonight and he’s just continued to get better.”

Game 4 Cole Knuble Goal Fargo vs. Lincoln.JPG
Cole Knuble celebrates his first-period goal during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Knuble's goal gave Fargo a 2-1 lead at the time and was his first of four on the night.
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

However, the first-period fireworks were far from over. On top of the goals, the opening period featured five penalties. The biggest to Fargo’s Kyle Smolen — a five-minute major and a game misconduct for head contact.

Although the Stars weren’t able to score on the extended man advantage, Lincoln racked up the chances.

Grimes eventually tied it at the 11:41 mark and the Stars scored three of the period’s final four goals, taking a 4-3 lead into the first intermission.


“Obviously a different type of game than any of the first three,” Oliver said. “We get one on our first shot, they get one on their first shot and it was off to the races from there. Both teams played well and it was back and forth at both ends, and I’m proud of our guys for finding a way to stick with it and weather all of the different momentum swings we went through.”

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Fargo's Cole Knuble takes the opening faceoff against Lincoln's Tanner Ludtke Monday night in Lincoln.
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

Lincoln out-shot Fargo 21-5 in the first period and peppered Matej Marinov with shots and traffic in front. Marinov got the start Monday after watching Anton Castro make 42 saves in the Game 3 win.

Castro led the Force onto the ice for the second period and the Wisconsin commit finished the night a perfect 13-for-13 in relief, including multiple key saves in the second.

“Matej was really good for us in the regular season and has been really good for us in the playoffs, and we wanted to come back with him tonight,” Oliver said. “That period was wacky on both sides and the last one bounces in off our own defenseman.

"But during the intermission we thought it was a good time to make the change after the first and try to reset.”

Game 4 Charlie Russell Celly Fargo vs. Lincoln.JPG
Charlie Russell celebrates his first-period power-play goal Monday night in Lincoln. Russell's goal gave Fargo a 3-2 lead at the time.
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

As for that first intermission, the message was simple — calm down.

“Everyone just really needed to catch their breath a little bit,” Oliver said. “There was a lot of back-and-forth, penalties, bounces, momentum swings — everything. So I think everyone just needed to reset and come out ready in the second.”

While both sides remained scoreless in the middle frame, the same can’t be said about the third. Knuble tied the game 5:58 into the third, putting home the rebound of a Swanson shot from the top of the crease.


Mehlenbacher and Knuble netted a pair of power-play goals to give the Force a 6-4 lead and Knuble and Swanson tacked on empty-netters, putting a bow on the five-goal third period and the series win.

With Nick Oliver heading to Wisconsin, the Fargo Force are looking for their fifth head coach since the 2018-19 season. Here's a look at some potential names that could fill the vacancy
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“We were down a goal coming into the third and I thought we got some life and some momentum right away,” Oliver said. “I thought that first goal to tie it gave us some life on the bench and then we continued to play well from there. And those guys took the game over.”

“I thought we just really brought it,” Mehlenbacher added. “I know there were two empty-netters, but scoring five goals in the third period is pretty crazy and we really pushed harder in the third.”

Game 4 Mehlenbacher puck Fargo vs. Lincoln.JPG
Owen Mehlenbacher skates with the puck during Monday night's win in Lincoln. The Detroit Red Wings pick (2022, seventh round) had two goals, including the eventual game-winner, as Fargo clinched the Western Conference Finals with an 8-4 victory.
Jordan McAlpine / The Rink Live

Now the Anderson Cup champs will try to add one more piece of hardware to their collection — the one they’ve had their eyes on since the season started back in September.

Fargo lost to Chicago in the 2021 Clark Cup Finals, falling in four games. The Force could potentially see a rematch or face a red-hot Youngstown squad and the league’s top goaltender in Jacob Fowler.

The Phantoms defeated Chicago at home Monday night, 4-1, and Youngstown has a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. Fargo will host the first two games of the series either way.

If the Phantoms win their Game 4 Tuesday night and clinch the east, Game 1 of the Clark Cup Finals will be Friday (May 12) in Fargo. If Chicago and Youngstown go five games, Fargo will host Game 1 on Saturday (May 13) no matter who wins.

“I’m just so proud of the group and I know what they’ve put into this from September until now,” Oliver said. “We know the job isn’t done, but getting to this stage has been their goal. They’ve talked about it, they’ve worked for it and I’m proud and fortunate to get to battle with these guys every day.”


Fargo 8, Lincoln 4

Fargo 3-0-5 — 8
Lincoln 4-0-0 — 4

First Period
FGO: Owen Mehlenbacher, 0:52
LIN: Doug Grimes (Jared Mangan, Mason Marcellus), 1:25
FGO: Cole Knuble (Jacob Napier), 2:48
LIN: Doug Grimes (Mason Marcellus, Cole Crusberg-Roseen), 11:41
FGO: Charlie Russell, 13:28, PP
LIN: Tanner Ludtke (Mason Marcellus, Doug Grimes), 15:37, PP
LIN: Antonio Fernandez (Mason Marcellus, Doug Grimes), 19:24, PP

Second Period
No scoring

Third Period
FGO: Cole Knuble (Mac Swanson), 5:58
FGO: Owen Mehlenbacher (Cole Knuble), 8:22, PP
FGO: Cole Knuble (Mac Swanson), 9:41, PP
FGO: Cole Knuble, 16:27, ENG
FGO: Mac Swanson, 18:44, ENG

SOG: Fargo 5-5-10 — 20, Lincoln 21-7-6 — 34

Penalties-minutes: Fargo 7-25, Lincoln 5-10

Power Plays: Fargo 3-4, Lincoln 2-5


Saves: Anton Castro, Fargo, 13; Matej Marinov, Fargo, 17; Cameron Whitehead, Lincoln, 9; Lucas Massie, Lincoln, 3

Attendance: 2,336

Jordan McAlpine is a junior and prospects reporter for The Rink Live.
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