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Beer: Fargo Force's slide getting dangerously close to playoffs

While Fargo still leads the USHL with 84 points, its 2-7-1-0 mark certainly isn’t the way to play your best hockey with one weekend left in the regular season.

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Fargo Force defenseman Brasen Boser (25) watches forward Kyle Smolen (17) and forward Charlie Russell (19) look to the bench during their game against Lincoln on Saturday, April 15, 2023 at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
Rob Beer / The Rink Live

FARGO — The hottest team in the USHL for 84 percent of the season has been the Fargo Force.

The last 16 percent, not so much. Really, not at all.

The Force dropped a weekend series to Lincoln, one in heartbreaking fashion on Friday night and a Saturday snoozer in front of 4,128 fans, minus a couple hundred exiting into the crisp Fargo air moments after Lincoln’s Ali Brennan slid home an empty-net goal with 1:26 left in the game.

That 3-0 loss on Saturday followed Friday’s ridiculous 4-3 comeback by the Stars proved every shift, every play and every second counts.

Fargo went up 3-1 on a shorthanded, empty-net goal with 48 seconds left only to see Lincoln score seven seconds later and again with one second left in regulation on Doug Grimes’ loose-change goal out front.

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Then, just 27 seconds into overtime, Boston Buckberger turned on the jets and buried a return feed from Antonio Fernandez to end it.

“I think yesterday gave us a lot of confidence going into tonight,” Lincoln goaltender Cameron Whitehead said after picking up Saturday’s win. “It was probably one of the crazier games that I think everyone on this team has been a part of.”

The sweep gave Lincoln, who continues to chase Waterloo for second place in the Western Conference, an 8-1-0-1 record in its last 10, best in the USHL. While Fargo still leads the USHL with 84 points, its 2-7-1-0 mark certainly isn’t the way to play your best hockey with one weekend left in the regular season.

“We understand you can't flip the switch like right away in the playoffs,” Force forward Cole Knuble said.

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But it's no time to hit the panic button in Fargo. Usually when someone does that, three more car washes get built. So while the team appears to be wanting this regular season to just get over with, this high-performance vehicle called the Force keeps hitting muddy potholes on its way to the finish line.

What’s wrong with the Force? The team had a five-game skid to end March and hasn’t gotten back its swagger they had earlier this season.

“It's hard to put a finger on it, like 62 games is a lot,” Knuble said. “Like you said, we hit that rough patch and now we’re trying to get back. Everyone is coming for us, we know that. The next week, the next two games are super important. That’s what we think.”

I feel like in the locker room the mentality is a little bit changed.
Force goaltender Matej Marinov

Those two games are a home-and-home against Sioux Falls next weekend.

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Saturday night it was boom-boom-boom, one in each period for Lincoln. The Force, with a high-end top line of Knuble, Mac Swanson and Bret Link, certainly don’t do it alone and can’t.

Matej Marinov and Anton Castro are two of the league’s top three goaltenders, but both need to play their way out of this funk — or in Castro’s case, just play. He was suspended for Saturday’s game after receiving a game misconduct for abuse of an official following Friday’s loss.

“I feel like in the locker room the mentality is a little bit changed,” said Marinov, who stopped 24 of 26 shots Saturday. “The last couple of weeks maybe we're not where we need to be, where we want to be. I feel like we’ve begun to think about the playoffs more than the regular season, so that’s what’s made the difference, mostly mindset, for me.”

Playoffs? For a team that has yet to, but should, win the Anderson Cup for the first time in franchise history as the league’s regular season champion, it’s a little early, isn’t it?

“That’s the only goal of the season of course. It would be really good for Fargo to win the Anderson Cup, that’s a huge thing for us too,” Marinov said. “We just need to be better.”

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Fargo Force goaltender Noel Olsonawski (30) warms up before the game against Lincoln on Saturday, April 15, 2023 at Scheels Arena in Fargo. The former Fargo South/Shanley player backed up Matej Marinov on Saturday as Anton Castro served a suspension.
Rob Beer / The Rink Live

Knuble said last week the team had a talk about the banners up in Scheels Arena, with the hope there's another on the way. Perhaps that timing was just two weeks too early.

The flaw in Fargo’s game is the power-play unit, which is among the league’s worst at 17.2%. Down 2-0 Saturday, Fargo had a brief 5-on-3 advantage in the second period and put one shot on net throughout the man-advantage.

Was Fargo head coach Nick Oliver disappointed not getting on the board there?

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“Absolutely,” he said.

Both teams played by the book. Lincoln’s penalty kill, at 84.9%, is best in the league.

It’s just an example of problems Fargo can ill afford to run into in the playoffs. Whether it be injuries (Joe Palodichuk and Tanner Walos are hurt), suspensions (Jakob Stender, Castro) or simply running into a hot goaltender such as Whitehead, who cashed his fifth shutout of the season Saturday, which can waste such an impressive season.

“I had a couple of saves in the second but other than that, I think our team pretty much shut them down the whole way,” Whitehead said. “The team did their job so I had to do mine as well.”

And don’t forget about doubt.

After the game, Lincoln coach Rocky Russo left some for all to see on the team’s recap.

“They're obviously going to win the West in the regular season and have that home ice until the finals, so we wanted to leave that mark in their brain that if we play them at any point that we can win in this building,” Russo said.

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Lincoln Stars defenseman Cole Crusberg-Roseen (13) heads to the bench after scoring a power-play goal in the second period against the Fargo Force on Saturday, April 15, 2023 at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
Rob Beer / The Rink Live

So while the Clark Cup could certainly run through Fargo, it's one step at a time from here on out.

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“So we know it's a possibility for sure, but we also understand it's not given to us,” Knuble said. “We're focused on the daily things we can do.”

If that’s the case, then Oliver shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

“No worries. No worries,” the coach finished an interview saying. “It’s a good group of kids. The leadership is strong. I know we're gonna keep battling out of this.”

Opinion by Rob Beer
Rob Beer is the digital content manager for Forum Communications. A journalist with Forum Communications since 1991, he is the editor of The Rink Live and helps cover the CCHA. He also assists with other content produced by Forum Communications.
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