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Beer: League's top team will have its hands full with Youngstown

The Phantoms, led by the league's top goaltender, has enough offensive sizzle as well

Youngstown's forward Miles Gunty, left, celebrates his third period goal against Fargo during Game 1 of the Clark Cup Finals at Scheels Arena on Friday, May 12, 2023.
David Samson/The Forum

FARGO -- Through two periods, Fargo and Youngstown played tug of war. It was a 0-0 game but the Phantoms were pulling more often to keep the Force off their feet.

Then it was just a matter of time before Youngstown forced Fargo to let go of the rope.

That big tug came just as a five-on-three power play converted to a standard man-advantage. William Whitelaw scored the game’s first goal Friday night in the Clark Cup Finals opener as the Phantoms rolled to a 4-1 victory.

Then it was boom-boom-boom and suddenly the Phantoms had a 4-0 lead.

The Anderson Cup, awarded to the team's best regular-season team and is on display prominently in the Scheels Arena concourse, doesn't mean a thing right now.


This is not the regular season where two teams play each other to the point of exhaustion. The Phantoms dark jerseys inside Scheels Arena created that bad-boy look and the Force, came out with jerseys to match the white shirt-wearing crowd.

The teams know the names. The teams have watched the films. It just gets real when East meets West in best-of-five title series.

“We play the same guys all year,” Whitelaw said. “So we know exactly how they play and what their habits are. But I think the big thing for us is we came in here tonight and just dictated the pace right off the hop.

“We weren't worried about trying to feel them out or anything and that's why we won the game. I think that's what we need to continue to do to win the series.”

For Youngstown head coach Ryan Ward, he was familiar enough with the Force and said his team took longer to get a feel for the game than normal.

“Game one, you always try to focus on what you do well, and for us, we just wanted to play our game,” Ward said. “We weren't really concerned about Fargo as far as like breaking down the molecules of the game. I think we wanted to do what we do well, and if you're a master of what you do, I think you'll have success.”

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For Fargo head coach Nick Oliver, it’s back to the drawing board. It’s hockey. Teams will score on even the best tandem in the league. Even though it was a scoreless game after two periods, Oliver thought the Phantoms had the edge. His goaltender Anton Castro did all he could -- as well as Youngstown goaltender Jacob Fowler -- to keep their teams in the game.

“I want to first give credit to Youngstown,” Oliver said. “I thought they played a good game tonight. I thought they did more of the right things than we did to earn that win.”


What Fargo didn’t do, and where Oliver said will be an emphasis for Game 2 on Saturday night, is maintain the offensive zone. Besides Fowler stopping every scoring chance for the first 59 minutes, the Phantoms broke up passes and got the clears when they needed.

“We've been doing the same thing all year,” Whitelaw said. “The group of guys in the locker room, all of our ‘D’, all of our forwards, even our goalies, coaches, everyone. We’re all committed to the team, to the process and that’s why we’re going to keep pushing here and hopefully win the Clark Cup.”

Oliver said his team wasn’t able to stack shifts together, helping out the next line on the ice.

“We tried to get it going in spurts but that’s really all it was. It was just one shift,” he said.

Oliver said Castro, who stopped 20 of 23 shots, should not take the fall. He made several spectacular saves early and had the hotter hand than Matej Marinov coming into the game. The team played without their captain, Kyle Smolen, who was suspended for Games 1 and 2 following a head contact hit in the last series against Lincoln.

“I think anytime you miss your captain it has an effect for sure, but,” Oliver said, putting extra emphasis on that last word. “We have really good leadership up and down our lineup and on our bench.”

Fowler, who led the USHL with a 1.61 goals against average, finished with 29 saves.

“We knew coming into the series that the goaltending in the series was going to be probably the best of the playoffs and Jacob has been a constant for us all year and he settles things down,” Ward said. “He's very poised, he’s cool in the net and our guys rely on him.”


If the Force want to even this series Saturday night, they’ll need to beat Fowler when he can’t see the puck.

“He looked good tonight. Looked good tonight,” Oliver said. “Made some big saves and did a really good job in there for them. So obviously we have to find ways to get more people around him tomorrow and frankly give us more chances to get around their net a little bit more.”

In other words, grab the rope and pull hard.

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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