Despite falling in the Western Conference Final, it's been a 'hell of a year' for the Lincoln Stars
The Lincoln Stars reached the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2012 after a season that featured the league's second-best home record and three All-USHL selections
LINCOLN, Neb. — The Lincoln Stars took a 4-3 lead into the third period Monday night and were 20 minutes away from forcing a winner-take-all Game 5 in the Western Conference Finals.
However, the Fargo Force had other plans, scoring five third-period goals en route to an 8-4 win — putting an end to Lincoln’s season.
As much as it stings in the moment, the reality is only one USHL team will win its final game of the season. And despite the pain and disappointment that comes with Monday’s loss, it’s been a successful season and a tremendous playoff run in Nebraska’s capital city.
“It’s been my privilege to be able to coach them and I’m a better coach because I had the opportunity to spend a season with them,” said head coach Rocky Russo, who led Lincoln to its first Western Conference Finals appearance since the 2011-12 season. “I’ve been doing this for 18 years and it’s really, really hard to win a championship.
“This team exceeded expectations. This team battled and competed. The love they have for each other is something that I will always cherish and this is one of my top teams that I was ever fortunate to be a part of.”
Didn’t end the way we wanted but happy to do it in Lincoln #StarsRise📈 pic.twitter.com/0ByzQ2ez09— Lincoln Stars (@LincolnStars) May 9, 2023
The Stars were knocked out by Waterloo in the first round last spring and there were questions coming into this season what the Stars would look like after losing Aidan Thompson, Dalton Norris, Noah Laba, Jo Lemay and Lucas Wahlin, along with Kaidan Mbereko between the pipes.
However, Lincoln (37-21-3-1) finished the regular season third in the Western Conference, just three points behind Waterloo and a first-round bye.
The Stars were also one of, if not the league’s hottest team down the stretch and won 11 of their final 15 regular-season games.
That finish followed the Stars into the postseason as Lincoln swept Des Moines in the first round, won a three-game series at Waterloo in the second and took the Anderson Cup Champs to the brink, winning Game 2 in Fargo and falling by just one goal in Games 1 and 3.
“We wouldn’t be here without every single guy that wore the jersey,” said forward Doug Grimes, who had two goals and four points in Monday’s loss. “We were a family this year and that’s what took us so far.
“No one believed in us, no one thought we could do it and no one believed other than the 25 guys in the room, the three coaches and all the staff.”
Grimes is one of several Stars who will not return next season as the 21-year-old forward will make the jump to college. The Boston University commit played 94 career games in a Lincoln sweater after being acquired mid-season from Cedar Rapids last year.
While Grimes had a big year on the ice, he was also a key part of Lincoln’s leadership group. And he’s grateful for his time in Lincoln.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Grimes said. “I’ve had so many memories here from last year to this year. All of the guys I’ve played with, the coaching staff, everyone – It’s just been so amazing. I’m going to miss it a lot.”
“Our team is a group of resilient individuals and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone in that room,” added defenseman Antonio Fernandez, a fellow assistant captain. “They show a lot of character day in and day out and I’m just really proud of everyone.”
Russo said after the game he’s going to miss those who won’t return but he’s also confident and excited about what the Stars have coming back and coming in between their affiliate players and the USHL Draft.
One specific 12-word segment drew a loud ovation from the group of fans on-hand for his postgame comments — “there’s a very, very bright future here in Lincoln for Stars hockey.”
While the future has already started to shift towards the 2023-24 season, those inside the Ice Box have a lot to be proud of.
“It’s been a hell of a year and it’s been a long time since the Lincoln Stars were in the Western Conference Finals,” Russo said. “But our goal here every year as long as I’m here is to compete to win a Clark Cup championship.
"I’m gonna take maybe 48 hours off and then I’m going to start working on trying to win one next year.”