Fargo looks to finish its incredible season while the Phantoms look to hoist their first Clark Cup
The Fargo Force and Youngstown Phantoms met in the 2018 Clark Cup Finals and will do so again starting Friday night in Fargo
The USHL’s final two are set as Fargo and Youngstown will battle for the 2023 Clark Cup. It’s the sixth time Fargo has ever advanced to the Clark Cup Finals while this will be the second trip for the Phantoms.
Coincidentally, Youngstown’s first trip also came against Fargo in 2018 but the Force won the series in four games. The Force and Phantoms are also the league's two most separated teams, having 1,000 miles between the those cities.
Here’s a look back at how they got here and what fans can expect starting Friday night at Scheels Arena.
Western Conference Finals scores
Game 1: Fargo 1, Lincoln 0
Game 2: Lincoln 4, Fargo 3
Game 3: Fargo 3, Lincoln 2
Game 4: Fargo 8, Lincoln 4
Eastern Conference Finals scores
Game 1: Youngstown 4, Chicago 1
Game 2: Chicago 5, Youngstown 2
Game 3: Youngstown 4, Chicago 1
Game 4: Youngstown 2, Chicago 1 OT
Clark Cup Finals schedule
All times CDT
Game 1: Youngstown at Fargo, Fri. May 12, Scheels Arena, 7:05 p.m.
Game 2: Youngstown at Fargo, Sat. May 13, Scheels Arena, 6:05 p.m.
Game 3: Fargo at Youngstown, Fri. May 19, Covelli Centre, 6:05 p.m.
Game 4: Fargo at Youngstown, Sat. May 20, Covelli Centre, 6:05 p.m. *If necessary*
Game 5: Youngstown at Fargo, Tues. May 23, Scheels Arena, 7:05 p.m. *If necessary*
Game 1 & Game 2 of the Clark Cup Finals are this Friday, May 12 and Saturday, May 13, check out the weekend preview here➡️ https://t.co/SndCnOIXP9#OneForce | #ClarkCupPlayoffs2023 pic.twitter.com/Ymls1SlUq9— Fargo Force (@FargoForce) May 11, 2023
The Fargo Force have accomplished their first two goals this season winning the Anderson Cup and the Western Conference title. It’s been an incredible season in North Dakota’s biggest city but the job isn’t done yet.
Now shift their focus towards completing the trifecta and securing the organization’s second Clark Cup.
“I’m just so proud of the group and I know what they’ve put into this from September until now,” head coach Nick Oliver said after Monday’s win. “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.”
Oliver was named the USHL Coach of the Year as the first-year coach led Fargo to a league-best 40-14-4-4 record and a 5-1 start to the postseason.
From Cole Knuble to standout rookie Mac Swanson, Bret Link, Owen Mehlenbacher or Zam Plante, Fargo’s lineup features one of the league’s deepest collections of forwards. Fargo’s goalie tandem of Anton Castro and Matej Marinov has also been one of the league’s best and it's blue line features Joe Palodichuk, a All-USHL First Team selection.
Facing Youngstown won’t be an easy task but the Force are the Anderson Cup champs for a reason, and they’ve faced their share of adversity along the way.
After dropping Game 2 on home ice last week, Fargo won a pair of games in Lincoln to clinch the Western Conference title.
“This group is resilient and they’re gritty, and I know they won’t back down from any challenge,” Oliver said. “When you take a step back and look back at this season, you realize how fortunate you are to be able to work with a group like this and this team has been so determined all year.”
Player to watch: Cole Knuble, F
To quote Fargo forward Bret Link, Knuble has been “unbelievable” throughout Fargo’s playoff run. The Notre Dame commit is coming off a four-goal game Monday night in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals and has six goals and nine points through six playoff games — including two game-winners.
Knuble has done it all for the Force this season whether it be a timely goal, key faceoff win, heady defensive play, or simply his leadership in Fargo’s locker room.
At a time of year where you need your top players and your leaders to step up, Knuble has done exactly that.
“Cole is the same person and competitor every single day, and his teammates gravitate towards him and look up to him for that,” Oliver said. “He just goes about his work and sets a great example whether it’s on the ice or off the ice.
“He’s taken a huge step this year and he’s someone we’re going to continue to lean on.”
The Phantoms continued their spectacular season by knocking out Chicago in the Eastern Conference Finals and will now try to win their first Clark Cup in franchise history.
William Whitelaw delivered the overtime winner in Game 4 as Youngstown earned a 2-1 win to clinch the series.
The Phantoms have been one of the league’s stingiest teams and their lineup features USHL Goaltender of the Year Jacob Fowler, along with a dynamic top line of Shane Lachance, Martin Misiak and Whitelaw.
They’ll now try to earn three more wins against the Force and bring a title to Youngstown.
“When you get to training camp in August you strive to get to this point, and our guys have done a good job of staying in the moment and continuing to work towards this point all year,” head coach Ryan Ward told The Rink Live. “We know Fargo is a really good opponent and a deep team but we’re excited to get going this weekend and I’m super proud of our guys to still be playing hockey in May.”
The Phantoms have won five of their first six playoff games and are a perfect 4-0 on home ice.
Youngstown was the league’s best team on home ice this season and similar to the Chicago series, the message this weekend is to simply steal at least one game before the series shifts back to northeast Ohio.
“If there’s anything I know about this group it’s that we’ll be ready for the challenge (Friday) night,” Ward said. “I think our depth has really been key for us so far (in the playoffs) and we’ve executed when we’ve had to and we’ve stuck to our game plan. So we want to just continue doing what we’ve been doing.”
We’re heading to the Clark Cup Finals! 🏆#IgniteTheValley pic.twitter.com/d7vbwTDQML— Youngstown Phantoms (@YtownPhantoms) May 10, 2023
Ward’s club finished the season second in the east with 81 points — just two behind Chicago. After a 2-6 start to the season, the Phantoms have been one of the league’s most consistent teams under their first-year coach.
They’ve been one of the league’s youngest teams but from off-season trades to mid-season acquisitions, the Phantoms have seemingly hit every right button along the way.
“It’s just been a special group to be around, “Ward said. “I’ve been fortunate to have great players and (co-GM’s) Jason Deskins and Ryan Kosecki around me, and our ownership has given us every opportunity.
“They’ve invested a ton of resources into our organization to make sure guys can perform at their best on a day to day basis and we feel we’ve been able to change the culture and make Youngstown one of the premier places to play junior hockey.”
Player to watch: Martin Misiak, F
Misiak joined Youngstown in early February from HC Nove Zamky in Slovakia. The Slovakian forward made an immediate impact and was one of Youngstown’s biggest threats throughout the second half.
That production has followed Misiak into the postseason as he’s currently tied for fifth in the league with eight playoff points. Misiak — who came in at No. 45 in Central Scouting’s final draft rankings — had two goals and five assists in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Let’s not forget he came over in the middle of the season from Europe and I think when you’re not playing in the USHL you don’t understand how hard of a league it is. And I think that took a little bit of an adjustment period for him but he’s been one of our most consistent forwards,” Ward said. “He’s really found his game and he’s been super coachable, and he’s really put himself on the map.
“He’s bought into everything we’ve been doing here and he’s really having a good playoff so far.”