Force respond with 3-2 win in Lincoln and take series lead in the Western Conference Finals
Cole Knuble nets the eventual game-winner and Anton Castro makes 42 saves as the Force move one win away from the Clark Cup Finals
LINCOLN, Neb. — The Fargo Force moved one step closer to the Clark Cup Finals Sunday night with a 3-2 win at the Ice Box.
With the win, the Force take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five Western Conference Finals and can advance with a win on Monday.
“Big win for us tonight and I’m proud of our guys for staying resilient and bouncing back after a tough loss in game two at home,” head coach Nick Oliver said after the game. “We battled through some early adversity but we stuck to our identity and found a way to answer.
"So just a really good response and really good effort from everyone.”
TWO DOWN ONE TO GO‼️#OneForce | #ClarkCupPlayoffs2023 pic.twitter.com/qPAdTSMtgc— Fargo Force (@FargoForce) May 8, 2023
Oliver’s club scored three of the game’s final four goals after falling behind 1-0 early. Jack Pechar put the Stars ahead just 3:30 into the contest, tipping home a Henry Nelson shot from the point and bringing a lively home crowd to its feet.
However, the Force answered back minutes later. Cole Knuble delivered a huge hit on Lincoln defenseman Antonio Fernandez at the top of the circle. Knuble’s hit separated Fernandez from the puck in the process and the loose puck found rookie forward Mac Swanson in the slot.
Swanson walked in alone on Lincoln goaltender Cameron Whitehead and the UND commit put a shot over Whitehead’s glove, tying the game at the 5:01 mark.
“That goal was huge for us to kind of settle down and I think bouncing back is a real strength of our group,” said Knuble, who was named the game's first star with a goal and an assist. “The crowd was really into it and I think it slowed them down and also allowed us to settle into the game a bit.”
The Force and Stars traded chances from there in an exciting back-and-forth first period. Lincoln dominated the shot count over the opening 20 minutes, 14-5, but both sides remained tied.
The physical and quick pace continued throughout the second period, as did the 1-1 tie. Until Leo Gruba redirected a shot past Whitehead with just seven seconds showing on the clock.
“That was a huge goal,” Oliver said. “I thought Lincoln had a pretty good push in the second and had a lot of zone time but we were able to weather the storm and then made an awesome play to go up by one heading into the third. And I thought we were able to carry that momentum into the third.”
Fargo turned that momentum into a 3-1 lead and Knuble was at the epicenter of the play once again. The First Team All-USHL selection buried a Bret Link feed for a beautiful one-time goal with 10:08 left.
Knuble’s goal was his second of the postseason and served as the eventual game-winner.
“I’m just proud of the way our group was able to bounce back after Friday and get this one,” Knuble said. “We know the job’s not done yet and we just need to continue to jump on them and not slow down tomorrow.”
🚀🚀🚀 @c_knubz22 pic.twitter.com/9JF7vW0aTj— Fargo Force (@FargoForce) May 8, 2023
The Stars made it interesting late as Mason Marcellus cut the lead in the half with exactly one minute left. Lincoln fired 11 third-period shots at Anton Castro and had several Grade-A looks, including an early power-play chance.
However, the Stars weren’t able to solve the Wisconsin commit. Castro made 42 saves in his first playoff action and his first start since April 22.
“He was outstanding tonight,” Oliver said. "His compete was there, he gave us a chance and I thought he got better as the game went along. Which is especially impressive for someone who hasn't played in a few weeks.
"I thought he did an outstanding job in there and I'm proud of him. It's just another example of guys stepping up."
The Force can advance to the Clark Cup Finals with a win in Game 4, which takes place Monday night at 7:05 p.m. in Lincoln. Game 5 would be back at Scheels Arena on Thursday at the same time.
Fargo 3, Lincoln 2
Fargo 1-1-1 — 3
Lincoln 1-0-1 — 2
LIN: Jack Pechar (Henry Nelson, Brennan Ali), 3:30
FGO: Mac Swanson (Cole Knuble), 5:01
FGO: Leo Gruba (Boris Skalos, Kyle Smolen), 19:53
FGO: Cole Knuble (Bret Link, Mac Swanson), 9:52
LIN: Mason Marcellus (Antonio Fernandez, Boston Buckberger), 19:00
SOG: Fargo 5-11-8 — 24, Lincoln 14-19-11 — 44
Penalties-minutes: Fargo 2-4, Lincoln 2-4
Power Plays: Fargo 0-1, Lincoln 0-2
*Fargo's Charlie Russell also had a second-period penalty shot*
Saves: Anton Castro, Fargo, 42; Cameron Whitehead, Lincoln, 21