Lincoln Stars stay hot and win ‘playoff-like’ battle over Tri-City
Antonio Fernandez and Mason Marcellus both record two-point games as Stars inch within one point of Waterloo in the Western Conference standings
LINCOLN, Neb. — The Clark Cup playoffs are still over a month away. However, you would’ve thought otherwise Wednesday afternoon at the Ice Box.
Despite the March 29 date and the 11 a.m. faceoff, Wednesday’s tilt between the Lincoln Stars and Tri-City Storm featured a “playoff-like intensity” and a clear sense of urgency between the Western Conference rivals.
Lincoln (third) and Tri-City (fourth) entered the day separated by just one point in the Western Conference standings.
Five goals and seven penalties later, the Stars emerged with a 3-2 win.
“I thought we worked really hard and we stuck to our gameplan,” Lincoln head coach Rocky Russo told The Rink Live. “We forced their (defensemen) to turn towards their goal line for most of the (game) and played inside the dots and in front of their goalie.
“We know how talented they are and if you give them odd-man rushes and turn pucks over in the neutral zone, and if you don’t get to the front of the net on a goalie like (Cameron) Korpi, then you’re gonna struggle. And we really bought into that mentality of doing the little things today — supporting each other, not dealing with the things we can’t control, and I thought we were great.”
Russo’s club jumped out to a 1-0 lead thanks to a first-period goal by defenseman Tyler Dunbar.
Check out Tyler Dunbar’s first goal in a Stars uniform! #AllAboard🚂 pic.twitter.com/1xEMrwqwp2— x - Lincoln Stars (@LincolnStars) March 29, 2023
Tri-City’s Trevor Connelly tied it 1:56 into the second period, however, the Stars responded with a pair of second-period goals from Mason Marcellus and Antonio Fernandez.
Marcellus and Fernandez both notched two-point days with a goal and an assist and Fernandez’s goal stood as the eventual game-winner.
“Points are really important right now and even though we clinched last weekend, the games are still super important,” Fernandez said. “Everything that leads up to the playoffs is huge and we’ve got to get that playoff intensity going so when we’re in the playoffs, we’re already playing like that.”
“Coach stressed the importance of today and that this was a four-point game, so it was a playoff-like game for us,” Marcellus added. “We want to stay ahead of them in the standings and went out with that mentality, and we kept it for 60 minutes. It was a playoff-like intensity out there.”
Tri-City made a late push — which included an Alex Bump goal, a pair of posts and several looks on the doorstep — but Lincoln goaltender Cameron Whitehead stood tall and the Stars did their part in front of him.
Whitehead finished the day with 30 saves and recorded his 21st win of the season. The Vegas pick (2022, fourth-round, 128th overall) currently ranks second in the USHL.
With the win, the Stars have points in seven straight and have won six of their last seven.
Two huge stops within 10 seconds combine to give Cameron Whitehead today's @SamsClub Save of the Game! #AllAboard🚂 pic.twitter.com/Jj5FAZJSMb— x - Lincoln Stars (@LincolnStars) March 29, 2023
Lincoln went through a 1-5-2 stretch from mid-February through the first week of March. However, Russo’s club has done a complete 180 and responded with those points in seven straight.
Lincoln knocked off one of hottest teams in the league Wednesday too as Tri-City came to town with an 8-1-1 showing in its last 10.
Now the Stars will look to keep it rolling heading down the stretch and into the postseason.
“Everybody’s going to deal with adversity at one point or another in the season and our guys did a really good job of fighting through that,” he said. “We lost a lot of one-goal games in that stretch and you find out a lot about your culture, a lot about your leadership and a lot about your team.
“Our guys were able to find a way to put it back on the tracks and I think we’re better for it.”
Along with the three-point lead on Tri-City, Lincoln is now just one point back of second-place Waterloo in the Western Conference standings.
To add further intrigue, the Stars and Black Hawks will meet for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday at the Ice Box.
With eight games remaining in the regular season, the message is simple — keep doing what we’re doing.
“We’re gonna continue to find out a lot about our group and ultimately we want to be in this type of position,” Russo said. “I love our schedule right now because it forces us to play with a playoff mindset which I think is really important.”
- Marcellus recorded his 15th goal of the season and team-leading 58th point in the win. The second-year forward is a Quinnipiac commit. “He’s been incredible,” Russo said. “He’s a leader on and off the ice and he does everything.”
- With his second-period goal on Wednesday, Connelly now has a 15-game point streak. Connelly’s streak is the longest in the USHL this season and just two points shy of the Tri-City record.
- NTDP forward Cole Eiserman scored a hat trick Tuesday night in the NTDP’s 10-1 win over Muskegon.
- Youngstown officially clinched a playoff spot Tuesday night thanks to Muskegon’s loss. Youngstown is currently second in the Eastern Conference with 71 points, one back of Chicago.
LET'S GO!#2023ClarkCupPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/yYg8EkuitL— x - Youngstown Phantoms (@YtownPhantoms) March 29, 2023