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USHL notebook: Defense keys Fargo's six-game run to top of USHL

The Force finished the month of December with a 7-2 record, even while losing Knuble, Swanson and Palodichuk to the World Junior A Challenge.

fargo force and des moines buccaneers players on ice
Fargo Force goaltender Anton Castro bumps gloves with Cole Knuble (22) during a game against Des Moines on Dec. 29, 2022 at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
Rob Beer / The Rink Live

Fueled by a six-game win streak, the Fargo Force finally chased down the Chicago Steel to become the top USHL team during the past month.

The Force outscored Des Moines 16-5 during a three-game sweep at Scheels Arena before the new year. Fargo’s Cole Knuble (Grand Rapids, Minn./Notre Dame) ranks ninth in league scoring with 29 points (13/16) in 23 games while rookie Mac Swanson (Anchorage, Alaska/North Dakota) has 27 points with eight goals.

The Force, now with 41 points, finished the month of December with a 7-2 record, even while losing Knuble, Swanson and Joe Palodichuk to the U.S. squad for the World Junior A Challenge in the early part of the month.

It was simply a next-man-up mentality, Force head coach Nick Oliver said, going 3-1 without those players.

“We talked about it as a group like no one, no one person has to replace any of those guys that were missing," he said. "It's collectively as a group, everyone doing their job a little bit better. I think we grew as a team in those two weeks when those guys were gone.”

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The committee upheld a ruling that Egor Barabanov didn’t play in 50% of the team’s games, a requirement for player postseason eligibility in ice hockey. He had a 10-game stint with Sioux Falls.

Fargo also has a 1-2 punch between the pipes. With the USHL’s top goaltender Matej Marinov playing for Slovakia in the World Junior Championship (where he allowed one goal on eight shots primarily in a backup role to Adam Gajan ), Anton Castro (second in the league with a 2.29 GAA) played almost every minute in his absence.

“I think it starts with both goalies are extremely talented and they're both highly competitive kids, and they give us confidence with either of those guys in the net right now,” Oliver said. “I think as a group we would take a lot of pride in our team defense.”

fargo force and des moines buccaneers players on ice
Fargo Force goalie Anton Castro waits at his own bench during a stoppage of play Dec. 29, 2022 at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
Rob Beer / The Rink Live

The Steel, with a second-best mark of 40 points, has four of the five top scorers in the league, led by Jack Harvey (Stacy, Minn. / Boston University) with 20 goals and 18 assists.

Michael Emerson (Yorktown Heights, N.Y. / North Dakota) has 34 points, Mack Celebrini (Vancouver, B.C. / Boston University) and Nicholas Moldenhauer (Mississauga, Ont. / Michigan) have 32 each.

Moldenhauer is in the midst of an eight-game point-scoring streak during which he’s registered 13 points on four goals and nine assists.

The Chicago Steel are 2-1 in their last three games, including a split against Green Bay. Fargo opens up a two-game series Friday at Lincoln while Chicago hosts the Muskegon Lumberjacks for a pair of games at Fox Valley Ice Arena.

"In my short time here, I have seen how they play and how they are coached," Lumberjacks head coach Parker Burgess said about Chicago on the team's website. "They are very prepared, they have a game plan, and they have some really high-profile players. If you give them time and space they are going to make plays. They are kind of the gold standard right now that everyone is chasing.

"For us (beating Chicago) would be huge and would help us build a lot of confidence to go into the second half of the season."

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Behind the bench

The spotlight is on two USHL coaches this week as Cedar Rapids RoughRiders head coach Mark Carlson and Tri-City’s Anthony Noreen stand out. Carlson is second in the league in career victories, just 37 wins behind P.K. O’Handley’s 783.

O’Handley, who spent 25 seasons behind a USHL bench between North Iowa (1991-1998) and Waterloo (2002-21), is now the president of hockey operations for the Black Hawks.

Noreen cracked the top 10 in career wins with 325 victories. He was the USHL coach of the year last season.

Ice chips

  • The squad that represented Team USA at the World Junior Championships was made up of 25 current or former USHL players.
  • Cedar Rapids defenseman Eric Pohlkamp (Brainerd, Minn. / Bemidji State), who also played in the World Junior A Challenge, leads all league defensemen in scoring with 8-18-26 in 24 games played.
  • Omaha forward Charlie Lurie ’s (Minnetonka, Minn.) four-goal game at Sioux City on New Year’s Eve marked the second four-goal game by a USHL player this year. He also had an assist in the game for a five-point night.
  • Green Bay’s Kristoffer Eberly (Pinckney, Mich.) leads the USHL in games (21), minutes played (1,181) and wins (13). He ranks second in the league in saves (500), standing only behind Max Lundgren (Angelholm, Sweden), who has 507 saves for Des Moines.
fargo force and des moines buccaneers players on ice
Des Moines Buccaneers goaltender Max Lundgren chats with goalie Jan Korec during a break in play against the Fargo Force on Dec. 29, 2022 at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
Rob Beer / The Rink Live

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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