Hockey is a team game and successful organizations seem to be able to maximize the concept of teamwork during postseason playoff runs.
By Jim Smith
Clark Cup Finalist Chicago Steel is a prime example. This is the first time the Steel have advanced to the USHL final series.
“I see a group of guys that love the game and love competing together,” said Steel head coach Dan Muse, as his team prepared for the USHL Championship series against the Sioux City Musketeers. “When you look at our team this year it has never been about one individual. It’s a collective group and that is why it’s been a lot of fun to coach.”
Chicago finished the regular season atop the Eastern Conference and captured series victories against the Youngstown Phantoms and Dubuque Fighting Saints en route to the championship series. They realize there is still unfinished business.
“It’s been a good year so far [but we’re] obviously not done yet. We have the really fun part coming up and guys have worked hard to get to this point,” added Muse. “There have been a lot of ‘firsts’ this year for this organization that we are proud. However, we are not sitting back and patting ourselves on the back. We are getting ready for the next day. We’re making sure that we continue to improve our game and take our next steps.”
Offensively, Chicago has been spreading the scoring across the lineup.
Forward Jack Badini (a Harvard recruit) is the leading scorer in the USHL playoffs thus far earning 13 points with five goals and eight assists.
Also among the top scorers are wingers Marc Johnstone (Sacred Heart), Eduards Tralmaks (Maine), Mitch Lewandowski (Michigan State), Reggie Lutz (Mankato) and Brannon McManus (Minnesota), along with center Jake Jaremko (Mankato) and defenseman Graham Lillibridge (Yale).
Team captain Johnstone’s leadership has been a critical element to Chicago’s success, said Muse.
“Marc has been fantastic this season in that role. He has done a great job from start to right now,” Muse said. “He leads by example in terms of his daily approach, how he works on the ice and how he communicates with the rest of the team, and keeps everyone on the same page.
“Headed by Johnstone, we have a number of leaders on this team; Badini, Lewandowski, Jaremko, Austen Long (Colorado College) and Matt Kiersted (North Dakota),” said Muse. “A lot of guys are pulling in the right direction.”
“Kiersted wore a letter for us before he was hurt with a season-ending injury. He has been here throughout the year as a leader in the locker room,” added Muse, a former assistant coach at Yale.
Followers of the USHL aren’t surprised that Badini is producing at a high level in the playoffs.
In fact, the future Crimson has an active eight-game point scoring streak. It began in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against Youngstown.
“We acquired Jack in a trade last season and he has been great from start to finish. Jack does everything,” said Muse. “He is an all-around player and is great on both sides of the puck. Jack has found his scoring touch this season and has had a great year and has taken his game to a new level. He wants to win and he wants to help the team win.
“[Badini] is a highly motivated person that comes to work every day. He is relentless in his approach and usually that is a pretty good recipe for success and that’s what we’re seeing here with Jack,” Muse added.
Defensively, Chicago’s blue line and goaltending have been dimensions that have added to the teams’ achievements.
“Guys have been stepping up 100 percent. This time of year you have guys that are having to do a little bit more or play different roles than they did in the regular season,” Muse said.
Among the defense group are Derek Daschke (Western Michigan), Ben Mirageas (Providence), Adam Karashik (UConn), Corson Green (New Hampshire), Alec Regula (Michigan), and Lillibridge.
“You can go through our whole ‘D’ corps. I have been really happy with the way these guys have been playing,” Muse said. “I think that is the playoffs and the deeper you get in the playoffs, the more you will see that. It is a team game and that is what is expected.
“We believe that, after playing a 60-game regular season, guys are going to be ready to play whatever role it is that they are needed to play on any given night,” Muse added.
“Having a team-first approach, the way our guys have had all year, they are ready for that.”
Netminder Ales Stezka has been stellar between the pipes. In the playoffs, he’s earned a .929 save percentage and a 2.24 goals against average in the playoffs.
“He has been absolutely fantastic the entire season and has been great in the playoffs,” Muse said.
Teamwork and a love of the game may just lead the Steel to yet another first this season: a USHL Clark Cup Championship.
Follow Jim Smith on Twitter @BlueLineNotes
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