GENEVA – The start of the United States Hockey League’s Clark Cup playoffs couldn’t have gone better for the Chicago Steel.
The Steel dominated the Youngstown Phantoms twice in the Eastern Conference best-of-5 semifinal series at Fox Valley Ice Arena.
Chicago made a statement in the opener April 14, winning 4-1, and was even more impressive the next night, blanking the Phantoms 6-0.
The series now shifts to Youngstown for Game 3 on April 21. If necessary, Game 4 will be on April 22, and if the Phantoms force a Game 5 it will come back to Geneva on April 25.
“I thought you saw the things you have to have in playoff hockey these past two nights,” Steel coach Dan Muse said after the 6-0 win. “Guys were working hard, stopping pucks and getting pucks out. There was the little details, stuff that you want to see, and the big detail stuff. Great goaltending, excellent special teams and all the power-play goals [April 15].
“In the playoffs you need to find different ways to win every night, and what you saw both nights was a good team effort and contributions from guys throughout.”
The Steel made the most of their first two power plays during the first period April 15. Reggie Lutz scored twice on feeds from Geneva alum Graham Lillibridge, who finished with four assists.
The Steel seemingly broke the game open just 16 seconds into the second period when Jack Badini scored a short-handed goal to make it 3-0.
“That was really big and we had the [penalty] kill going so we were all focused on shutting down that power play,” Badini said. “We ended up scoring short-handed there, and I think that maybe ended all the hope they had of getting back into the game. It just shows how our special teams were. We’re pretty happy about that.”
Mitch Lewandowski and Badini added goals later in the second period and the rout was on. Lewandowski received the puck from Marc Johnstone at the bottom of the right circle to make it 4-0. Badini backhanded a Lutz rebound during a power play to make it 5-0.
In the third period, Eduards Tralmarks concluded the scoring with a goal assisted by Johnny Walker and Ben Mirageas.
While Chicago’s scoring was impressive, goaltender Ales Stezka was arguably even better. He denied all 40 shots that came his way to pick up his fifth shutout of the season.
“He was excellent both nights,” Muse said. “He’s continued to progress as the year has gone on and he’s worked really hard. He’s been great for us all year and to see him come here and have a great weekend like this is a great way to start the playoffs.”
Baker Shore, Lewandowski, Lutz and Johnstone each recorded goals for the Steel, while Stezka made 25 saves in the 4-1 victory.
Confidence abounds after a strong opening playoff weekend.
“We’re really happy to start like this and hopefully we can finish it off at Youngstown,” Badini said. “We had a lot of contributions from everyone in the lineup. With great goaltending, great forwards, great defense, we’re pretty happy with how we played this weekend.”