GENEVA – Moments after stopping all 40 Youngstown Phantoms shots he faced on April 25, Chicago Steel goaltender Ales Stezka willingly welcomed 20 teammates into his goal crease and its immediate vicinity.
Reveling in a 2-0 victory in the decisive Game 5 of their USHL Eastern Conference semifinal, the Steel engulfed one another with little abandon at Fox Valley Ice Arena. Clinching the franchise’s first Clark Cup playoff series win in nine seasons carries such effects.
“It’s an amazing time for us,” Stezka said. “We have so much energy and believe in one another.”
The Steel have employed the social media hashtag #SteelTheCup this postseason, but the fact remains: The team isn’t sneaking up on anyone. Chicago built a legitimate Clark Cup contender during a banner regular season that included team records for both wins (38) and points (81), which helped amount to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
In a series in which home ice proved paramount – no visiting club so much as held a lead in 300 minutes of hockey – the Steel delighted a crowd of 721 by winning a taut thriller behind the dazzling Stezka and a timely attack.
With the Steel struggling to solve Phantoms goalie Ivan Kulbakov during limited time in the Youngstown zone, Harvard-bound forward Jack Badini snapped a scoreless tie at the 11:50 mark of the second period. Dashing to the end wall after the Steel had dumped the puck, captain Marc Johnstone forced Kulbakov out of his crease – and out of position.
Johnstone located the puck and sent it to Badini, whose 28 regular-season goals led the team. Badini buried the chance with an open net, providing a welcome cushion for the Steel, who were outshot 40-27. Derek Daschke capped the scoring with an empty-net goal late in the third period.
“At the end of the day, you’re just playing hockey,” Badini said. “Everyone knows how to play. Everyone knows it’s a big game. So I think everyone came and contributed in a big way.”
A fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the Czech-born Stezka shined, to be sure.
“Stez played great,” said defenseman Graham Lillibridge, a Geneva High School senior and Yale recruit. “He showed up in a big-time game. He’s a big-time player. Made some key saves, did a very good job of playing the puck … which helped out the ‘D.’”
The Steel have home-ice advantage against Dubuque in the Eastern Conference finals as they skate in the USHL’s final four for the third time in club history.
The Steel rallied from a 3-1 deficit for a 4-3 home win April 28, but the Fighting Saints leveled the best-of-5 series with a 3-1 victory the next day.
Brannon McManus tallied the game-tying and game-winning goals as the Steel outshot Dubuque 20-10 in the third period to steal Game 1.
Dubuque scored twice in the third period to nab the win April 29.
IF YOU GO
Who: Chicago Steel vs. Dubuque Fighting Saints
What: USHL Eastern Conference Finals
Upcoming schedule: Chicago at Dubuque, 7:35 p.m. May 5; Chicago at Dubuque, 7:05 p.m. May 6; Dubuque at Chicago 7:05 p.m. May 9 (if necessary)
More info: www.chicagosteelhockeyteam.com/