By Michelle Bishop
The Omaha Lancers and Fargo Force just wrapped up an unforgettable USHL West Division Finals playoff series last weekend.In a series full of physical play it was obvious there was little love between the division rivals. The Lancers’ anxiety with the Force dates back to last season when current UNO head coach Dean Blais led the Force.
Last year, Blais’ team swept the defending Clark Cup Lancers out of the postseason before falling to the Indiana Ice in the Clark Cup finals. Blais, who earned USHL Coach of the Year honors, built the expansion franchise into a top contender and set the team’s success for the future.
Omaha struggled against the Force this season, going winless in five regular season games. Two of the games were decided by a goal and another loss came in a shootout.
When the stage was set for a division final between the two teams, many wondered how the Lancers would respond. The Force appeared to have the momentum, carrying an eight game wining streak against the Lancers.
The series featured two future Mavericks, who both played key roles during the playoffs and the regular season for their respective squads.
In game one of the series, Lancer forward Matt White, a UNO commitment, netted the opening goal of the series to help Omaha to a 2-0 win.
Game two proved to be a game that fans won’t forget for quite awhile. With under a minute to play, Omaha’s C.J. Ludwig applied an open ice check to Fargo’s Corey Leivermann. The Force player’s helmet flew off in the collision, leaving his exposed head to slam to the ice.
Leivermann, one of the Force’s top scorers during the regular season, was removed from the Civic Auditorium ice on a stretcher and taken to Creighton University Medical Center. He was released from the hospital the following evening, but his chances of playing in the postseason are in question after already missing the remainder of the series against Omaha.
The Fargo Forum reported that Leivermann, a Minnesota State University – Mankato commitment, received stitches and treatment for a concussion.
Ludwig received a five-game suspension for the hit, while Fargo’s Matt Leitner and Omaha’s Ryan Daugherty each received one-game suspensions for their actions just minutes before the hit.
Leitner was suspended after being ejected for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after celebrating an open-net goal with just 1:09 left, while Daugherty was forced out a game for a spearing penalty.
White tallied an assist in the game, but the Lancers couldn’t overcome a third period rally by the Force as Fargo won 4-2.
Game three in Fargo proved to be another nail biter, with Fargo escaping with a 4-3 win. UNO commitment Johnnie Searfoss opening the scoring with his first goal of the playoffs just under four minutes into the game.
The Lancers held off elimination in game four, skating away with a 6-2 win and forcing a final game back in Omaha. White, who tied for the team lead in points during the playoffs, netted Omaha’s fifth goal of the game.
A 5-2 Force win in game five of the series on April 24 advanced Searfoss and his Fargo teammates to the Clark Cup finals against Green Bay beginning Friday. Green Bay’s Brian O’Rourke, a 6-foot-1 defenseman, is also a UNO recruit.
Searfoss and White each collected assists in the game. White tallied a point in all eight of Omaha’s playoff games.
“We had a lot of emotions coming into the game,” Searfoss said after Fargo’s win. “Especially with what happened here last Saturday night so we really wanted to get that one.”
UNO has tapped the USHL pipeline for talent in recent years as 20 players on UNO’s 2009-10 roster skated for USHL teams.
Searfoss, the only player in the young history of the Fargo franchise to play in every game, said getting the opportunity to play for his former coach helped influence his decision to come to UNO.
“I’m extremely excited,” Searfoss said. “I loved playing for him last year and that’s a lot of the reason why I ended up going to Nebraska-Omaha.”
While Searfoss and White battled against each other the past two seasons, Searfoss said he’s looking forward to wearing the same sweater as him next season.
“He has the best skills of any kid I’ve seen so far in this league and it’s going to be awesome to play with him next year,” Searfoss said.
White, who was voted the USHL Player of the Year by the league’s coaches, led the USHL with a plus-41 rating, the highest mark in the League since the 2003-04 season when former Maverick Bill Thomas led the Tri-City Storm with a plus-43.
“Matt has been a leader in the locker room as well as on the ice all year,” Lancers Head Coach Bliss Littler said in a statement. “His skill level makes him fun to watch every night. We have watched Matt grow up and mature into a responsible young man this past season and he has a great deal to do with any success that we had as a team this year. I look forward to watching Matt progress at the University of Nebraska-Omaha next year.”
White attracted attention early in the season after setting a league season high when he recorded a point in 17 consecutive games for the Lancers.The 20-year-old forward was one of three players who led the league with 35 goals. Eight of his goals were shorthanded, which was one shy of tying the USHL single season record. He finished second in USHL scoring this season with 82 points (35g, 47a) in 57 games, finishing just one point behind Tri-City Storm forward Jaden Schwartz.
The Whittier, Calif. native played three seasons in the USHL compiling 145 points (57g, 88a) in 155 career games. White was also a member of the 2007-08 Lancers team that captured both the Anderson Cup and Clark Cup titles.
The Mavs have a total of nine USHL players committed for next season. The six other USHL players committed to attend UNO are; Brock Montpetit and Tony Turgeon of the Waterloo Black Hawks, Cedar Rapids RoughRiders’ Bryce Aneloski, the Youngstown Phantoms’ Andrej Sustr, Dominic Zombo of the Sioux Falls Stampede and the Sioux City Musketeers’ Patrick Borer.