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By Phillip B. Wilson, Published May 02 2009

Spinell's goal in final minute propels Fargo Force to 1-0 series lead in USHL championship round

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Ice led by a goal in the final period and in ideal position to finish off Fargo in the opening game of the Clark Cup finals.

Then the Force lived up to their nickname by sticking to the hockey basics that earned them a 15-hour bus ride to Indianapolis: When struggling to score, step up the pressure by crashing the net.

True grit delivered a tying goal on a scrum and close-range shot, then defenseman Steve Spinell demoralized the Ice with a point-blank wrist shot just 38 seconds before the end of regulation to give the Force a 2-1 United States Hockey League victory Friday at Pepsi Coliseum.

Just like that, the Ice relinquish home-ice advantage in the best-of-5 series and are in must-win territory with Game 2 tonight at their building. And they trail an expansion Force team, led by goalie Mike Lee’s 33 saves, that is 7-0 in the playoffs, including 5-0 on the road.

“They were playing playoff hockey,” said Ice goalie Brett Bennett, who made 28 saves. “That definitely wasn’t our ‘A’ game.”

The Ice were 30-1-0 when leading after two periods in the regular season. And Spinell was a rather unlikely hero.

It was just his third goal in 65 games.

“I always tell the guys, ‘I don’t get many, but I tend to get the big ones,’” Spinell said of beating Bennett on a low shot that eluded the goalie’s glove hand and slid just inside the post. “That was the biggest goal of my career so far. I can’t believe it happened.”

Spinell didn’t have a shot initially, but stayed with it. Bennett’s view was temporarily obstructed by jostling players, and the defenseman had the patience to wait and release the shot after the goalie had gone down and was off balance.

“It was a great individual effort by Steve, whose not known for his goal scoring,” said Force coach Dean Blais. “These guys are finding a way to win and good goaltending gives you the chance to do it.”

Lee, the USHL Goaltender of the Year, wasn’t seriously tested early, but then showed in the second period why he is regarded so highly. The Ice outshot the Force 19-11, but managed only one power-play goal. It could have been a lot worse.

“Indy played hard and had their chances,” Blais said. “We were fortunate to win.”

The Ice’s score was pretty as Max Cook slid a perfect 25-foot pass to cutting defenseman Loren Barron. Lee had no chance.

“He just put it on my tape and all I had to do was keep my stick on the ice,” said Barron. “It was more his beautiful pass than my goal-scoring ability.”

But that was it for the Ice. The shot chart suggested the play was even with each team firing 11 shots in the final 20 minutes. But both teams know which team was the aggressor, and why the Force are ahead in the series.

It’s the first time in three series the Ice have dropped the opening game. And the series shifts after tonight to Fargo for two games, the latter if necessary.

“We’ve got to win,” said Ice coach Jeff Blashill. “We’ve got to play with that level of urgency.

“This team has shown it can face adversity. It will handle this adversity fine.”

A spirited crowd of 3,013 was active from the opening face-off. One fan sounded a air horn. Another rang a cowbell. Several toted signs, one that read: “This Is Our Time.” It took five years for the Ice to finally reach the USHL finals.

Afterward, a fan tried to offer encouragement, “Come on! Let’s go, Ice! We’ll get ’em tomorrow.”

If not, the Clark Cup is likely headed to North Dakota.

FIRST PERIOD: No scoring.

SECOND PERIOD: 1, I, Barron (Cook, Golembiewski) 7:19 (pp).

THIRD PERIOD: 2, F, McDermott (Taranto, Grant) 9:31. 3, F, Spinell (Taranto, Leitner) 19:22.

SAVES: F, Lee 33. I, Bennett 28.

A: 3,013.