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Chris Murphy, Published April 11 2013

Force's playoff matchup to be set after weekend games

FARGO – It’s hard to believe a regular season that goes more than six months has not been decided going into the final weekend, but that’s the case in the Western Conference of the United States Hockey League.

As for Fargo, the Force have some of the where, some of the when, but they are missing the who for their first-round playoff series. One ‘W’ they have plenty of is wins, as the Force locked up second place in the conference and home-ice advantage for the first round with a 4-3 win over Sioux City on Saturday.

“It’s been like playoff hockey since January,” said Fargo forward Brendan Harms, who is second on the team with 68 points and broke the Force season record for assists with his 44th Saturday. “We’ve been battling really hard to try and get the home-ice advantage. It’s huge for us.”

Going into the final regular-season homestand versus Sioux City today and Saturday, the Force know they will host Game 1 and Game 2 April 17 and 19, respectively, along with Game 5, if necessary, April 24, at Scheels Arena in the first round of the playoffs. What they don’t know is who they will be hosting.

Waterloo and Lincoln both have clinched the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference. But with two games remaining for each team, Waterloo has a one-point lead over Lincoln for third place. Waterloo has two games versus the worst team in the Eastern Conference in Indiana Saturday and Sunday, and Lincoln has two versus the worst team in the Western Conference in Tri-City today and Saturday to close out the regular season.

With a 4-1 record against Waterloo and a 4-2-2 record against Lincoln, Fargo is ready for either team.

“I don’t think it really matters,” said Fargo forward Gabe Guertler, who leads the team with 31 goals. “Both teams are a good matchup for us. Lincoln has been known for their physical, hard, grinding style of play. Waterloo is a smaller team that is just a quicker, faster team.”

Waterloo has the top three point-getters in the USHL. Taylor Cammarata (90 points) and Justin Kloos (85) own the top two spots and Zach Stepan (76) is tied for third in scoring in the USHL.

Lincoln, on the other hand, has three players in the top 10 in penalty minutes. No other team has more than one. Mike McKee (292 minutes) has 97 more penalty minutes than anyone in the USHL with teammates Zach Frye (169) and Jake Wood (149) sixth and eighth, respectively, in time spent in the box.

“Lincoln wants to intimidate,” said Fargo forward Dominic Toninato, who leads the Force with 70 points. “Waterloo is a more fast-paced, highly skilled team that likes to spend a lot of time in the offensive zone. They are two pretty opposites.

“We have a good team this year. Something really special, actually. We can play with any team, as long as we play our game.”

One thing is for sure: Fargo is ready for the playoffs.

“Our league is one of the longest leagues in North America,” Guertler said. “It kind of just keeps going and going, but it’s nice to get to worry about playoffs now, which is our main priority. Our main goal is to win the Clark Cup.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548