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Chris Murphy, Published April 25 2013

Pressure will be on Force early in Western Conference finals

FARGO – Life is a circus, and apparently there’s no scheduling around it.

Although Sioux Falls has the top seed in the Western Conference, the Stampede will begin the Western Conference finals in Fargo. Games 1 and 2 will be at Scheels Arena today and Saturday thanks to the Shrine Circus being held at the Sioux Falls Arena.

Initially, it would seem like an advantage for Fargo, but it certainly puts a lot of pressure on the Force to win both games at home before heading to Sioux Falls for the final three. Knowing a clinching game has to come on the road is no easy task.

“Obviously, we have to take care of the ice here against an extremely good hockey team and try and win one there,” Fargo coach John Marks said. “I’ve been involved with it before. It just is what it is. Sometimes you’re booked and you got to do what you got to do.”

Just like most things between the two teams, there’s little separation in the road records for Sioux Falls and Fargo. Including the playoffs, the Stampede are 22-10-2 on the road, and the Force are 20-11-3 on the road. The Stampede have won three out of the four home games versus the Force this season and are 2-2 at Scheels Arena.

“We’ve been a good road team all year,” Marks said. “We’re a team that can play pretty well anywhere.”

The good news for the Force is they’ve had the recent upper hand against Sioux Falls. Five of the eight games have been decided by one or two goals. The last two times the Force have faced the Stampede, they came out on top 5-2 at their place and 7-4 at home.

“They’re obviously a good team,” Fargo forward Gabe Guertler said. “The two first home games are the two biggest games to start out. Playing at home and in front of your home crowd, it’s nice to have home-ice advantage in the first two games.”

After the last game of the regular season, Marks called out what the team jokingly refers to as the “small line” in Guertler, Dave Gust and Austin Ortega. They answered, as the line with no player taller than 5-foot-9 was responsible for 23 of the team’s 54 points and 11 of the team’s 21 goals in the first-round series against Waterloo.

“I think hockey is more about skill and speed,” Guertler said. “Smaller guys have that nowadays. We work really well together, and all of us can score.”

The goalie situation for Fargo is up in the air. Cam Johnson found out 10 minutes before Game 5 versus Waterloo that he would be in net due to Brendan Jensen taking a puck off the knee in warmups.

He answered by stopping 34 of the 37 shots he faced against a team he had never played against. Johnson is 2-1-2 versus Sioux Falls, stopping 188 of the 209 Stampede shots he’s seen, while Jensen is 1-2-0 with 78 saves on 90 shots. After Game 5, nothing could possibly shock Johnson at this point.

“Sioux Falls is a team I’ve played the majority of the year and I’ve played well against them,” Johnson said. “I’ll be ready going in against Sioux Falls.”

Considering the goalie situation changed 10 minutes before Wednesday’s Game 5, it might be best to wait until the game starts to figure it out.

“Both our goaltenders all year long have given us a chance to win,” Marks said. “We’ll just have to wait for the pregame skate on Friday.”

After Games 1 and 2 at Scheels Arena, the Force will head to Sioux Falls on May 2 for Game 3 and, if needed, May 5 and May 8 for Games 4 and 5.

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