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Chris Murphy, Published May 04 2013

Fargo Force close in on Clark Cup finals appearance

FARGO – The Fargo Force find themselves in unfamiliar territory in the Western Conference finals of the United States Hockey League. Up 2-1 in the best-of-5 series versus Sioux Falls, the Force are in the driver’s seat.

It was just two weeks ago today Fargo found itself down 2-1 in the best-of-5 first-round series with Waterloo. The Force won Game 4 on the road, but were 3 minutes, 34 seconds away in Game 5 from becoming the first Force team to lose in the first round of the playoffs in its fifth trip.

Backs against the wall, the Force tied the game and clinched the series in overtime. Now, they find themselves a win in today’s game away from the team’s third trip to the Clark Cup finals and first since the 2009-10 season.

They just need to learn how to play with a cushion.

“Obviously, it’s a little different, but we just have to keep the same mindset we’ve had all playoffs,” Force right winger Brendan Harms said. “We have to go in there with the same attitude and get the win.”

Outside of two letups in the third period of Game 2, Fargo has run the show versus Sioux Falls. The Force have scored the first goal in all three games and, after giving the Stampede six power-play chances in Game 1, have only given the Stampede four in Game 2 and 3 combined.

In 10 chances with the man-advantage, the Stampede have scored one goal. Five-on-five isn’t much better, as Force goalie Cam Johnson has stopped 100 of the 104 shots that have come his way, including 31 for his first USHL shutout in a 1-0 win in Game 3.

Johnson doesn’t mince words.

“I love playing Sioux Falls,” Johnson said before Game 3. “I just have their number.”

Including the final two meetings of the regular season, Fargo has won four of the last five against Sioux Falls. More impressively, the Force won at Sioux Falls in Game 3, where the Stampede had fallen just nine times in 35 games before the 1-0 loss.

The smaller rink was supposed to benefit the Stampede.

“It was a grinding kind of game,” Fargo center Gabe Guertler said. “As a whole, we played good defensively. We just made sure to go up the ice together with the smaller rink. It takes a little pressure off us. If we play how we’re capable of, we’ll win the game.”

Tough to have home-ice advantage when the crowd has nothing to cheer about.

“The crowd was loud, but I think they’d be a little louder if they actually scored a goal,” Harms said. “With this rink, it’s easier to block shots, so we did a good job getting in lanes and picking up guys in front and taking care of our blue line.”

Sioux Falls has been in this spot before, as the Stampede came back from down 2-1 in the first round to Lincoln. The Stampede would like nothing better than to give their fans something to cheer about in the final two games of the series.

“We know what Sioux Falls is capable of,” Harms said. “They are a really good hockey club. We won’t underestimate them. We need to stay focused and execute a good game.”

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