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Jim Leitner / Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Published May 10 2013

Weary Force give up four straight goals in Game 1 loss

DUBUQUE, Iowa – Two short nights after emptying the tank in an emotional fifth and deciding game of the Western Conference Finals, the Fargo Force were running on fumes Friday night.

And it showed.

Despite taking an early lead, the Force surrendered four straight goals to drop Game 1 of the United States Hockey League’s Clark Cup Finals to the regular-season champion Dubuque Fighting Saints.

Game 2 is tonight, also at Mystique Community Ice Center.

“I don’t want to make excuses because of the schedule,” Force coach John Marks said. “I was very pleased with the efforts to get here. We had two tough series with Waterloo and Sioux Falls, and we accomplished a hell of a lot to get here. But, it’s tough to turn around with one day off against a team that’s had six.

“It’s awfully tough to get the emotions up after they were so high Wednesday night in Sioux Falls. I still don’t think we competed in the manner we could have.”

The Force, who won at Sioux Falls 7-4 Wednesday and arrived in Dubuque early Thursday morning, struck first at the 2:59 mark of the opening stanza. After a faceoff win in the Dubuque zone, Kenny Gillespie banged the rebound off a Neal Goff shot past Saints goaltender Arthur Brey. Jordan Nelson earned a secondary assist.

But Dubuque answered just 3:29 later on the first power play of the game. Mike Szmatula crept in from the corner and snapped a quick shot over Brendan Jensen to tie the game at 1-1. Shane Sooth and Jeff Taylor assisted.

“Whether we score a goal or the other team scores a goal, it’s been our mindset all year to come out the next shift and work hard and try to make something happen,” Szmatula said. “Fortuntately, we were able to do that right away tonight.

“Our power play came through big-time for us tonight, too. But it’s just one win. We know Fargo’s going to come out twice as hard (tonight), and we’re going to have to answer that.”

Szmatula went to the dirty area of the ice three minutes after his equalizer to give the Saints the lead for good. Peter Quenneville collected the puck behind the net and fed it to Szmatula, who was parked just outside the blue paint. Szmatula quickly beat Jensen with an even-strength goal to make it 2-0.

Szmatula nearly completed a natural hat trick in the final minutes of the opening period. He took the puck to the net hard, and Jensen made a nice pad save. But the puck landed in the blue paint, and Niklas Nevalainen tapped it home for the second power-play goal of the evening.

Fargo came within an eyelash of making it a 3-2 game with its first power play of the game, late in the second period. But Brey made a couple of acrobatic saves, and Jensen made a critical mistake.

Jensen came far out of his net to play a long clearing attempt, but he didn’t get enough on his pass toward the half wall. John Stevens picked off the pass and shot it into the vacated net for a commanding 4-1 lead.

Dubuque and Fargo split their two regular-season games. Both teams won on home ice. After Game 2, the series shifts to Fargo’s Scheels Sports Arena for Games 3 and 4 next Friday and Saturday.

FIRST PERIOD: 1, F, Gillespie (Goff, Nelson), 2:59. 2, D, Szmatula (Sooth, Taylor), 6:28 (pp). 3, D, Szmatula (Quenneville, Sooth), 9:41. 4, D, Nevalainen (Szmatula, Sooth), 18:17 (pp).

SECOND PERIOD: 5, D, Stevens, 13:42 (sh).

THIRD PERIOD: no scoring

SAVES: F, Jensen 28. D, Brey 18