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Chris Murphy, Published January 07 2014

This season's struggles a new experience for Force

FARGO – Having to find a way to replace 251 goals from last season’s Fargo Force team, coach John Marks didn’t exactly think his team would contend for a Clark Cup in the United States Hockey League.

“Sure, we had high expectations, but do you think we went into this season really believing that we were going to have an opportunity to win the championship?” Marks said. “You say, ‘Yes,’ but realistically when you’re trying to replace two-hundred odd goals and you haven’t gotten one guy in the lineup playing for you last year at forward and only a couple on defense, you think you’ll go to the finals again? Probably not. It’s a rebuilding year.”

At 5-21-3 and, as of Tuesday, six points behind any team in the USHL, Marks didn’t think it would be this bad.

“Right now, this team just finds a way to lose,” Marks said. “I just didn’t think that we would have only five wins at this point. There’s no question about that.”

As of Tuesday, the Force had 51 goals in 29 games, 10 less than any team in the USHL. They were second in goals against at 117 and fourth in penalty minutes, as of Tuesday.

In its previous five years of existence, the Force have never had a losing streak of more than seven. This season, they’ve had one losing streak of eight and currently have lost 11 in a row.

Fargo goalie Cam Johnson is currently sixth in the USHL with 611 saves. He’s done that in four fewer games and 282 fewer minutes than any of the five goalies above him in the rankings.

Force goalie Brendan Jensen made 58 saves Friday, which was the most any goalie in the USHL had stopped in a game this season. The Force lost 4-3 in a shootout.

It’s been that kind of a season.

“If we had the answer, we probably would have done it two months ago,” Marks said. “We knew we had to replace a lot of goals. We knew that it was going to take a little time for those players that we had here to make that adjustment to the skill level, the pace and the strength of the league. Unfortunately, it’s taken some guys a lot longer than we expected.”

Former Force assistant coach and director of player personnel, Jesse Davis was recently let go and the Force traded assistant captain Josh Elmes on Monday.

The Fargo franchise has never seen a season like this. The Force have never lost a first-round playoff series in their five years of existence, let alone not made the playoffs. They’ve also had three trips to the Clark Cup finals.

With 31 games to go and the Force, as of Tuesday, 29 points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, Marks has eyes on next season.

“Only four teams make the playoffs, so I think we’re mathematically eliminated,” Marks said. “The guys that are 1993 birth dates, they won’t be back next year because they are ineligible. Everybody else that’s here has to show me that they want to be back next year.”

It was the players that didn’t return from last season’s Clark Cup final team that shot down the Force plans for this season. Dominic Toninato (70 points in the 2012-13 regular season) went to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Brendan Harms (70) went to Bemidji State and Gabe Guertler (51) went to the University of Minnesota. Just like that, the Force lost their top three scorers, all of whom could have returned this season.

“You get unlucky when all of a sudden a college loses a player they didn’t expect to lose and they bring up a guy a year ahead of their schedule,” Marks said. “Everything went the other direction for us.”

Force will try to snap the franchise-long losing streak of 11 with games Friday and Saturday at Lincoln.

“I want to see what a guy is made of when you’ve only won five games out of 29 or 30,” Marks said. “You don’t pack it in as a player or as a team or as a coach. You keep playing. It’s a development league and we’re trying to develop a player.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548