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Chris Murphy, Published April 04 2014

Force end rare season without a playoff berth this weekend

Fargo - For five seasons of Fargo Force hockey, there has never been a set date as to when United States Hockey League action would come to an end in Fargo. Five seasons of USHL playoff hockey for the Force left fate uncertain and hope alive.

Not this season. The fate of the Force has been a long time coming in 2013-14.

Tonight, the Force will play their regular-season finale, the doors will close on their season, and they will finish as the worst team in the USHL and the worst team in franchise history.

“It’s been a long, tough year,” Fargo coach John Marks said after a 3-2 shootout loss to Omaha on Friday at Scheels Arena. “We knew going in that it was going to be tough to find where the offense was coming from. We’re averaging about two goals a game now, and at one time it was 1.6. You can’t win with 1.6 goals a game.”

The memories of 2013-14 will not be kind to the Force.

A season after making it to the team’s third Clark Cup Finals appearance, the Force (13-39-7) will set franchise lows across the board. They’ve never given up more goals than they’ve scored in a regular season. Heading into tonight’s season finale, the Force have given up a franchise-high 228 and scored a franchise-low 120 goals, 53 fewer goals scored than any Force team.

“Things are going to change for next year,” Marks said. “You can see how far you have to go in this league to be successful. You can’t lose three lines like we lost and the 230 or 240 goals gone from last year. We just never scored, and when you don’t score, you don’t win.”

The Force have outshot opponents eight times in 59 games this season. The USHL record for least shots in a game is 11. The Force had 12 shots apiece in three games this season and a period in which they were outshot 19-1 by Sioux City on Feb. 18.

It was a season ago when the Force broke the franchise record for wins, Dominic Toninato broke the franchise record for points and Brendan Harms broke the franchise record for assists. This season, the Force don’t have a player with a plus/minus above zero.

“It’s not midget hockey anymore, it’s not high school hockey anymore,” Marks said. “Some of the kids took a lot longer to come around.”

Of the top five longest winless streaks in the USHL this season, the Force own three of them. Their 17-game winless streak is the longest streak in the league this season with their 10-game streak in second and eight-game streak in fifth.

“We weren’t really expecting this type of season,” said assistant captain Chris Buchanan, who played for the Force last season. “Last year, we could be more relaxed. This year, we struggled, and then you grip your sticks too tight, think too much, and we weren’t just playing hockey. It gets complicated when you’re losing.”

The Force roster has seemingly changed daily this season in order to stockpile draft picks for next season, but captain Neal Goff has been there since Day 1 and every other day in his three-year USHL career. He knows what a run to the Clark Cup Finals felt like, and tonight, he will know what no playoffs feels like.

“It’ll be weird,” Goff said. “We’ve known we were going to be out of the playoffs for awhile now, but it’s still going to be weird going home this early. That’s junior hockey. There’s different teams every year and guys come and go.”

FIRST PERIOD: 1, F, Hynes, 3:51, (pp). 2, O, Poolman (Johnson), 6:44, (pp).

SECOND PERIOD: No scoring.

THIRD PERIOD: 3, O, Angello (Spinner), 14:05. 4, F, Warner (Morelli), 19:22.

SHOOTOUT: O: Vesel, Poolman. F: no goals.

SAVES: O, Hawkey 6-10-9–25. F, Israelsson 20-10-17–47

A: 3,621

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