The Chicago Steel knew if it wanted to hold on to second place in the USHL Eastern Conference, it was going to have to capture at least three points this past weekend. With Youngstown, Cedar Rapids and Team USA in close pursuit, the Steel had something to play for in the last weekend of the regular season.
Capturing points is exactly what the Steel did in defeating Central Illinois, 6-5, April 12 in Geneva and beating Muskegon, 8-1, in Michigan the next night. The Steel (37-21-4, 78 points) earned the second seed for the playoffs and secured a first-round bye.
Nick Abruzzese (29 goals, 51 assists), the Steel’s leading scorer and the USHL leading scorer in the regular season, said he did not want to go through what he and his teammates did last season when they had to go on the road for the opening round of the playoffs and win two out of three games.
“We knew it was important to win this past weekend,” said Abruzzese, who will attend Harvard in the fall and play college hockey for the Crimson. “The biggest thing for us was to get a first-round bye and get the rest we needed because the playoffs are such a grind.”
Abruzzese led the USHL in scoring and in assists and averaged 1.29 points per game. But from a team perspective probably the most telling stat was the Steel’s 12-3-4 record in one-goal games.
“I think at this time of the year you cannot take a shift off,” Abruzzese said. “Every shift means something and every shift is going to be physical. But there is something to be said for having home-ice advantage and not having to travel as much. I am really excited to see how well we do as a team in the playoffs this year. We have come a long way since the season began.”
The Steel will begin its playoff run April 20.
During the regular season, the Steel had a winning record against two of its potential opponents. The Steel went 4-2 against Youngstown and sported a 3-1-1 record against Cedar Rapids. Should the Steel see Team USA in the playoffs, it would be a rematch of last year’s Clark Cup semifinals.
“I think one thing which will help us in the playoffs will be how well we did in one-goal games,” Steel coach Greg Moore said. “It really showed how well we took control of our own destiny this year.”