WATERLOO — The Anderson Cup is awarded to the United States Hockey League team that puts together the best regular-season record.
A year ago, the Waterloo Black Hawks captured the Cup with 38 victories.
A year later with four games left, the Black Hawks are two wins away from matching that 38-win total, but to head coach P.K. O’Handley, it doesn’t feel like this team has always gotten the credit it deserves.
Despite moving on its top six point producers and four key defensemen from a year ago, Waterloo has remained near the top of the USHL’s Western Conference and owns the third-best overall record in the league with four games to play.
“We lost last night (Tuesday) and not a lot of people recognized prior to that we had went nine straight games with getting at least a point, and that is hard to do,” O’Handley said. “That is where we are a victim of our success at times. Unless we win every game I think there is a perception there is failure.
“We have won a lot of games this year, and at times it has felt like we haven’t done much. That is unfortunate for the guys in the dressing room, because they have put their mark on this team ... they have done a tremendous job.”
Waterloo is locked in a tie with Sioux Falls for second in the Western Conference.
Waterloo finishes with Chicago (Friday), Omaha (Saturday) and Dubuque (April 12) at home and a game at Dubuque (April 13). The Stampede play a pair of road games at Youngstown this week, before playing Sioux City and Des Moines (April 12-13) at home.
Having a first-round bye in the Clark Cup playoffs, which goes with second place, would be nice, but that isn’t the Black Hawks focus.
“That is in the back of our mind, but we just want to win these last four games because we want to play the best we can play and finish as high as we can,” forward Griffin Ness said. “Yeah, (second) that is a goal we have, but that is not 100 percent what we are thinking about.”
YOUTH MOVEMENT: Season-ending injuries to Solag Bakich and Connor Caponi seven days apart in February have forced the Black Hawks to dip into their affiliate list.
One of the youngest teams in the USHL has gotten younger because of moves that have seen forwards John Waldron, Zach Michaelis and Teddy Lagerback along with defenseman Mason Reiners forced into action in recent weeks.
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Lagerback made his season debut last night, while Reiners also played.
“Did we have plans on bringing them up? No,” O’Handley said. “But it has been good. Those guys have stepped in, and under hard circumstances, and I think all of those guys in their own way have done a good job. Certainly it shows a bright side of what is to come.”
Ness played under similar circumstances last year, joining the team late and playing significant minutes in the playoffs.
“You get nervous, sure, the first couple of shifts, but once you get those under your belt you are fine,” Ness said. “It’s a huge honor because the coaches trust you to go out there.”
THREE GOALIES: A lower-body injury to Jared Moe in a game with Omaha on Jan. 24 put Waterloo in a tough position.
Rookie Logan Stein continued to play well after Moe’s injury, but uncertain how long Moe would miss, the Black Hawks traded for Green Bay goalie Evan Fear.
“We could’ve carried an emergency goalie, but that puts a lot of pressure on a guy and certainly a rookie in goal, and Logan was doing extremely well, but we were one injury away from playing a high school player,” O’Handley said. “We had no choice but to go acquire a goalie.”
With Moe now healthy, Waterloo has been rotating its three goalies.
“I have to give full credit to those guys,” O’Handley said. “We are going to get to a point in the next few days where at least I hope we settle on one, but it is not a one-goalie league anymore. You need two, and we have three.
“How we manage it ... we manage it. I don’t know if I can articulate one or two things other than we have three really good young men there that are really professional about it.”
AN ASSIST TO SORENSEN: Veteran defenseman Hank Sorensen recorded his 35th assist against Sioux City Tuesday. With three more, he will pass Blake Kessel (65) as the franchise’s leader in assists by a defenseman.
“Hank’s year has been exceptional,” O’Handley said. “Fifth (in the league) in points (42) among all defensemen and he still has found a way to play a rugged game.”