FARGO, N.D. — The Waterloo Black Hawks had not lost back-to-back games since a long road trip to Youngstown back in February.
Unfortunately, it happened Saturday.
A spectacular season that included a Western Conference regular-season title and the Anderson Cup for the best overall record in the United States Hockey League came to an end as Fargo scored two third-period goals to eliminate Waterloo 3-2 in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.
“You ask for one of your best games, and it was close,” Black Hawks head coach P.K. O’Handley said. “A mistake here and a mistake there and for whatever reason the inability to put the puck in the net with the chances we had. It is unfortunate.”
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John Schuldt’s goal with 9 minutes, 27 seconds left was the difference as the Force won the final three games of the best-of-five series to advance to the Clark Cup finals against Youngstown.
“They had puck luck, and we did not,” O’Handley added. “That is playoff hockey.”
The effort was everything O’Handley asked for following a 6-4 loss Friday that gave Fargo a 2-1 series lead, but every time Waterloo challenged or struck a blow, the Force, the only team during the regular season to own a winning record against the Black Hawks (5-1), had an answer.
Waterloo scored first and retook the lead during a dominant second period, but Fargo kept on coming as the Black Hawks lost in the conference finals for the fourth time in five seasons.
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For the second straight night, Waterloo scored first as Matej Blumel won a face-off back to Michael Ferrandino at the left point. Ferrandino skated slightly to the middle of the ice before firing a wrist-shot that was re-directed by Solag Bakich for a 1-0 lead with 15:44 left in the opening period.
Fargo answered when two Waterloo defenders went with one Force player and the puck squirted to Griffin Loughran. Tomek attempted to poke check the puck away from Loughran, but missed and Loughran scored his fourth goal of the playoffs top shelf with 12:13 left in the first.
After being dominated in the second period Friday when the Force erased a deficit and took the lead in the first four minutes into the second and never gave it back, Waterloo out-shot Fargo, 25-5, in the second Saturday and took its second lead of the game on a Ben Finkelstein power-play goal with 6:24 left in the period.
It was a huge goal in many ways as it snapped an 0-for-31 skid for the Black Hawks with a man advantage in the playoffs.
“Yeah it was,” O’Handley said when asked if that was the Black Hawks’ best period of hockey in the series, but he also lamented the many missed scoring opportunities. “The opportunities to score ... it was uncharacteristic that they didn’t go in the net.
“Puck luck. A hot goalie on the other side. They were opportunistic so full marks to them.”
Finkelstein’s go-ahead goal came after Jack Drury won a faceoff, Ben Copeland snapped a cross-ice pass to Jackson Cates, who immediately slipped it to Finkelstein in the high-slot area. Finkelstein whistled a wrist shot over the catcher glove of Strauss Mann for his second goal of the series.
But Waterloo couldn’t maintain the momentum it carried into the second intermission as it was out-shot 15-4 over the final 20 minutes. The Black Hawks best scoring opportunity in the third came when Garrett Klee clanged one off the post with 7:16 left during 4-on-4 action.
Garrett Van Wyhe scored off a face-off with 14:59 left in the third to tie the score at 2-all, and the game winner came on a Schuldt slap shot that Waterloo’s Matej Tomek had a clean look at, but the puck glanced off his glove and into the back of the net.
That goal put an end to what O’Handley described as a special, special season.
“They gave everything they had to the organization, the community,” O’Handley said. “It is a special, special bunch and it is a tough way to bow out.
“You can’t over-shadow the great things they did. I hope this doesn’t. This one is going to hurt for a while, but I don’t think ... from the NHL on down playoff hockey is a game of inches and we couldn’t find the extra inch.”
Fargo 3, Waterloo 2
SCORE BY PERIODS
Waterloo 1 1 0 — 2
Fargo 1 0 2 — 3
FIRST PERIOD — 1. Waterloo, Solag Bakich (Michael Ferrandino, Matej Blumel), 4:16, 2. Fargo, Griffin Loughran (Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup), 7:47. Penalties — Bobby Trivigno, Wat (high sticking), :25, Mason Palmer, Wat (interference), 8:16,
SECOND PERIOD — 3. Waterloo, Ben Finkelstein (Jackson Cates, Jack Drury), 13:36, pp. Penalties — Jordan Seyfert, Far (high sticking), 11:42, John Schuldt, Far (boarding), 13:30, Calvin Pokorny, Far (checking from behind), 18:06.
THIRD PERIOD — 4. Fargo, Garrett Van Wyhe (unassisted), 5:01, 5. Fargo, Schuldt (Ben Meyers), 10:33. Penalties — Bakich, Wat (tripping), 15:16, Seyfort, Far (slashing), 10:54, Hunter Lellig, Wat (tripping), 12:30.
SHOTS ON GOAL
Waterloo 7 25 4 — 36
Fargo 8 5 15 — 28
Goalies — Waterloo, Matej Tomek (25 saves). Fargo, Strauss Mann (34 saves) Referees — Jeff Parker and Jim White. Linesmen — Rhodes Dolan and Jake Jackson.