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SERIES PREVIEW: EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

By Chicago Steel, 04/26/19, 1:00AM CDT

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No. 2 Seed Chicago Steel Meet Top-Seed Muskegon Lumberjacks in Eastern Conference Final

GENEVA, ILLINOIS — The Chicago Steel will meet the top-seeded Muskegon Lumberjacks in the best-of-five Eastern Conference Final beginning Saturday night in Muskegon. Chicago will host Game 3 Game 4, if necessary, at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva.

Eastern Conference Final (Best-of-Five Series)
Game 1: Chicago at Muskegon – Saturday, April 27 (L.C. Walker Arena)
Game 2: Chicago at Muskegon – Sunday, April 28 (L.C. Walker Arena)
Game 3: Muskegon at Chicago – Friday, May 3 at 7:05 p.m. (Fox Valley Ice Arena)
Game 4*: Muskegon at Chicago – Saturday, May 4 at 7:05 p.m. (Fox Valley Ice Arena)
Game 5*: Chicago at Muskegon – Monday, May 6 (L.C. Walker Arena)
*if necessary

The series will be a rematch of last year’s best-of-three First Round matchup between Chicago and Muskegon, which the Steel won in Game 3 in an overtime thriller.

Both teams come into the Eastern Conference having won their respective Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup 3-games-to-1. Chicago ousted the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in four games after winning Games 3 and 4 on the road at Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. Chicago won Game 1 handedly before dropping Game 2 in a thrilling overtime contest. The Steel then went on the road and outscored the RoughRiders 7-2 in Games 3 and 4 to close out the series.

Muskegon won Games 1 and 2 on home ice by a combined score of 9-1, but Dubuque answered back in Game 3 with a 5-1 drubbing at Mystique Ice Center. The Lumberjacks responded the next night with a tightly-contested 2-1 win in Game 4 to close out the series.

This is the fourth Conference Finals appearance for the Steel and second in the last three seasons. Chicago won the Eastern Conference Final in 2017, defeating Dubuque in four games en route to winning the Clark Cup Championship. Chicago was swept out of the Conference Finals in 2008 and 2005. Muskegon has only appeared in one other Eastern Conference Final when they advanced to the Clark Cup Final in 2015, defeating Dubuque in a thrilling five-game series. Muskegon was then swept by the Sioux Falls Stampede in the Clark Cup Final.

Chicago finished 2-4-0-0 against Muskegon during the regular season but both wins came in the final two meetings between the teams by a combined score of 14-2. Muskegon won the first four meetings of the season, with three of those decisions coming in Chicago’s first 11 games of the season.

Two of the Lumberjacks wins this season were shutouts by goaltender Brandon Bussi (October 13 and December 31). Bussi turned aside 24 shots in the first meeting of the season and denied all 28 shots he faced on New Year’s Eve in a goalie duel with Chicago goaltender Reilly Herbst who turned aside 27 of the 28 shots he faced in the most tightly-contested meeting between the two teams. The other Muskegon wins this season came on October 19 (5-3) and November 3 (5-2) as Bussi picked up the victory in each contest. Bussi, who led the league with 33 wins this season, is 4-1-0-0 and has a 2.06 goals against average and .885 goals against average against Chicago this season. Steel netminder Justin Robbins has played the majority of the minutes against the Lumberjacks this season with a 1-3-0-0 record, 3.89 goals against average and .856 save percentage. Herbst is 1-1-0-0 in three appearances with a 1.29 goals against average and .952 save percentage.

Both starting goaltenders have been stellar so far this postseason. Robbins is 3-1 with a 2.17 goals against average and .902 save percentage while Bussi is 3-1 with a 1.56 goals against average and .929 save percentage.

Chicago’s first win of the season over Muskegon came by way of a 6-1 win on February 15 at Fox Valley Ice Arena. Forwards Nick Abruzzese (1-3-4) and Robert Mastrosimone (2-1-3) spurred the offense that night and have been two of the top scorers against the Lumberjacks this season. Abruzzese leads the Steel offense with 11 points (4-7-11) in six matchups while Mastrosimone is third with six points (3-3-6). Chicago defenseman Matteo Pietroniro has seven points (2-5-7) in the six meetings this season.

Abruzzese leads Chicago with nine points (3-6-9) this postseason, currently tied for the USHL lead. His six assists is second among USHL skaters in the postseason. Mastrosimone is second on the team and tied for fifth in the league with seven points (3-4-7) in four games.

The teams most recently met in the regular season finale on Saturday, April 13, an 8-1 Steel victory in a game in which Muskegon rested a majority of its top players having already secured the top seed in the East.

Muskegon has been paced offensively by forward Bobby Lynch who has seven points (3-4-7) in six meetings against Chicago this season. Defenseman Colby Bukes (0-5-5) and forwards Mikael Hakkarainen (2-3-5) and Egor Afanasyev (2-3-5) have all registered five points against the Steel.

This series features several highly-touted prospects including Chicago Blackhawks draft picks Josiah Slavin (2018, Rd. 7, #193 overall) and Mikael Hakkarainen (2017, Rd. 5, #139 overall). The series will also feature five players on the NHL Central Scouting’s latest rankings (North American Skaters):

16. Egor Afanasyev                            Muskegon
36. Jackson LaCombe                        Chicago
53. Robert Mastrosimone                   Chicago
107. Alex Yakovenko                         Muskegon
122. Nick Abruzzese                          Chicago

The winner of the series will advance to the Clark Cup Final to face the winner of the Western Conference Final between the Tri-City Storm and Sioux Falls Stampede beginning Tuesday in Kearney, Neb. Chicago last appeared in the Clark Cup Final in 2017, defeating Sioux City 3-2 in the best-of-five series to win its first championship. Muskegon appeared in its only Clark Cup Final in 2015.

Single game tickets for Steel home games during the Eastern Conference Final are on sale now and may be purchased in person at the Steel Box Office during normal business hours, by phone at 855-51-STEEL or online at ChicagoSteelHockeyTeam.com. Tickets start at just $10 and fans can catch the action up close with seats on the glass available for just $20. The group ticket minimum for Clark Cup Playoff games is just 10 people, and the Budweiser Lounge and Steel Suites are available for playoff games by calling 855-51-STEEL.

The Conference Semifinals victory over Cedar Rapids marks the third consecutive season in which the Steel have won a playoff series. All Steel games are broadcast live on HockeyTV (video) and mixlr.com/chicago-steel (free audio).

KEYS TO THE SERIES:

  • Defend Home Ice:
    • Muskegon was the USHL’s best team away from home, amassing a 24-7-3-0 record away from L.C. Walker Arena this season. Chicago’s 19-9-2-0 record at Fox Valley Ice Arena this season, including playoffs, will be put to the test as the team hosts Game 3 and a potential Game 4 on home ice.
  • Solve the Bussi Puzzle
    • Lumberjacks goaltender Brandon Bussi won a league-best 33 games this season, which tied for the fifth-most by a single goalie in USHL Tier I history. The Western Michigan University commit registered a .915 save percentage (3rd USHL) and 2.44 goals against average (4th USHL) in the regular season and is currently 3-1-0-0 with a .929 save percentage and 1.56 goals against average in the postseason. Bussi has shutout the Steel twice this season as part of a 4-1-0-0 record with a 2.06 goals against average and .885 save percentage in head-to-head matchups.
  • Pietroniro vs. Yakovenko
    • An offensive battle between the team’s top defensemen could be a turning point in the series. Pietroniro, the Chicago captain, finished the season with 18 goals and 49 points, which were both just behind Muskegon’s Yakovenko who finished with 19 goals and 52 points. Pietroniro has four points (1-3-4) in four games while Yakovenko has a trio of assists (0-3-3) this postseason.
      • Chicago defensemen Uula Ruikka and John Spetz each have a pair of goals for the Steel while Jimmy Dowd has a trio of assists.
  • Score First
    • Muskegon was a dominant 31-3-1-0 this season when scoring first and scored first in all three of their playoff wins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Chicago is resilient, however, and had one of the best records when trailing after both the first (8-10-1-0) and second (4-14-1-0) periods.
  • Regenerate the Power in Powerplay
    • Chicago finished the regular season with the second-best powerplay unit in the league (24.6 percent) but were held to one goal on 14 attempts against Cedar Rapids. Muskegon finished third in the league for regular season penalty kill (84.3 percent) and killed 14 of the 16 chances Dubuque had in the Semifinals.
  • Spread the Love
    • Chicago has had 18 different skaters record at least one point in its four playoff games, including eight different goal scorers. Eleven of Muskegon’s 12 goals this post season have come from different skaters as defenseman Colby Bukes is the only Lumberjack with multiple goals (2). Fifteen different Muskegon skaters found the scoresheet in the team’s four-game series against Dubuque.

MEET THE OPPONENT:

  • #2 seed Chicago (3-1) meets #1 seed Muskegon (3-1) in a battle of the top teams in the Eastern Conference with a spot in the Clark Cup Final on the line.
    • Forward Bobby Lynch leads the Lumberjacks with five points (1-4-5) in four games this postseason, while defenseman Colby Bukes (2-1-3) is the only Muskegon player with multiple goals as 11 different skaters have found the back of the net. Forward Egor Afanasyev, who led the team with 62 points (27-35-62) in 58 regular season games, has two points (1-1-2) in four games this postseason.
    • Goaltender Brandon Bussi is currently 3-1-0-0 in the postseason with a 1.56 goals against average (2nd USHL), and .929 save percentage (4th USHL). He finished the regular season with a league-best 33 wins as part of a 33-12-3-1 record, 2.44 goals against average (4th USHL) and .915 save percentage (3rd USHL).

SEASON SERIES:
October 13 at Muskegon Lumberjacks, L, 0-6 RECAP / STATS
October 19 vs. Muskegon Lumberjacks, L, 3-5 RECAP / STATS
November 3 vs. Muskegon Lumberjacks, L, 2-5 RECAP / STATS
December 31 at Muskegon Lumberjacks, L, 0-2 RECAP / STATS
February 15 vs. Muskegon Lumberjacks, W, 6-1 RECAP / STATS
April 13 at Muskegon Lumberjacks, W 8-1 RECAP / STATS

For more information, call 855-51-STEEL or visit ChicagoSteelHockeyTeam.com.