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)
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:
MEET THE OPPONENT:
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.