GENEVA, ILLINOIS — The Chicago Steel had an incredible 2018-2019 season that ended in the franchise’s second-ever visit to the Clark Cup Final as Eastern Conference Champions.
Chicago’s preseason was a busy one as its hockey staff was assembled beginning May 30 when the team announced Ryan Hardy as the team’s General Manager. He spearheaded the building of the roster, including 17 of the 26 players on the playoff roster being acquired via trade or draft under his leadership. The first-year General Manager was named USHL General Manager of the Year at the end of the season, becoming just the fourth first-year USHL General Manager to earn the award (Jim Montgomery, Jon Cooper, Cary Eades [co-winner], Ron Woodey).
Hardy hired Greg Moore as the Steel’s Head Coach on June 6, giving the three-year National Team Development Program Assistant Coach his first shot as a bench boss. Moore broke Steel records for a first-year coach, guiding the team to 37 wins and 78 points. Associate Head Coach Brock Sheahan joined the team a month later on July 17, joining Assistant Coach Mike Garman who was entering his second year behind the bench.
Before the season, Steel forward Robert Mastrosimone was named to the Team USA Hlinka Gretzky Memorial Cup roster while Hardy executed a multitude of trades and additions to build the Steel roster into a contender.
The Steel were ranked 16th of 17 possible teams in the USHL Power Rankings entering the season, a far cry from where the team would end up. Chicago got off to a rocky 4-7-1-0 record through 12 games, including three early-season losses to the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
Chicago started to turn the tide as they went on to win a franchise record 14-straight games at Fox Valley Ice Arena from November 23 to February 15 and finished the season with a 19-9-2-0 record at Fox Valley Ice Arena. This, coupled with a seven-game road winning streak from October 20 to December 1 gave the Steel a combined record of 25-10-0-0 from October 20 to February 15. The team’s seven-game road winning streak included several memorable highlights including an overtime winner from Mastrosimone in Cedar Rapids on October 27 and another from Adam Robbins in Madison on November 16.
With a 3-2 win on December 4 over the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, the Steel moved into second place in the Eastern Conference after climbing out of a tie for seventh place on November 15. The Steel remained in second place for all but two days (March 17 and 18) for the remainder of the regular season.
While team success came for the Steel starting in mid-November, it was clear from the start of the season that there would be many individual accomplishments for this group. In the first game of the season, Mastrosimone became just the second player in franchise history to score a pair of shorthanded goals in one game (Jack Badini, December 30, 2016 vs. Green Bay) in a tough 5-4 overtime loss to the Lincoln Stars at the USHL Fall Classic in Cranberry Township, PA.
On October 16, Chicago’s then-15-year-old defenseman Owen Power was named to Team Canada’s roster for the 2018 World U-17 Hockey Challenge. It was Power’s first time representing his country. The Mississauga, Ont. native was selected in the first round (#7 overall) by the Chicago Steel in the 2018 USHL Phase I Draft and went on to set a USHL record for most goals scored by a 16-year-old defenseman (11) in Tier I history. The University of Michigan commit’s 11 goals finished fourth in the entire USHL.
Chicago raised more than $4,800 for American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer through a Pink Jersey Auction during October 19’s Paint the Rink Pink game presented by V Fusion Group Fitness. Funds from the jersey auction will help fund innovative research, provide free information and support, and to help people reduce their breast cancer risk or find it early when its most treatable.
On November 1, the Steel acquired forward Mathieu De St. Phalle from the Omaha Lancers. The Glencoe native finished the season third on the team with 51 points (13-38-51) in 60 games, including 45 points (12-33-45) in 51 games with the Steel. The University of Wisconsin commit would go on to add five assists in the team’s postseason run.
Mastrosimone continued his string of Team USA appearances as he was named to the Team USA roster for the U-18 Five Nations Tournament on November 6. The Boston University commit would later be named to the United States roster for the World Junior A.
The Steel made hockey history during a win over the Central Illinois Flying Aces on November 30, becoming the first known team to wear individually designed helmets during competition as part of Crazy Hat Night presented by School of Art. The helmets were designed by area students and artists and were then auctioned off to benefit the Alyssa Alvin Foundation. More than $3,500 was raised for the Foundation, which is a local charity that provides art and music supplies to children battling cancer during their chemotherapy treatments.
As the Steel recorded a season-high eight game win streak from November 10 to December 4, Nick Abruzzese and Reilly Herbst were named Forward and Goaltender of the Week, respectively, on December 3 for the first team awards of the season. Abruzzese had a five-point (2-3-5) weekend and was the team leader at the time with 21 points (5-16-21) in 19 games. Herbst picked up his second career USHL win stopping 20 of the 21 shots he faced including a handful of big saves to backstop the Steel to their seventh-straight win. Chicago outscored its opponents 32-17 during that eight-game stretch as the team made a push towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Mastrosimone’s accolade-filled season continued by being named to the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in January. The two-day event featured the USHL’s top NHL Draft-eligible talent and was attended by scouts from every NHL team. Mastrosimone recorded two goals and was named Team East MVP at the event. Moore was selected as an Assistant Coach for Team East.
After a slow start to the year, rookie forward Gunnarwolfe Fontaine became a true scoring weapon for the Steel as he recorded his first USHL goal in a two-goal game on December 4 in the midst of a seven-game point streak. But it was the Northeastern commit’s hat trick on January 11 that made Fontaine a household name among Steel fans. Fontaine exploded for a hat trick in a four-point (3-1-4) night, capping the hat trick with the overtime winner at home against Youngstown.
Chicago netminder Justin Robbins registered his first shutout of the season on January 18 as he turned aside all 30 shots he faced against Central Illinois. The Arizona State University commit would go on to set a new franchise record with 25 regular season wins this season (25-14-2-0). Robbins finished second in career wins with 33, one behind Shane Connelly who recorded 34 from 2003-2005.
January 19 was a game to remember as the Steel hosted their fourth-annual Teddy Bear Toss night, presented by Geneva Family Dental. More than 500 stuffed animals were collected and donated to Marklund, a local nonprofit organization that serves infants, children, teens and adults with serious and profound developmental disabilities and special healthcare needs. On the ice, Abruzzese scored the goal that sent in the teddy bears while Mastrosimone added an assist on his team’s third goal of the game. The points would kick off a 15-game home point streak that carried Abruzzese (11-12-23) and Mastrosimone (14-9-23) through to the end of the regular season. Abruzzese (4-5-9) registered at least one point in each of the five home playoff games to extend his overall home point streak to 20 games (15-17-32). Mastrosimone’s streak ended in Game 3 of the Clark Cup Final, as he left in the first period due to injury, capping a run of 30 points (17-13-30) in a 19-game streak.
Chicago acquired a pair of players from the Lincoln Stars on January 22 with Chicago connections. Forward Josiah Slavin was acquired and would finish the season fifth on the team with 47 points (24-23-47) in 59 games including 20 points (14-6-20) in 27 regular season games with the Steel. Slavin went on to add eight points (4-4-8) in 11 postseason games for Chicago.
The Steel experienced steady on-ice leadership throughout the season thanks to captain Matteo Pietroniro. Pietroniro was named USHL Defenseman of the Week on January 28 for the first time in his career. The second-year USHL blueliner registered five points (3-2-5) in three games while adding a +6 rating. Pietroniro finished the season with 49 points (4th USHL) and 18 goals (3rd USHL) while appearing in all 62 of the team’s games. The Boise, Ida. native’s 18 goals set a new franchise record for a single season while he also set a new career record with 27 goals and his 70 career points finished three behind Graham Lillibridge’s franchise record.
Robbins registered his second shutout of the season on February 2, but his 23-save performance wasn’t the story of the game. Mastrosimone landed himself on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the night at #5 with a highlight-reel, between-the-legs goal. The game was also the Steel’s fourth-annual Chicago Blackhawks Night, featuring Stanley Cup Champion Brandon Bollig and mascot Tommy Hawk.
Abruzzese was named USHL Forward of the Week for the second time this season on February 11 as he registered five points (2-3-5) in a pair of games. The Harvard University commit finished the season winning the USHL scoring title with 80 points (29-51-80) in 62 games, becoming just the 13th player in USHL Tier I history to hit the 80-point mark in a season. The 80-point campaign was the second-highest scoring season in Steel history (Andrew Miller, 82, 2008-2009).
Down the stretch of the season, the Steel relied on all four lines to contribute and role players such as Christian Sarlo, Cole Quisenberry, Jake Schmaltz, Josh Groll and Matt Sutton all found ways to contribute.
Chicago defenseman John Spetz came up big for the Steel in a February 23 overtime winner over eventual Anderson Cup Champion Tri-City Storm. The second-year defenseman tied the game late in the third period before finding the eventual game-winning goal in overtime.
Wearing dynamic silver and black jerseys, the Steel raised more than $5,000 to benefit area students through the team’s Geneva Academic Foundation Powerplay for Students: A Night to Benefit Geneva Schools presented by FONA International. The game doubled as a fundraiser to benefit Geneva Schools and the Geneva Academic Foundation (GAF) with funds raised through a specialty game-worn jersey auction as well as ticket sales.
On April 15, Steel defenseman Luke Reid took home USHL Defenseman of the Week honors for the first time in his career. The North Dakota University commit registered three points (1-2-3) in three games but posted an absurd +8 rating over that span. The honor was the fifth and final time during the season a member of the Steel was named a USHL Player of the Week. The Steel also saw consistent growth over the course of the season from Jimmy Dowd and Uula Ruikka, solidifying the back end for the team’s deep playoff run.
Chicago clinched its third-straight Clark Cup Playoff bid with a 3-1 win over Green Bay on March 19 with nearly a month left in the season. The playoff push didn’t stop there though as the team had to battle for seeding before holding off Youngstown and Cedar Rapids to capture the No. 2 seed.
It came down to the final game of the season, but Chicago secured the First Round bye with an 8-1 win over the Muskegon Lumberjacks. The win set up an eventual Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup with the No. 4-seed Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, who swept No. 5 Team USA in the First Round.
Behind steady play in net from Robbins, Chicago dispatched Cedar Rapids in four games to advance to the Eastern Conference Final against the top-seeded Muskegon Lumberjacks.
Behind steady play in net from Robbins, Chicago dispatched Cedar Rapids in four games. The Steel took down the RoughRiders in Game 1 as the Steel scored three-straight goals in the second and closed the game out with a pair of third period goals to take the series lead. Forward Neil Shea was among the standouts in Game 1 with a multi-point game. Cedar Rapids bounced back with a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 2, sending the series to Cedar Rapids Ice Arena knotted at a game apiece. Chicago eventually won both games in Cedar Rapids by a combined 7-2 score despite the RoughRiders entering Game 3 having won 12 of their previous 13 home games. Both Mastrosimone (2-1-3) and Spetz (1-2-3) came up big as the Steel never trailed in Games 3 or 4.
The Eastern Conference Final was a matchup of the top two teams in the East, with Chicago forced to challenge the Muskegon Lumberjacks who had held the top spot in the conference for the duration of the regular season. The series was closely-contested and featured a thrilling overtime victory in Game 1. The Steel fought back from a 2-0 deficit and trailed 4-3 late in the game, setting up a dramatic finish. Abruzzese appeared to level the score with 1:46 to play but the goal was waved off. With the goalie pulled and the team on a 6-on-4 advantage due to a powerplay, Slavin tied the game with just 2.9 seconds remaining on the clock. Abruzzese eventually found the game winner in overtime.
Muskegon answered back with a Game 2 win to tie the series heading to Fox Valley Ice Arena. In Game 3, the Steel scored first thanks to Mastrosimone’s fifth goal of the postseason and after the Lumberjacks tied the game early in the second, Chicago scored three unanswered goals to close out a 4-1 win to take the series lead.
The following night, Game 4 entered the third period scoreless. After Abruzzese scored a 5-on-3 goal, Muskegon responded with a powerplay tally of its own. The Steel took the lead with under nine minutes to play in regulation, but a late Muskegon goal with 29 seconds remaining sent the game to overtime. In the extra session, Fontaine came up with another memorable moment, breaking through two Muskegon defenders to create an opportunity, and his wrist shot just 1:13 into overtime sent the Steel to the Clark Cup Final.
While Chicago was eventually swept by the Sioux Falls Stampede, Games 1 and 2 could not have been any tighter as Chicago suffered a pair of one-goal losses in Game 1 and 2. The Steel erased a two-goal deficit with goals from Slavin and Spetz in Game 1 but the Stampede eventually found the game winner late in the third period.
Game 2 was the longest game (96:05) in Steel history, but again Chicago fell short. Fontaine got Chicago on the board first and Mastrosimone eventually gave the Steel the lead in the third, but a fluke faceoff goal for the Stampede forced the first overtime period in which both team’s goaltenders played phenomenal to force the second overtime. With both teams running on fumes, Sioux Falls forward Andre Lee was able to make a play at the Chicago blue line to create space, and his wrist shot sent the Stampede to Chicago with a 2-0 series advantage.
The Game 3 atmosphere was electric as Chicago Blackhawks National Anthem performer Jim Cornelison performed the National Anthem for the fourth time at Fox Valley Ice Arena in front of a season-high 2,118 fans. Chicago got off to a fast start, outshooting Sioux Falls 11-4 in the first period but could not solve Stampede goalie Jaxson Stauber who was named MVP of the playoffs. A pair of second period goals gave the Stampede a 3-0 lead, and after Slavin scored late in the third to briefly give Chicago hope, a pair of empty-net goals for Sioux Falls sealed the 5-1 victory, and the third Clark Cup Championship in their history.
Four members of the Steel were named to All-USHL rosters, including Abruzzese (All-USHL First Team), Pietroniro (All-USHL Second Team), Mastrosimone (All-USHL Third Team) and Power (USHL All-Rookie Second Team). Abruzzese broke the Steel franchise record with 51 assists this season while he and Mastrosimone became the third and fourth, respectively, players to surpass 100 career Steel points. Mastrosimone finished his Steel career as the most prolific goal scorer in franchise history with 47 in his career. His 31 goals this season was tied for second-best in team history (Andrew Miller, 32, 2008-2009).
Chicago’s end-of-season roster included 23 players committed to 15 different NCAA Division I colleges across the country. Among those include Mastrosimone (Boston University – Hockey East), Abruzzese (Harvard University - ECAC) and Jackson LaCombe (University of Minnesota – Big Ten) who are all hoping to have their names called at the 2019 NHL Draft held in Vancouver from June 21-22. All three were included in the latest NHL Central Scouting rankings with LaCombe, Mastrosimone and Abruzzese ranked No. 36, 53 and 122, respectively, among North American skaters.
The Steel will return this fall, and season ticket plans are on sale now starting at just five games for $45. For more information, visit the Steel Box Office at Fox Valley Ice Arena, call 855-51-STEEL or visit ChicagoSteelHockeyTeam.com.