Michael Feenstra considered the Dubuque Fighting Saints to be a playoff-worthy team a few months ago.
But, because of a 1-10-0 start to the United States Hockey League season, they had to shift into playoff mode much earlier than usual. The Saints finished on a 23-13-4-1 run and clinched their league-best 10th straight Clark Cup Playoff berth on the final night of the regular-season.
Their reward? A first-round date with juggernaut Chicago, which ran away with the Anderson Cup for the second consecutive regular season. The best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal series begins tonight at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, Ill.
“I don’t necessarily think I’d say we were in desperation mode, but about halfway through the season we realized we had the team and had the talent to push for the playoffs,” said Feenstra, a veteran defenseman. “It was a matter of coming together as a team and executing on everything. And the coaches did a great job preparing us for every game and getting us to take everything one day at a time.
“There definitely was some pressure, because it came down to the wire. But we knew we could do it. Once the puck dropped, we were ready to go. Looking back, after starting 1-10, it’s impressive we kept pushing and didn’t throw in the towel or start looking forward to next year. We were all focused on making the playoffs, and we came through.”
The season certainly presented its challenges, most notably the coronavirus. Dubuque had at least one game postponed per month for the first five months of the season and played 52 of the 54 games scheduled.
In the beginning, quarantines limited practice time — a crucial limitation for a relatively inexperienced team. And it seemed like every other USHL team loaded up on returning veterans this season.
“Not only did we have players who were new to the USHL — the best amateur hockey league in the world — but they were also new to each other, and it took time to build chemistry,” said Oliver David, the USHL coach of the year last season. “And we must have played short at least a dozen games, mostly because of quarantines but also because of injuries. But they figured out what works in this league and what specifically works for this group.
“In a lot of ways, this was the most-rewarding year of my coaching career, just because of how far this team had to come.”
The Saints didn’t move into a playoff position until the second-to-last week of the season and spent a grand total of eight days in a playoff spot. They needed to beat Green Bay, a team that gave Dubuque fits early in the season, twice on the final weekend to get into the dance.
In both of those games, Green Bay was the more-rested team. But the Saints rolled, 8-4 and 6-0, to leave no doubt.
“It was huge for our confidence to have a weekend like that, especially after they beat us earlier in the week and they’d been a hard team to play against all year,” defenseman Braden Doyle said. “It just showed us that, if we bring our game, we focus and we’re dialed in, we can play with anybody in the USHL. The momentum and confidence we developed in that series will be huge for this weekend.
“I’m sure there was that temptation to pack it in after the start we had. The whole year has been such a grind for us. But it’s also been very special, and we realize we’re capable of doing something special, and we want to make that one last push.”
A series win this weekend would certainly be special. On paper, this figures to be the biggest mismatch of the four first-round series.
Chicago (38-11-3-2, .750 winning percentage) finished .240 ahead of Dubuque (24-23-4-1), by far the biggest differential among the series. In the East, Muskegon finished .050 percentage points ahead of Green Bay. The West features Tri-City (.615) against Fargo (.583), while Omaha and Sioux City both finished at .594.
The Steel won five of the eight games in the regular-season series, but five games were decided by a single goal. All four games hosted by Chicago were one-goal affairs.
“We really have to get after them on the forecheck and play with some swagger and confidence,” Saints forward Riley Stuart said. “It helps that we’ve been in that playoff mode for a while and Chicago knew its fate pretty early. We’ve had to be in a mindset of doing whatever it takes to win.
“The playoffs are more intense, a little feistier. Every team wants to be there in the end and win it, so that brings a whole extra factor of compete. We’ve had to train for that the last few months.”