By Miles Regan / USPHLPremier.com
Midwest East Division
Fort Wayne Spacemen (1) vs. Chicago Cougars (No. 4)
All games at SportONE/Parkview Ice House
Game 1: Fri., March 10, 7:35 p.m. EST
Game 2: Sat., March 11, 7:00 p.m. EST
Game 3: Sun., March 12, 2:30 p.m. EST (if necessary)
Fort Wayne enters the second round rested and ready to do whatever it takes to continue their historic season. The Spacemen won their first Midwest East title in 2022-23, finishing the regular season with a franchise-best 69 points in 44 games.
They earned a first round bye with their division crown and had last weekend off. A bye week this late in the year is often viewed as a double-edged sword, but FWS head coach Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock believes the week off helped more than it hindered.
“We’re feeling rested which is always dangerous but we’ve had a good week of practice,” Schrock said. “The week off has helped get guys healthy. We’d been dealing with both illness and injury as of late but are trending in the right direction now.”
The Spacemen will get their first taste of the 2023 playoffs against a team they know all too well: the Chicago Cougars.
“We’ve seen them in the playoffs in two of our three years of existence in the playoffs and they beat us,” said Schrock. “They beat us in Game 3 to go to Nationals both times.”
The perennial Midwest East powerhouse “Cougs” have often had Fort Wayne’s number through their young franchise history, but this year’s been different. Fort Wayne swept Chicago 4-0 in the regular season but all four games were close. If the puck takes a different bounce here or there, these teams might very well have deadlocked 2-2 this year.
“We’ve played a lot of close, coin flip games. Our guys understand we’re playing a dangerous team and that they can throw out the standings. Chicago has a history of winning. They’re very well coached, Josh (Dallmann) does a great job with that team. They’re very good on faceoffs and they get after it when they lose draws. Last game, they generated quite a few chances and even scored off a faceoff that we won. It’s important that we’re ready and getting good bumps and jumps off draws.”
Coach Schrock clearly has a lot of respect for the Cougars, but he truly believes in his squad, especially his captains.
Centerman Noah Maine (‘02/Knoxville, Tenn.) led the Midwest East in scoring with 76 (30-46–76) points this season and had multiple points in 40% of Fort Wayne’s games. Defenseman Sam Tetreault (‘02/Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge, Que.) and homegrown forward Logan Robins (‘02/Fort Wayne, Ind.) also each finished with 50+ points to fuel an offense that scored a division-best 207 goals this year. The three captains have been the essence of consistency this season, helping to mold Fort Wayne’s culture on and off the ice.
A quality weekend will also need to be had by FWS goaltenders Bryce Dunnigan (‘02/Bakersfield, Calif.) and Maxim Zinchenko (‘04/Yekaterinburg, Russia) if the Spacemen want to reach Nationals for the first time. Midseason add Zinchenko has yet to face the Cougars but is 6-1-0-1 through his first eight starts. Dunnigan went 3-0 and averaged 28 saves per game against Chicago this season.
Schrock expects both to play a big role in what will likely be a three-game series. In addition to goaltending and leadership, coach Schrock believes the play of his third line could be a big key to victory. Forwards Tucker Tone (‘04/Crown Point, Ind.) and Noah Takitani (‘03/Denver, Colo.) each recorded a crucial assist during Fort Wayne’s 5-4 shootout win over Chicago in their season finale. A greasy goal or two from these guys could give the Spacemen a huge momentum and ultimately be the difference in this series.
“If they come ready to play and have a good weekend they’ll give us the best chance to win. (The series) will come down to depth on the roster.”
Chicago’s role in this series is one that Cougar fans may not be all that familiar with. It’s the role of the underdog.
The Cougars had won the Midwest East in four of five seasons entering 2022-23 but ended up taking fourth this year. They’ll need to win two games at Fort Wayne to earn a sixth-straight Nationals berth. They defeated their crosstown rival, the Chicago Crush, in two games to advance out of the opening round last weekend.
Defenseman Peter Drake (‘04/Wilmette, Ill.) paced the Cougars in the first round, recording both a goal and an assist in each game. A grand total of 14 Cougars recorded at least one point over the course of Chicago’s 5-0 and 5-1 victories versus the Crush.
Goaltender Sebastian Wigfield (‘03/Newcastle, England) posted a 25-save shutout in Game 1. Chicago dropped all four regular season games against Fort Wayne by a grand total of fifive goals. The margins between these two teams are razor-thin meaning the series could very well come down to special teams. Chicago’s top-rated PK unit (89%) versus Fort Wayne’s top-rated power play (25.9%) will be one of the best “games within the game” across all of Premier this weekend. Be sure to give it a watch.