USHL hockey: Black Hawks want to continue climbing the mountain

WATERLOO — P.K. O’Handley doesn’t deny it, the sub-plots with four games left in the United States Hockey League season are enthralling.

He and his Waterloo Black Hawks, however, are not getting caught up in those.

Facing a key two-game home weekend against the Sioux Falls Stampede, beginning tonight in Young Arena, the Black Hawks are thick in the chase for the USHL’s Anderson Cup, which is awarded to the top-point scoring team in the regular season.

Team USA leads with 77 points, while Waterloo is in second with 76.

“The sub-plots are plenty here,” O’Handley said when asked about going for a first-round bye in the Clark Cup playoffs and the race for the Anderson Cup.

“Being in gives yourself a chance,” O’Handley said of the bye. “Do you want the first-round bye? … you certainly want the Anderson Cup and there are four, five teams in legitimate contention with four games to go.”

One of those four or five teams in contention is the Stampede, who edged the Black Hawks, 3-2 in overtime, last Friday in Sioux Falls. Sioux Falls has 72 points and comes in having won its last three games and the Stampede can’t afford a loss in any form if they want a crack at raising the Anderson Cup. Both teams are also seeking a Western Conference title for the first time since Waterloo won in 2013-14, and Sioux Falls in 2012-13.

Omaha with 75 points and Fargo (73) are both also in the mix. Sioux Falls has a game in hand on the Black Hawks, Lancers and Force having played just 55 games coming into the weekend.

“From the development standpoint, the last two or three months have been extreme for development,” O’Handley said. “These teams have had to play urgent and desperate for months now. Your circumstances wil be your circumstances a week and a half from now. We’re just continually doing what we have been doing and that is trying to improve every day and doing our best to stay in the moment.”

That has probably been the biggest message for O’Handley to his team is to embrace playing at this time of the year with something big to play for.

The Black Hawks have appeared to be playing that way having scored a point in 12 consecutive games while going 8-0-3-1. Only Youngstown in the Eastern Conference has been better over the same stretch (9-0-1-1).

“This is the most fun time of the year to play hockey,” O’Handley said. “There are a number of teams close to the top and the teams on top of the mountain did not fall there, they have earned their way there. You have to continue climb as a team because the team next to you or below you would like nothing more for you then to tumble to the bottom.

“We have earned that right to be in that mix and you have to embrace it and you have to keep climbing.”

PLAYOFF FORMAT: The USHL switched to a new/old playoff format for the 2018 playoffs.

Six teams from each conference will qualify for the playoffs with the top two seeds in each conference receiving first-round byes.

Seeds 3-6 and 4-5 will open the playoffs playing a best-of-three series (April 16-18) at the lowest-seeds home ice, with the conference semifinals and finals and Clark Cup finals switching to a best-of-five series.

This format was previously used in 2012.

“I think there was a real strong want to get more teams in the playoffs for a couple of factors,” O’Handley said. “We will have to see how it all plays out to see if it continues.”

CATES DAY-TO-DAY: Leading scorer Jackson Cates remains out with an upper body injury.

Cates, who is third in the USHL with 62 points (33 goals, 29 assists) has missed Waterloo’s last two games.

“Day-to-day,” was O’Handley’s response on whether Cates would play this weekend.

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