World-Herald correspondent Steve Beideck ranks the USHL based on game played through Dec. 22. Published in The World-Herald on Dec. 27.
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1. Dubuque (21-4-1, 43 points, 1st in East): The Fighting Saints emerged from the first three months of the season as the league’s best team in large part to a 14-0 record in home games. Forward Mike Szmatula is tied for second in scoring with 37 points, while teammate Peter Quenneville is fourth with 34. Goalie Arthur Brey is 14-2 with league-best 1.76 goals-against average. Next game vs. Lancers: Jan. 11 at Dubuque.
2. Muskegon (18-8-2, 38 points, 2nd in East): So far the Lumberjacks are the team with the most impressive turnaround in two categories — wins and reduction of minutes penalized. Muskegon time in the penalty box the past two seasons — 1,394 minutes in 2011-12 after 1,591 in 2010-11 — bordered on comical. This year the Lumberjacks have one of the league’s lowest totals (402 in 28 games) and that emphasis on discipline is reflected in the standings. Next game vs. Lancers: March 10 at Ralston Arena.
3. Sioux Falls (18-8-1, 37 points, 1st in West): The Stampede are in the midst of a similar turnaround sans the penalties. They finished last season 15th in the OWH power rankings and had the worst record in the Western Conference. This season they’ve gone from worst to first by averaging 3.6 goals per game and holding serve at home with a 13-4 record. One Achilles’ heel — the Stampede are 14th on the penalty kill with a 77.78 percent success rate. Next game vs. Lancers: Jan. 30 at Ralston Arena.
4. Waterloo (17-9-0, 34 points, 3rd in West): Few would be surprised by a Dubuque-Waterloo matchup in the Clark Cup finals in May. The Black Hawks are second in the league on the power play (22.95 percent) and have scored more goals than any team (28) with a man-advantage, and they also have the league’s leading scorer. Forward Taylor Cammarata has 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists), and teammate Justin Kloos has 37 (13/24). Next game vs. Lancers: Jan. 26 at Ralston Arena.
5. Omaha (16-12-0, 32 points, 5th in West): Just enough offense and the right blend of defense and goaltending (fourth in goals surrendered at 75) since Game 10 have put the Lancers on a successful path as they climb the standings ladder. Omaha is 7-0 in shootout games and has scored 78 total goals, but seven of those are the goal awarded to the shootout winner. Translation — the Lancers are averaging just a hair over 2.5 goals per game. Next game: Saturday vs. Tri-City, 7:35 p.m. at Ralston Arena.
6. Fargo (15-8-5, 35 points, 2nd in West): Those five shootout points have helped the Force move into second place, and it’s the second-highest total of extra period points behind Sioux City’s six. Fargo has been outscored 23-17 on power plays but has scored more short-handed goals, eight, than any other team. Forwards Brendan Harms and Gabe Guertler are ranked sixth and eighth, respectively, in scoring. Next games vs. Lancers: Jan. 4-5 at Ralston Arena.
7. Green Bay (14-10-3, 31 points, 3rd in East): The defending champions got off to a slow start, finishing their first 10 games with four standings points and a 1-7-2 record. They then won six of seven and entered the Christmas break having won five of their past six. That bounce back should continue because, so far, the bottom of the Eastern Conference isn’t nearly as deep as the bottom of the West. Next game vs. Lancers: March 15 at Ralston Arena.
8. Lincoln (15-8-3, 33 points, 4th in West): The Stars are the leaders in penalty minutes through the first three months with 728 through 26 games. After the 702 assessed on Des Moines (in 29 games), no other team has at least 600. Lincoln is 5-8-3 since starting the season with 10 consecutive victories. Forward Eric Scheid leads the Stars in scoring with 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) and is No. 1 in the USHL in plus/minus at plus-24. Next game vs. Lancers: Jan. 18 at the Ice Box.
9. Des Moines (15-13-1, 31 points, 6th in West): The Buccaneers are one of the league’s most improved teams, and if they were in the Eastern Conference, they would be tied for third place. Des Moines is on opposite ends of the special teams spectrum — the Bucs are fifth in power play success (20.49 percent) but 15th in penalty killing (77.68). Forward Joseph Gambardella leads the offense with 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists). Next game vs. Lancers: Feb. 8 at Des Moines.
10. Chicago (11-11-3, 25 points, 5th in East): The Steel continue to improve from the disastrous 2010-11 campaign and are positioned to make a run at a berth in the Clark Cup playoffs. Chicago is one point behind Indiana, but the Steel have played six fewer games. Their 25 games played is the lowest total of any team prior to the Christmas break. Next game vs. Lancers: Jan. 12 in Chicago.
11. Indiana (12-17-2, 26 points, 4th in East): After a strong start, the Ice have struggled lately despite having the league’s fifth-leading scorer, Austin Ortega, in the lineup. Attendance has slipped a bit for the Ice, as they are just 12th in average attendance at 2,073 per game. No goalie in the league has logged more minutes in net than the 1,478:57 Dalton Izyk has put in. Next game vs. Lancers: None, Ice won lone matchup on Sept. 29.
12. Tri-City (12-13-3, 27 points, 7th in West): This is the same spot the Storm occupied for the final 2012 power rankings. Tri-City has three consecutive wins over Omaha after losing their first meeting, so the Storm are 9-11-3 against everyone else. Johan Mattsson has done yeoman’s work in net with a .911 save percentage and surrendering fewer than three goals per game. The offense has been struggling, scoring 75 goals in 28 games, the third-lowest total in the league. Next game vs. Lancers: Saturday at Ralston Arena.
13. Cedar Rapids (11-13-3, 25 points, 6th in East): The RoughRiders are in an unusual position of being outscored (84-100) and are just 4-10 on the road with the longest losing streak away from home (seven games) of the season. Cedar Rapids does have the fourth-best penalty kill percentage (.854). Next game vs. Lancers: Jan. 16 at Ralston Arena.
14. Youngstown (12-15-0, 24 points, 7th in East): It’s been a streaky season so far for the Phantoms. They opened the season with four wins (including one over Omaha on opening night) then lost their next seven and 11 of 12 before another four-win run. Youngstown isn’t out of position for a playoff, being just two points out of fourth place. Next game vs. Lancers: None, Phantoms won lone matchup on Sept. 28.
15. Sioux City (5-15-6, 16 points, 8th in West): It’s been a tough road so far for the Musketeers as they’re 1-9-4 in road games and have collected just four wins and 10 standings points in home games. Sioux City is the lowest scoring team in league with 66 in 26 games. The Musketeers have made moves to add offensive punch as Riley Bourbonnais and J.T. Stenglein are two of their top three scorers and have accounted for 16 points. Next game vs. Lancers: Dec. 31 at Sioux City.
16. Team USA (6-18-3, 15 points, 8th in East): Only Indiana has given up more goals (120) than the 116 Team USA has surrendered, but the U17 and U18 teams have played four fewer league games. They are 2-11-1 on the road and are one of only three teams — Omaha and Cedar Rapids are the others — that don’t have someone among the USHL’s top 25 scorers. Next game vs. Lancers: None, Lancers won the lone matchup Dec. 7.