On a night when the Dubuque Fighting Saints honored local first responders, Mike Szmatula put on his boots, went to work and answered Fargo's quick start.
The Saints alternate captain factored in all four goals Friday night in leading Dubuque to a 4-1 comeback win in Game 1 of the USHL's Clark Cup Finals. Game 2 in the best-of-5 series takes place tonight, also at Mystique Community Ice Center.
"Whether we score a goal or the other team scores a goal, it's been our mindset all year to come out the next shift and work hard and try to make something happen," Szmatula said. "Fortunately, we came out guns a blazing and were able to do that right away tonight.
"Our power play came through big-time for us tonight, too. But it's just one win. We know Fargo's going to come out twice as hard (tonight), and we're going to have to answer that."
The Saints went 2-for-4 with the man-advantage and stopped both of the Force's power plays while scoring a shorthanded goal.
Two short days after emptying the tank in an emotional fifth and deciding game of the Western Conference Finals, Fargo struck early but ran on fumes the rest of the night.
"I don't want to make excuses because of the schedule," Force coach John Marks said. "I was very pleased with the efforts to get here. We had two tough series with Waterloo and Sioux Falls, and we accomplished a hell of a lot to get here. But, it's tough to turn around with one day off against a team that's had six.
"It's awfully tough to get the emotions up after they were so high Wednesday night in Sioux Falls. I still don't think we competed in the manner we could have. Your best players have to be your best players, and they weren't tonight."
The Force, who defeated Sioux Falls by a 7-4 count Wednesday in South Dakota and arrived in Dubuque early Thursday morning, struck first at the 2:59 mark of the opening stanza. After a faceoff win in the Dubuque zone, Kenny Gillespie banged the rebound of a Neal Goff shot past Saints goaltender Arthur Brey.
But Dubuque answered just 3:29 later on the first power play of the game. Szmatula crept in from the corner and snapped a quick shot over Brendan Jensen and under the crossbar to tie the game at 1-1. Shane Sooth and Jeff Taylor assisted.
"It's important to stay on an even keel in the playoffs," said Szmatula, who leads the team with six playoff goals. "You don't want to get too high or too low, and our team did a good job of that. We were good tonight, but we weren't nearly as good as we can be. We still have a lot to work on."
Szmatula went to the dirty area of the ice 3 minutes after his equalizer to give the Saints the lead for good. Peter Quenneville collected the puck behind the net and fed it to Szmatula, who was parked just outside the blue paint. Szmatula quickly beat Jensen with an even-strength goal to make it 2-0. Sooth also assisted.
"It was such a huge confidence booster to me to see the guys score two quick ones after I let in that first one," said Brey, who made 18 big saves for his seventh win of the playoffs. "I can't say enough about the character of the guys in that room. I just wanted to battle for them and give them a chance to win."
Szmatula nearly completed a natural hat trick in the final minutes of the opening period. He took the puck to the net hard, and Jensen made a nice pad save. But the puck landed in the blue paint, and Niklas Nevalainen tapped it home for the second power-play goal of the evening. Sooth collected his third assist.
"What can I say? That was all Mike," Nevalainen said of his first goal of the playoffs. "He's a great player. If you have your stick open, he'll get you the pass, and he creates chances for himself. I was just in the right place at the right time."
Fargo came within an eyelash of making it a 3-2 game with its first power play of the game, late in the second period. But Brey made a couple of acrobatic saves, and Jensen committed a critical error.
Jensen came far out of his net to play a long clearing attempt by Szmatula, but he didn't get enough on his pass toward the half wall. John Stevens picked off the pass and shot it into the vacated net for his first point of the playoffs and a commanding 4-1 lead.
"I thought he'd try to go that way, so I just jumped the pass," Stevens said. "I kind of caught it behind me, so I wasn't really looking at the net when I shot. I got lucky. If I would have missed, I would have been thinking about that for a while."
Dubuque finished with a 32-18 advantage in shots.
"I liked our pace and our energy, but 5-on-5 our defensive habits were poor," Saints coach Jim Montgomery said. "Fargo exposed us a few times, so we'll definitely have to tighten some things up.
"Fargo played well considering the short turnaround. I expect them to come at us even harder (tonight) after they've had a chance to regroup."