Three For All: Gopher recruit Mike Howe steps up

Mike Howe will be a Minnesota Gopher next year, but for now he is concentrating on leading his team to the Clark Cup in the USHL playoffs. The high-scoring forward is another outstanding player the Gophers have signed after developing in the USHL, one of the the top developmental leagues in North America.

You have to dig deep into the United States Hockey League record book to find the last time a River City Lancer won the league's scoring title, or had multiple players finish among the league's top 10 in scoring for that matter.

For the record, it was Mike Lephart who was the USHL point king back in 1996-97, and Chad Theuer and Neil Breen as the duo that cracked the top 10 the following season. Since then, only Jed Ortmeyer ('98-99), Riley Riddell (2000-01) and Aaron Slattengren ('01-02) have finished near the top of the scoring chart.

"Over the years, the strength of our teams has been depth rather than top scorers," said Lancers coach-GM Mike Hastings, who has also touted a number of elite goaltenders during his 10-year coaching tenure.

But, thanks to forwards Paul Stastny, Mike Howe and Mick Lawrence, the offense is flowing again in River City. The three ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 5, respectively, in the league's scoring race going into the last weekend of the regular season, and their point prowess had the Lancers thinking big heading into the postseason.

"For any player, the true test is when the lights shine brightest," said Hastings. "The regular season is there for one reason: to prepare you for the playoffs. Now we'll see if their preparation has conditioned them to be successful at the most important time of the year."

The Connoisseur

When Hastings calls Stastny a "hockey junkie," it's by no means derogatory. The 18-year-old is just one of those players who can't stop learning in an effort to improve.

"He's just so passionate about the game and every aspect of it, whether it's the NHL or below," said the coach of his assistant captain.

"You learn from your mistakes," said Stastny, who is headed to the University of Denver next season. "Just from playing the game and watching the game for so long, anything that goes wrong, you pick out the mistakes and fix them."

Stastny, who led the USHL in scoring with two games to go, has more than doubled his point total from last year from 30 to 74 (29 goals). The St. Louis native credits confidence and strong off-season conditioning to a more productive Year 2.

"He's really smart on the ice," said Howe, Stastny's linemate and future Minnesota Gopher. "He always knows where you're going to be; he's really good at anticipating."

Stastny, who skated for the Central States League's St. Louis Jr. Blues before joining River City, is hoping to play a prominent role with George Gwozdecky's Pioneers next season.

"If I prepare well over the summer, I think I can be an impact player right away," said the NHL draft hopeful.

Know Howe

As a second-year vet and University of Minnesota recruit, a lot of responsibility was placed on Howe's shoulders entering the season.

Not only was River City expecting the St. Cloud, Minn., native to add significantly to his 42 points from a season ago, but to also bring a leadership presence into the locker room. Both challenges were met.

"This year, I felt a little more comfortable as someone that was looked to as an example for the other guys," said Howe.

With two games left in the regular season, Howe totaled 34 goals for 73 points, one behind Stastny. If Howe wins the scoring title, he'll be the third straight USHL scoring champion to play for the Golden Gophers the next year (Sioux Falls' Thomas Vanek won it in 2001-02, Lincoln's Ryan Potulny last season).

"I've developed not only as a player on the scoresheet, but I've also gotten a little stronger," said Howe, 19. "I think my chances of going there (to Minnesota) and making an impact next year are better than if I went in this year."

"To have him come back and play the role as a captain and score the way he's been scoring, it's impressive to see a guy like Mike continue to make progress," said Hastings.

Unexpected ‘O'

Whereas Howe and Stastny knew they were returning for another season of junior hockey, Lawrence came to Omaha expecting to play college hockey in the CCHA.

After a star season with the Trail Smoke Eaters of the British Columbia League in which he scored over 100 points, Lawrence accepted a scholarship from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, but, because of academic issues, had to put his Division I career on hold.

Lawrence admitted his early-season frustration of retuning for another year of juniors, but things worked out for the best. The Port Coquitlan, B.C., native was forced to bring his game to another level in the USHL.

"It's a lot harder out here (than in the BCJHL)," said Lawrence, who turned 21 in January. "It's a lot more defensive, and I had to work to be a good player in this league. It didn't come easy."

"Just like any other kid, it doesn't matter if you're 19 or 16, there's a period of adjustment when you come into our league," said Hastings.

A power forward with a penchant for getting under the opponent's skin, Lawrence had 26 goals for 63 points after 56 games, along with 121 minutes in penalties. He's hoping to parlay those numbers into a big freshmen season with the Mavericks.

"They (UNO) expect me to, so I'm definitely expecting myself to have a good year and turn things around there in terms of winning," he said.

Power Play Potency

At even strength, Howe and Stastny play together regularly, while Lawrence skates on the right side on center Evan Kaufmann's line. But it's on the power play when the three spell danger together.

With the Lancers converting at close to 20 percent with the man advantage, the trio makes up one of the deadliest power-play units in America's Tier 1 league. Howe was leading the league with 18 power-play markers; Lawrence was second with 15.

"We just try to move the puck a lot, get the penalty-killers moving around a little bit and wait for an opportunity to try to put the puck in the net," said Lawrence. "We seem to click together and it's been working all year."

Unfinished Business

The regular season aside, it's this trio's success - or failure - that will determine how deep the Lancers can go in the Clark Cup playoffs.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they're going to be targeted on a nightly basis - that's a challenge for them," said Hastings, whose teams have lost in the Clark Cup finals the last two seasons.

Howe doesn't need a wakeup call. He remembers last season's Game 4, season-ending loss to Lincoln on River City ice in the finals all too well and has no desire to relive the memory.

"I've been waiting for this moment since last year," said the captain. "Nothing means more to me right now than winning that Clark Cup."

Article courtesy of USA Junior Hockey Magazine - http://www.usajuniorhockey.com/

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