The Iowa Stars topped the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights 5-2 on Saturday night at Des Moines' Wells Fargo Arena, winning their West Division Semifinal series four games to two. It was the first Calder Cup Playoff series win in Iowa's two-year existence, and the club now moves on to battle the Chicago Wolves in the West Division Finals."(This series win) is a step forward," Stars goaltender Dan Ellis told the Des Moines Register. "We're making history for this team. It's a young team, only our second year in the league, and to be able to write some of the team's history and make it a winner is an encouraging thing."
Ellis stopped 22 of the 24 shots he faced to earn his fourth Calder Cup Playoff win, and in the six-game series with Omaha, turned aside 136-of-149 shots (.913 save percentage) and added a stellar 2.09 goals-against-average.
"There's no doubt that Dan is taking his game to another level right now," said Scott White, Iowa's Director of Hockey Operations. "He was phenomenal... a major reason we won Game Six and this series. I've been very impressed with his play the last two months, and he has done a really good job handling the challenges that the playoffs present. The team in front of him believes in him."
Joel Lundqvist opened the scoring for Iowa in the first period, his third goal in three Calder Cup Playoff games after netting twice in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games with Dallas against Vancouver. Omaha answered early in the second stanza, but Iowa needed just 53 seconds to regain the lead, as Janos Vas netted his first goal of the playoffs.
The Knights evened the score at 2-2 four minutes later, but this time, all Iowa needed to go back on top was 15 seconds, as Shane Endicott ripped a slapshot past Omaha goaltender Curtis McElhinney.
"All series long we seemed to have an answer," Endicott told the Des Moines Register. "It was not the most finesse goal. It hit an open corner and went in. That is definitely the highlight of my season so far."
Endicott's tally would end up being the game-winner for Iowa, as the Stars withstood a hard Omaha charge in the third period, and got two empty-net goals from Junior Lessard to ice the win. "It's a big step in their growth," Iowa Head Coach Dave Allison said of the series win. "We've got to find out if guys can play in those types of situations, and they proved they can. Our guys really grew from this one."
Iowa entered the West Division Semifinal as the fourth-seed, while Omaha won the regular season Western Conference crown. Chicago entered the playoffs as the second-seed, and will present a new set of challenges for the Stars when the series begins Wednesday in Rosemont, Ill.
Iowa went 4-6 this season against Chicago, which boasts AHL MVP Darren Haydar, AHL Rookie of the Year Brett Sterling and former Anaheim Duck Jason Krog. Sterling and Iowa Stars' forward Marty Sertich formed a lethal duo as teammates at Colorado College, while Krog was honored as the 1999 Hobey Baker Award winner at New Hampshire.
"Chicago is an offensive team and we know what they're about," said White of the Atlanta Thrashers' development affiliate. "They can score and they can transition quickly to offense, so we have to minimize their opportunities. They have an experience factor and a tough building to play in, so we'll have our hands full. But now we have a round under our belts and I know we're going to come out ready to go."