Following a 6-2 win over Des Moines on Wednesday at the Ice Box that helped the Lincoln Stars clinch one of the final two playoff spots in the USHL's Western Conference, the postgame celebration was almost nonexistent.
“We just know there is a lot more work to be done here,” said Stars captain Dominick Mersch, who scored his 21st goal of the season Wednesday. “We knew this was coming, playing the way we have been — now we know it's time to put in more work and keep getting better and not be satisfied.”
Lincoln was given the chance to clinch after Waterloo defeated Sioux City on Tuesday, making it impossible for the Musketeers to catch the Stars in the playoff race.
With Lincoln's win and Tri-City's loss to Omaha on Wednesday, the Stars now hold a four-point lead over Tri-City for fourth place. The Stars play the Storm three times in the final four games of the regular season, with one game against Omaha. The Lancers have already clinched a playoff spot, with Tri-City sitting three points out of the final spot.
The Stars have not played Tri-City since Dec. 28.
“We haven't beaten (Tri-City) yet this year,” Mersch said. “That is something we want to accomplish here heading into these next four games. Two teams (potentially) that are going to be in the playoffs, two of our rivals, we wanted to make a statement to ourselves, those two teams and the rest of the league.”
Despite the victory and clinching a playoff spot, Wednesday's outcome was not always cut and dry.
After the Stars took a 1-0 lead in the first 2 minutes, 8 seconds on a goal from Devlin McCabe, Des Moines pushed back against the Stars.
The Buccaneers knotted the score in the first period, before taking a 2-1 lead in the second.
“I thought our first five minutes were very strong,” Stars coach Cody Chupp said. “We scored that first goal and all of the sudden (Des Moines) had a little bit of a push and we wanted things to be a little bit easier.
“We kind of stopped embracing the work that got us the success in the first five minutes. Throughout the course of two-and-a-half periods, chances were pretty even.”
After Des Moines took the lead, Lincoln answered in a big way with four goals in the second period, and added a power-play goal in the third.
Cole Krygier knotted the game 2-2 moments after leaving the penalty box and Tristan Ashbrook, Mersch and Josiah Slavin padded the score to 5-2.
Slavin's tally was his 20th of the season; he joined Mersch and Casey Dornbach as Stars who have eclipsed the 20-goal mark this season. The last Stars team to hit that mark with all three players playing an entire year in Lincoln came back in 2012-13 when Eric Scheid, Vinni Lettieri and Dominik Shine accomplished the feat.
Mersch, who has set career season-highs in goals (21) and points (39), is also chasing down another former Star for USHL games played. From 2005-08, former Star and NHL player Brandon Bollig tallied the eighth-most games played for Lincoln with 173. Mersch can equal that if he plays in Lincoln's final four regular-season games.
Bollig was quick to show his respect via twitter, tweeting “That's cool! But can he catch me in PIMs (penalty minutes)?”
Bollig has the second-most penalty minutes in USHL history with 626.
“It's pretty funny,” Mersch said. “I'm not sure I'll be able to catch him in penalty minutes, but it's pretty cool. He's a great player and won a Stanley Cup and is a fan favorite here.”
The Stars look to separate themselves in the final four games, beginning with Tri-City on Friday in Kearney.