Much as with the NHL, you can’t read too much into the first week of the 2017-18 USHL campaign. That’s just one or two games thus far for each squad in the primarily Friday, Saturday, Sunday-based league, but a few important names have emerged early.
Matching Marc-Andre Fleury’s hot Vegas start, netminder Maksim Zhukov, the Knights’ fourth-round selection this June blazed out to back-to-back Green Bay Gambler victories last weekend over Cedar Rapids and Dubuque. Zhukov gave up just one goal each game and ruled the penalty kill stopping opponents on each of their eight power plays. All total, he stopped 43 of 45 shots resulting in a 2-0-0-0 record, 0.99 goals against and .956 save percentage. He follows up an impressive USHL campaign when he was named to the 2016-17 USHL All-Rookie Second Team after leading all rookies with a 2.25 goals against.
Team USA features several hot starts, one by 16-year-old forward Michael (brother of Panther draftee Max) Gildon who registered a hat trick while adding an assist opening night in his USHL debut against the reigning champion Chicago Steel. Gildon, fresh out of the Dallas Stars U16 squad, earned a plus-four on the evening while teammates Jack Hughes (three assists) and Judd Caulfield (one goal, two assists) chipped in three points apiece during their 10-5 domination of the Clark Cup winners playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Hughes is a 2019-eligible center who totaled an unreal 58 goals and 101 assists in 80 Toronto Marlboro Minor Midget AAA contests last year. North Dakotan Caulfield played last year for Grand Forks Central High School racking up 25 goals and 64 points in 27 contests. His nearly namesake Cole Caufield of Wisconsin, added two goals. Caufield perpetually lit up the Stevens Point Area High School scoreboard last year with 50 goals and 79 points in just 22 contests.
Speaking of Chicago, the Steel started strong with a Friday night 6-2 win over the Dubuque Fighting Saints before being pasted by Team USA. Right wing Samuel Bucek and defender Robbie Stucker each emerged from opening weekend with four points. Bucek a 6-03, 216-pound, 18-year-old Slovak import totaling 12 goals and 21 assists with QMJHL Shawnigan last year, managed a goal and an assist against Team USA while potting two goals in Dubuque. Stucker, a seventh round Columbus draft selection this summer and Colorado College commit, earned a goal and three assists on six shots. Lanky at 6-03, 174-pounds Stucker’s goal came with an assist against Team USA. He dished two helpers on opening night.
Sioux Falls Stampede and Northeastern commit AJ Villella scored in each of his first two contests as the squad finished last weekend 1-1-0-0. The 19-year-old 5-10, 150-pound blueliner landed a goal and an assist in their opening night 5-2 victory against Fargo. He contributed a helper on the man advantage the next evening in a 4-2 loss to Waterloo.
The re-branded Central Illinois Flying Aces (formerly Bloomington Thunder) were perfect in their back-to-back games in Youngstown thanks largely to their goalie duo Kris Carlson and Zach Stejskal. Carlson, who stopped 24 of 25 shots in a victorious 5-1 effort was helped greatly by experienced USHL center Matt Gosiewiski’s two goals and two assists, and Moscow-native center Max Andreev’s goal, two assists and six penalty minutes. Stejskal’s opening night work led to a 4-2 win as 6-04, 217-pound Minnesota-Duluth commit made 20 saves.
Lincoln’s Tomas Vomacka tallied the lone shutout last weekend with a 32-save, tense 1-0 victory against Muskgeon, stopping each of their eight power play opportunities in his USHL debut. Nashville’s fifth-round selection last year is a University of Connecticut commit who has mainly played with Czech junior league HC Hradec Kralove previously.
Showing their continuing influence in the pros, 128 former USHL players made NHL opening night rosters, with each team in the league sporting at least one USHL graduate.