Phantoms have incentive at Zone
Mahoning Valley is fighting for home-ice advantage.
BOARDMAN -- One team has secured a playoff spot, but not home-ice advantage; the other is desperately trying to stay in playoff contention.
With that in mind, fans can expect both the Mahoning Valley Phantoms and the Alpena Ice Diggers to create an intriguing playoff atmosphere this weekend. They'll meet at the Ice Zone in Boardman for a two-game series tonight and Saturday. Game time each night is 7.
Want to improve
The Phantoms (32-17-4) want to improve on their third-place standing in the North Division. Doing so would mean home-ice advantage in the first and possibly the second round of the division playoffs. The good news; they trail second-place Cleveland by only two points and they have two games in hand on the Barons. The bad news; they trail the U.S. National Team by five points for first place and Team USA has two games in hand on the Phantoms.
The Ice Diggers (12-36-5) are on life support as they fight for the last playoff spot, trailing Traverse City by seven points for fourth place with five games remaining.
Never mind that the Ice Diggers have the worst record in the North American Hockey League. Never mind that they have the worst record on the road at 3-21-1. Never mind that they are 1-9 against the Phantoms this season.
The fact that they are 5-5-1 in their last 11 games indicates a team that wants to finish the regular season strong. Last weekend, they defeated the U.S. National Under-17 Team twice after the U.S. had won the previous 11 meetings against Alpena, outscoring them 73-21.
"The guys are really starting to come together and believe," said Ice Diggers coach Kenny Miller. "I told the guys if we didn't start stringing together some wins we would be playing meaningless hockey in March. They took that to heart and we got two much-needed wins."
The only guarantee this weekend is that the Phantoms will play beyond March 26 (the final day of the regular season).
Expects level elevation
Phantoms coach Bob Mainhardt likes the fact that Alpena still has a chance at the playoffs. It will only lend to the intensity level that the Phantoms will encounter in the playoffs.
"The fact that they're going after a playoff spot will only make it better hockey," he said. "Alpena's a good team. In the North Division, no one can take a night off."
The Phantoms will also have to cope without their captain and co-leading scorer, Anthony Ciraulo, who was given a two-game suspension by the league for instigating a fight with Cleveland's Carter Camper last Saturday.
But Mainhardt doesn't plan to make any significant adjustments.
"We'll go with the hot hand and those guys who are working the hardest," he said.