By Jon Moffett
YOUNGSTOWN — Perhaps nobody was more ready to tear off the January page of their 2010 calendars than Bob Mainhardt and the Youngstown Phantoms.
January was a bad month for the hockey team — to say the least.
The Phantoms went 1-9 for the month and are sitting idly in the sixth spot in the East Division of the United States Hockey League with 22 games remaining. Only the top four teams in each division make the playoffs.
“We definitely didn’t have the month we wanted, but it’s a new page and we’re still in the mix of things,” Mainhardt said following Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to the Indiana Ice. “If we can get our heads on straight and turn things around, we can get in to the playoffs and we’ll take it from there. Anything can happen.”
Mainhardt added the team is not taking the rough month too personally and is more focused on improving in the coming weeks.
“It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” he said.
If the season is a marathon, the Phantoms were lapped in January.
The Phantoms gave up 47 goals in the month, and scored only 23. Such an imbalance frustrated the team.
“It’s definitely frustrating when you’re not winning,” said defenseman and team captain David Donnellan. “But you’ve just got to keep battling and keep the team going on the rise so we can make a playoff push toward the end of the season. But yeah, it’s frustrating.”
Mainhardt said it’s vital that he and the coaching staff lead by example and not let the January lull turn into a season-long slump.
“We’re going to lead the way as coaches, and if we put the pressure on and show stress, then [the players] are going to reflect that as well,” Mainhardt said. “But I’m comfortable with this type of effort, and if we work this hard and stick to the gameplan, we’ll let the cards fall where they may and I’ll be proud of them.”
Donnellan said he and his teammates have also taken it upon themselves to focus on the months ahead.
“We’re just staying positive on the bench and in the locker room, having fun in practice and keeping things light in practice so they’re not worried about losing and just preparing for the next game on the schedule,” he said.
That next game is a crucial one.
The Phantoms will play host to a Waterloo Black Hawk team that sits in the fourth and final playoff spot in the East Division. A two-game series at the Covelli Centre begins tonight and will continue Saturday. Both games will begin at 7:15 p.m.
“They’re a gifted team; they’re very skilled,” Mainhardt said of Waterloo. “They play on an Olympic-sized surface, so they have a pretty quick team. They’re very well-coached and we have to do a good job to make sure we’re disciplined and don’t give them a ton of opportunities to score.”
Donnellan said the team is doing all it can to avoid the mental pressure of such a big game. The Phantoms are 1-1 against the Black Hawks this season, having defeated them 4-3 in December and losing to them as part of the January stretch.
“We just need to focus on controlling what we can control and go on from there,” he said. “Most importantly, we need to bury our opportunities better.”
While scoring has been an issue, defense has been the Phantoms’ Achilles heel.
The team gave up five or more goals in four games last month, and twice surrendered eight.
The Phantoms are 1-12 in their last 13 games, and it’ll be up to the goalie tandem of Matt Mahalak and Jordan Tibbett to stop the Hawks.
The Black Hawks (17-18-2) are having success and had a much different January.
The team went 7-4 in the month, but lost its last game to Team USA in a crushing 10-2 defeat.
The Phantoms may hope to draw a little energy — or force — from its crowd tonight as it is “Star Wars” night. Darth Vader will make a guest appearance and drop the puck before the game.