By Tom Williams
With Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown looking on from the owner’s box, Phantoms goaltender Matt O’Connor delivered one of his strongest performances of the season in Saturday’s 3-1 victory over the Chicago Steel at the Covelli Centre.
“I think that was the best game Matt O’Connor played all year,” said Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen after his netminder stopped 24 shots for his 11th win in 16 games. “He ate up the quality [shots] and I don’t know if he gave up a quality rebound.”
O’Connor (11-4-1) said his best would be “a close call between this game and Dubuque.”
He was referring to a 5-2 win over Dubuque in November.
J.T. Stenglein scored two goals and Ryan Belonger the other. The victory moves the Phantoms (14-6-1, 29 points) into a tie with Dubuque for second place in the Eastern Conference.
Among the key saves O’Connor made were a sprawling one in the second period when the score was tied 1-1 and a breakaway stop on Charlie O’Connor in the third period.
Matt O’Connor said his dive into the goal crease as Steel forwards closed in was more important.
“It was more crucial at that point in the game in the second period to come up big there,” O’Connor said. “It channeled into our momentum and that showed in the goal we scored right after.”
Stenglein’s second goal was scored moments later as new linemate Mike Ambrosia found Stenglein unguarded in the slot as Austin Cangelosi screened Steel goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom.
“Cange went hard to the net and Ambrosia tried to slide a [cross-ice pass] and the rebound came to me down the slot,” Stenglein said. “It was good to get a couple of points on the first night that we’ve played together.”
Stenglein’s first goal was a cause for celebration in more ways than one. The first-period goal came on the power play, something the Phantoms have been struggling with for weeks (they were 9-for-95 before the game).
The goal also triggered fans to toss stuffed animals on to the ice as a charity promotion for Akron Children’s Hospital of the Mahoning Valley. The Phantoms say more than 650 teddy bears and friends were collected.
“Ambrosia actually set me up coming down the slot so he probably should have gotten [an assist],” Stenglein said of the unassisted goal. “We’ve been working on the power play a lot this week in practice and it was good to see it pay off.”
The Phantoms went 1-for-2 with the extra skater.
“We switched things up, put guys in new positions,” Stenglein said.
A little more than two minutes into the third period, Belonger scored the Phantoms’ second unassisted goal by pouncing on giveaway behind the Steel goal and flipping the puck off Dahlstrom into the net.
Nursing a two-goal lead, the Phantoms didn’t allow a shot on goal in the final 10 minutes until the Steel put two on net in the final seconds.
O’Connor said long breaks can play havoc with a goaltender’s mental approach.
“That might have contributed to their goal, that long pause,” said O’Connor of Michael Fallon’s score in the first period. “We had a lot of domination in their end and I didn’t see any action for about six minutes.
“It’s just part of goaltending — you always have to stay warm, just keep tracking the puck and ignore the pause,” O’Connor said.