Next five games will be away and a big test for the second-place squad
The Youngstown Phantoms begin their longest road stretch of the season this weekend.
The pivotal five-game swing will test the Phantoms’ mettle heading into the New Year.
Tonight, the Phantoms (14-6-1, 29 points) face the league-leading Green Bay Gamblers for the first time this season .
Saturday, the Phantoms will travel south to take on the Des Moines Buccaneers.
Anthony Noreen, Phantoms head coach, said that tonight’s game against the Gamblers (19-3-1, 39 points) in Wisconsin will be a crucial test for the Phantoms, who are 5-4-0 on the road this season.
“The way you conquer any huge task that seems too big to beat is by breaking it down into small goals,” Noreen said. “The only thing we’re focusing on right now is our first shift against Green Bay.”
The Gamblers have been one of the most dominant franchises in the entire United States Hockey League over the past few seasons and have appeared in two straight Clark Cup Finals, winning the championship in 2010.
This season, they have taken that dominance to a new level, leading the USHL in wins and goals for (97), while allowing the fewest goals (50).
The Gamblers rank in the top three in power play and penalty kill percentage and have three players — Alex Broadhurst, Nolan LaPorte and Kyle Novak — who have recorded 20-plus points.
“Green Bay is at the top of the standings for a reason,” Noreen said. “They’re well-coached, they play the game the right way and they have extremely good players. I think this game’s going to be a great measuring stick for our team.”
The game is the first of six meetings between the two Eastern Conference foes, with the latter five being played out over the Phantoms’ final eight games of the season.
The Gamblers own a 7-2-0 advantage in the series. Four of their wins were settled by a one-goal margin.
Noreen said that in order to achieve his team’s ultimate ambitions this year, beating the Gamblers is going to be a key.
“If we’re going to get to where we want to get, at some point we’re going to have to get through the Green Bay Gamblers,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
On Saturday, the Phantoms will face the Buccaneers for the third time. The Phantoms beat the Buccaneers (10-9-1, 21 points) twice at the Covelli Centre.
Noreen said he expects to see a vastly different team from the one his Phantoms beat 4-2 and 5-1 in October.
“It’s going to be a very tough game. Des Moines is usually one of the hardest places to play in the league,” Noreen said. “Coach [Regg] Simon is as good a coach as there is in the USHL and I’m sure he is going to have his team much improved from the last time we saw them.
“They play a very similar style to us and it’s not going to be a very pretty game. We’re going to have to earn every inch in that game. We expect it to be a war.”