By Tom Williams
The good news for the Youngstown Phantoms’ five healthy defensemen is that there is nothing at stake heading into the final weekend of the USHL regular season.
For weeks, Chris Bradley, Jordan Young, Ryan Lowney, Eric Sweetman and Daniel Renouf have been the stalwarts on the back line while Kevin Liss and Mike Gunn heal from injuries. Forward Todd Koritzinsky also has been listed as a defenseman, but the top five have dominated.
“It’s been tough with the injuries we’ve had throughout the season but we’re not really looking at that,” Bradley said. “We’ve been playing five [defensemen] for about a month now so we’re all used to it, used to the rotation.”
Phantoms captain Mike Ambrosia said, “they are playing fantastic back there. Those five have been huge for us all year.”
Bradley normally is paired with Liss. Without his partner, he’s been alternating with Young and Lowney depending on the flow of the game.
“Occasionally you end up [playing with] everybody so we’re used to everybody. We’re just back there trying to hold it down,” Bradley said.
How confusing is it?
“You’re probably going every other [shift] then you might get a [shift] off,” said Bradley, explaining there are no set patterns. “Obviously it changes with special teams.”
The Phantoms (31-20-7, 69 points) have the fourth seed in the USHL playoffs that begin on Monday. The Green Bay Gamblers (46-9-3, 95 points) — this weekend’s opponent at the Covelli Center — have the best record in the USHL.
The Gamblers and second-place Indiana Ice (35-15-9, 79 points) have first-round byes.
The Phantoms will play fifth-place Cedar Rapids (26-20-12, 64 points) in a best-of-3 series.
The other first-round has third-place Dubuque (35-19-4, 74 points) hosting Team USA (26-29-5, 57 points).
The lowest surviving seed after the first round will face the Gamblers in a best-of-5 series.
Last weekend, the Phantoms needed one point to secure fourth-place and their first home playoff games in three USHL seasons. Against seventh-place Chicago, the Phantoms lost, 4-2.
The next evening, the Phantoms regrouped with perhaps their finest game of the season. Youngstown played even with Indiana for 60 minutes, then won 13 seconds into overtime, 2-1, on Bradley’s slap shot from the blue line.
“That first period was the best I’ve seen a Phantoms team play ... as hard as we played, as many hits as we threw, the energy we had,” Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen said.
Backup goaltender Sean Romeo, stopped 38 shots and was named the USHL’s goaltender of the week.
Noreen said his voice was raised after the Chicago defeat stretched their losing streak to five.
“It took a few choice words,” Noreen said. “I hope I don’t have to do that every day.
“I challenged the guys as much as I ever have all year,” Noreen said. “Energy and attitude-wise, that was as good as we’ve been all year. We need to peak at the right time. If we are able to play like that, we’ll be a tough team to beat.”