By Tom Williams
Youngstown Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen might look like a child on Christmas morning when he stands behind the bench tonight for his team’s first playoff game.
For the first time in six weeks, Noreen will have just about all of his regulars in the lineup as the Phantoms (32-21-7, 71 points) open a best-of-three playoff series against the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders at the Covelli Centre.
“It’s great for the team, it’s great for the town to get a home playoff series,” Noreen said. “Two seasons was too long to not have that.”
Game 2 will be played on Tuesday. If necessary, Game 3 will be played on Wednesday.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” said goaltender Matt O’Connor who set the franchise record for wins with 28. “We’ve worked so hard this year for that goal. It’s really exciting for the fans, the program and especially Coach Noreen.”
The Phantoms finished in fourth place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference to earn home-ice advantage over the RoughRiders (27-21-12, 66 points).
Over the weekend, the Phantoms welcomed back several of their injured and ill players, including defenseman Kevin Liss (hip) and forward Sam Anas (mononucleosis).
They are needed. Down the stretch, the Phantoms stumbled with their depleted roster, going 3-7-2 in their final 12 games.
Because their games against first-place Green Bay had no effect on the standings, Noreen chose to sit out some of his regulars so affiliate players Jacob Pritchard and Kale Bennett could get a taste of the USHL.
Friday, the Gamblers (47-10-3, 97 points), clobbered the Phantoms, 7-1. Saturday, the Phantoms rebounded for a 4-3 shootout win, which pleased the coaching staff.
“I thought we needed to go into the playoffs on a winning note,” Noreen said.
Phantoms captain Mike Ambrosia called the shootout “a fun way to finish the regular season. We wanted to get our good habits back.
“Having all the guys is huge,” Ambrosia said. “We’re excited to have everyone back and see what we can do.”
Tonight, the regulars will be ready for the biggest game in the Phantoms’ three USHL seasons. The Phantoms and RoughRiders played four times this season, with the Phantoms winning three.
“All four could have gone either way,” Noreen said. “Three of the four games went to overtime. The one that didn’t go to overtime was a one-goal game.”
Their last meeting was on Feb. 5 at Cedar Rapids, a 4-3 win for the Phantoms with Alex Gacek scoring the winning goal.
On Dec. 28, the RoughRiders won, 2-1, on their home ice.
Cedar Rapids’ last trip to Youngstown was on Nov. 19 when JT Stenglein scored an overtime goal for the Phantoms in a 3-2 victory. Their other game at the Covelli Centre was on Oct. 20 when Gacek scored in overtime for a 4-3 win.
Noreen said the RoughRiders are as fast on the ice as any USHL opponent.
“As far as speed, I don’t know that we will see a faster team,” Noreen said. “They like to get up and go, just like we do. When we’ve played before, it’s turned a little bit into a track meet because I think we both want to do the same thing.
“That opens the game up a little bit, which makes it fun to watch,” Noreen said.
O’Connor described the RoughRiders as “skilled. They don’t take short cuts — that’s what the playoffs are all about, not taking shortcuts.”
Ambrosia, who played in all 60 regular-season games for the second straight season, said this week “is huge for the franchise. Everyone is excited. Best way to describe it is that everyone is enjoying the moment but taking it very seriously.
“We can’t wait for Monday to get started.”
Noreen is looking forward to the fast pace.
“We’re willing to get into a track meet with anybody — our skating and our wide-open play is a strength. But they feel the same way,” Noreen said. “It should be entertaining hockey.”
Soren Jonzzon, who scored the game-winning goal in Saturday’s shootout, hopes tonight’s game is the beginning of a very big month.
“Hopefully we’ve got a lot more stuff that we create first for our organization — playoff wins, series win,” Jonzzon said.