Right now, Alex Gacek could be finishing up his freshman year at Miami (Ohio). The Dracut, Mass., opted to come back for a second stint with the Youngstown Phantoms instead of becoming a RedHawk.
His decision paid off on Tuesday night.
Gacek netted three goals, two in the second period, and the Phantoms swept the Cedar Rapids Rough Riders out of the United States Hockey League playoffs with a 6-2 win.
“[Coming back to Youngstown] made me a better player on both sides of the puck,” Gacek said. “Last year, it was a little bit shaky, but this year everyone is battling for one another and it’s a great atmosphere to be around.”
So the answer is: no regrets. But the real question is, which goal was the most special?
The first, a breakaway effort that resulted in a charging violation and a brawl? The second, a four-on-four goal? Or, the third, an empty-net shot with just 12 seconds left in regulation?
“The first,” Gacek responded. “I don’t think [I’ve gotten in a fight like that after.]
“I beat the guy, used my speed and hit the puck into the net.”
It was his first USHL hat trick and his 15th goal of the season.
Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen said having a veteran like Gacek back has benefitted both parties.
“Miami’s plan for him coming back here was to mature and prove he can be an impact player,” Noreen said. “He may not get the most points or be the guy that always shows up on the score sheet, but there’s not a guy in the USHL that plays a more complete game than Alex.”
The Phantoms played without starting forward Dylan Margonari, who was injured in the first period of Monday’s opening playoff game. Noreen did say he’d be available for Saturday’s second-round match up on the road against Green Bay. In his place, though, was Jonathon Liau who didn’t miss a beat.
“Dylan is a heck of a player who makes things happen, but Johnny stepped in great,” Gacek said. “He picked it up just fine and made a lot of things happen down low.”
Soren Jonzzon and Todd Koritzinsky also saw more time than usual in the absence of Margonari.
Koritzinksy opened up the Phantoms’ scoring when he converted a rebound attempt at the 7:49 mark of the first period. After a Gerry Mayhew goal brought Cedar Rapids to 3-2 midway through the third period, Jonzzon intercepted a pass on the Youngstown blue line. He dished it up to Ryan Belonger, who flipped it back to him for the score.
“Our game almost picked up a notch when that happened,” Noreen said of the Rough Riders’ goal. “There wasn’t a lull — from that point on we played some pretty desperate hockey.”
Cedar Rapids called in goalie Jake Hildebrand with under three minutes left and Austin Cangelosi recorded an empty-netter at the 2:15 mark before Gacek added his.
“Yeah, Noreen said. “Those are ‘gimme goals,’ but from the two guys that arguably played the hardest in this game. Karma plays a funny role in rewarding guys who do things the right way. Alex and Austin both were deserving of those goals, right there.”
The Phantoms plan to have a light skate today, but there won’t be much rest before they leave for Green Bay.
“At this point, if we could play [today] the guys would,’ Noreen said. “There’s no such thing as being tired in the playoffs.”