Top-seeded Green Bay will challenge Youngstown in best-of-five series
By Tom Williams
Youngstown Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen doesn’t mince words in describing the next challenge awaiting his hockey team.
“You’re not going to see a better team than that in junior hockey,” said Noreen of the Green Bay Gamblers (47-9-4, 98 points).
The Phantoms, fresh off a two-game sweep of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, have advanced to the USHL Eastern Conference semifinals.
Their opponent for the best-of-five series that begins Saturday night is the Gamblers, the team with the USHL’s best record. Sunday’s Game 2 also will be played at Green Bay before the series shifts to Youngstown.
During the regular season, the Phantoms went 2-4 against the Gamblers but were the only team to defeat them twice in regulation.
The first victory was on Dec. 18 in Green Bay, with Green Bay native Ryan Belonger scoring the Phantoms’ winning goal in a 5-3 victory. Phantoms goaltender Matt O’Connor stopped 26 shots as did the Gamblers’ top netminder, Ryan McKay.
The Gamblers won the next four meetings. The first one was on March 23 at the Covelli Centre when several Phantoms were unable to play, suffering from mononucleosis.
The Phantoms carried a 3-2 lead into the third period, then watched the Gamblers score four times in the final 20 minutes for a 6-3 victory. O’Connor stopped 29 shots while the Gamblers’ Michael Rotolo recorded 18 saves.
The following weekend, the Phantoms took their depleted roster to Wisconsin where the Gamblers posted wins of 5-2 and 4-1.
“We played well but it just didn’t happen,” Noreen said. “Some of it was guys getting a lot more minutes than they have ever gotten before in this uniform.”
The series last weekend with two games at the Covelli Centre. In the first one, the Gamblers overwhelmed the Phantoms, 7-1, with O’Connor lifted after giving up five goals in the first 24 minutes.
Saturday, Sean Romeo started in goal for the Phantoms, then was relieved by O’Connor at the start of the third period with the score tied 2-2. The Phantoms went on to win, 4-3, in a shootout.
Soren Jonzzon beat Rotolo with a low shot in the fifth round to end the shootout and give the Phantoms a 32-21-7 record and 71 points, by far their best totals in their three seasons in the USHL.
But in that final game, neither team played with a full lineup. The Gamblers sat power-play specialists Alex Broadhurst and Nolan Laporte who had torched the Phantoms in the 7-1 loss.
The Phantoms were without forward JT Stenglein (suspension after Friday’s game ejection). Also sitting out were forward Dylan Margonari and defenseman Kevin Liss, an omen of things to come.
During Monday’s 4-3 overtime win in Game 1, Margonari crashed into the goal and suffered a lower body injury. Liss, who just had returned from a hip injury, spent most of the game on the bench and was not dressed for the Phantoms’ 6-2 victory on Tuesday.
Margonari, a three-year Phantom, is expected to play on Saturday.