Gamblers eliminate Youngstown from playoffs
By Tom Williams
On the brink of elimination, the Youngstown Phantoms delivered one of the strongest performances in the team’s three seasons in the USHL.
It wasn’t quite enough as the top-seeded Green Bay Gamblers turned up their offensive firepower to score twice against goaltender Matt O’Connor, then added two empty-net goals for a 4-1 victory in the Clark Cup playoffs at the Covelli Centre on Wednesday night.
Winners of 47 of 60 regular-season games, the top-seeded Gamblers won the best-of-5 Eastern Conference semifinals, 3-1.
“The first 21/2 periods, it was a great effort by our team,” said Phantoms captain Mike Ambrosia, whose goal 95 seconds in had the Gamblers chasing most of the game.
“OC [O’Connor] was an anchor back there, he was making great saves all night.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get the job done, but it was a great season.”
Coming off Tuesday’s frustrating 6-3 loss, few expected the Phantoms to keep the potent Gamblers scoreless for 48 minutes.
But O’Connor was brilliant, stopping the Gamblers’ first 35 shots to preserve a one-goal lead into the final 12 minutes.
“He gave us a chance to win and that’s all we could ask,” said Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen of O’Connor’s 40 saves.
Despite trailing 1-0 for 46 minutes, the Gamblers outshot the Phantoms 44-20.
“It was a do-or-die situation, I knew I had to bring it tonight,” said O’Connor, the Phantoms’ top goalie for two seasons who will play for Boston University in the fall. “I just tried to focus on one save at a time and stay away from the adversity that they’ve always [used] to try and get me off my game.”
With 11:26 remaining, Nolan LaPorte put the puck past O’Connor to tie the game.
LaPorte picked up a Phantoms’ clearing attempt, danced around defenseman Chris Bradley and shot the puck past O’Connor.
About four minutes later, the Phantoms had a golden opportunity to score with JT Stenglein perched near the Gamblers’ goal. But Stenglein was unable to get a shot off as he was knocked to the ice. No penalty was called.
“Our guy [had] his legs taken out from under him,” Noreen said.
The Gamblers raced down ice where Sam Herr scored the go-ahead goal on a pass from Alex Broadhurst.
Noreen, who passionately questioned the non-call, said the referee told him he didn’t see the play because he was watching the puck.
“Which he should be doing,” Noreen said. “Obviously, the referee didn’t score the goal at the other end.”
In the final 75 seconds, with O’Connor pulled for an extra skater, six Phantoms flooded the Gamblers’ zone and had control for more than 10 seconds.
But the Gamblers knocked the puck to center ice, enabling Grant Arnold to score the first of two empty net goals. Herr had the other.
As they have for two months, the Phantoms played with just five defensemen (Bradley, Jordan Young, Ryan Lowney, Daniel Renouf and Eric Sweetman).
“It’s very hard to explain how hard it is not only to play with five defensemen, but play against a team like this in our eighth game in 12 days,” Noreen said. “It’s similar to playing a basketball game with six players. It seemed they never came off the ice.”
Bradley said the defensive corps “did a tremendous job the whole year, but especially in this last run.
‘We came out strong, I don’t think we deserved to lose, but that’s the reality,” Bradley said.