— season in review SEmD
The Youngstown Phantoms stepped up to experience the USHL postseason
By Tom Williams
A much healthier goaltender, a scoring surprise from Florida and an energetic young coach helped lead the third edition of the Youngstown Phantoms to unprecedented heights.
After suffering two serious leg injuries during the 2010-11 campaign, netminder Matthew O’Connor returned to the ice last fall stronger than ever, appearing in 50 games and winning 28 of them (both franchise records).
Austin Cangelosi, a native of Estero, Fla., scored 59 points in his first season and led the team with plus-18 in plus/minus rating. Only JT Stenglein, with 31 goals, had more than Cangelosi’s 29.
Guiding them was first-time head coach Anthony Noreen, 28, was promoted in August after serving as assistant to Curtis Carr in the 2010-11 season.
“I took a gamble with a young guy not much older than these guys,” Phantoms owner Bruce Zoldan said. “I truly believe if the USHL does the right thing, they are going to make him coach of the year.”
For five months, the Phantoms challenged the Indiana Ice and defending-champion Dubuque Fighting Saints for second place in the Eastern Conference. (The Green Bay Gamblers were the runaway winners and ousted the Phantoms, 3-1, in their conference semifinal series.)
But injuries took a toll over the final six weeks, especially to the defense, as Kevin Liss and Michael Gunn sat out just about every game down the stretch.
Still, the Phantoms finished fourth to earn the franchise’s first postseason berth. Youngstown swept Cedar Rapids in the opening best-of-3 series.
“It was a great season and a special group — a lot of friendships in the locker room,” said Phantoms captain Mike Ambrosia, who led the team with 65 points. “Those are the memories that are going to live on.”
Following Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to Green Bay, the players praised Noreen.
“We were all very confident in him and his ability,” said second-year defenseman Chris Bradley, who next will play for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
Ambrosia called Noreen “one of the greatest motivating coaches that’s out there. He got the players to be confident in themselves and play to the best of their ability.”
No one excelled as much as O’Connor, the Toronto native who will play for Boston University this fall.
“It was a good offseason for me, trying to get my weight up,” said O’Connor, who wanted extra strength to offset fatigue from being a workhorse. “To recover after a Friday night game — that was the biggest turnaround for me.”
O’Connor finished 28-16-5, with a goals-against average of 3.04. He started all six postseason games and held the Gamblers scoreless for 48 minutes of the Game 4 finale. (Green Bay scored two empty-netters.)
“The team that we had this year [had] way more character, we could be down a goal and we’d just battle hard and have a lot more confidence and belief,” O’Connor said. “When we were following the game plan there wasn’t a team who could beat us.”
Injuries on defense plus mononucleosis which hit several players in early March took a toll. Down the stretch, the Phantoms relied on five defenders (Bradley, Jordan Young, Daniel Renouf, Ryan Lowney and Eric Sweetman).
“The two veterans — Jordan Young and Chris Bradley — stepped up,” Noreen said. “The three new guys kind of got thrown into the fire.”
O’Connor said holding leads wasn’t easy.
“It kind of hurt us in the third period of some games just … because they have a lot of roles with the way our system works,” O’Connor said.
Bradley said losing Liss was “huge — you can’t replace a guy like that.
“But the five of us stuck together and I think we did a really good job under the circumstances.”
Liss and forward Jonathan Liau will join Ambrosia at Princeton. Others moving on to college include Dylan Margonari (Minnesota State Mankato), Ryan Belonger (Northeastern), Pat Conte (Niagara), Alex Gacek (Miami) and Gunn (Miami).