By Tom Williams
Before the Youngstown Phantoms can celebrate a holiday break, they have some business to take care of with Team USA.
Coming off last weekend’s split against the Des Moines Buccaneers, the Phantoms (11-14-0, 22 points) will be home for the first time this month when they play the Nationals on Friday and Saturday at the Covelli Centre. Both games begin at 7:15 p.m.
The Phantoms (11-14-0, 22 points) need a big weekend to remain in the race for an Eastern Conference playoff seed. The Phantoms trail fourth-place Cedar Rapids by three points and Chicago by two points. The top four teams in the conference qualify for the playoffs.
Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen is giving the team off from Sunday through next Thursday. Goaltender Sean Romeo and Sam Anas are among the Phantoms who will be returning home on Sunday.
“We’re thinking about going home but at least for me, I don’t have any problem focusing on the games because hockey is what I really love,” said Anas of Potomac, Md. “But I’m definitely excited to be going home.”
Romeo, who is flying home to Cary, N.C., admitted it’s a little harder to concentrate this week.
“Everyone is excited to get home to see our friends and families, but we have a job to do on Friday and Saturday,” Romeo said. “We’re definitely not looking past it.”
The Nationals (5-16-2, 12 points) are in eighth place.
“In this league, any team can win on any given night,” Romeo said. “So if we don’t show up, they can definitely beat us.”
No Phantom is more excited for Christmas than forward Alfred Larsson from Malmo, Sweden. Larsson hasn’t been home since summer and his parents and brother are flying here on Thursday to spend the holiday.
“It’s the first time I will be out of my house [on Christmas],” Larsson said. “My family will be here to watch the games against Team USA, then we’ll go down to Pittsburgh and spend a couple of days there.
“I’m really excited because I haven’t seen them since the end of summer, The best present is that my family can come here.”
Larsson said Swedes celebrate Christmas on Dec. 24.
“That’s the biggest difference,” said Larsson, who said his family will celebrate Swedish Christmas on Christmas Eve but have made no other definite plans.
Players are used to hockey gifts under the tree. Romeo said his best present will be spending time with family.
“It’s awesome to see them, it definitely will help to recharge,” said Romeo, who said his favorite hockey-related gift was a new set of goalie pads when he was 11.
“That definitely was the highlight of that Christmas,” said Romeo, who used them for almost two seasons before outgrowing them.
Larsson remembers being happy with new skates and jerseys.
For Anas, his best hockey surprise was when his parents obtained tickets for the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field when the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the Washington Capitals.
“We’re big Caps fans, so it was fun to go up there and watch them put a big beatdown on the Penguins,” Anas said. “The whole experience was amazing. We left in the morning, spent the day there — that was the first time I’d seen the city of Pittsburgh. It was pretty cool.”