Although the Youngstown Phantoms cannot clinch their first USHL playoff berth this weekend, they can take big steps toward making it all-but-certain to happen before St. Patrick’s Day.
The Phantoms (26-14-5, 57 points) enter the final quarter of their third USHL season tonight with the first of two games against Team USA at the Covelli Centre.
The Phantoms are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the Dubuque Fighting Saints (28-14-3, 59 points) and one behind the Indiana Ice (26-12-6, 58 points). The Ice have played one less game than the Phantoms and Fighting Saints.
Team USA comes to Ohio in sixth place. The top six teams in each eight-team conference qualify for the postseason, but only the top four teams are guaranteed a home game.
The top two seeds will earn first-round byes. The other four squads will play best-of-3 series. If travel between those teams is more than 300 miles, then the higher seed will be home for all first-round games, according to Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen.
Because Youngstown is so far east of most of the other Eastern Conference teams, Noreen says the only team the Phantoms would travel with in the first round is Team USA, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Phantoms’ magic number to eliminate the seventh-place Muskegon Lumberjacks is 12 (points earned by the Phantoms or lost by the Lumberjacks). The magic number is seven to eliminate the last-place Chicago Steel.
To keep pace with the Fighting Saints and Ice, the Phantoms need to reverse two trends this weekend. First, while they have excelled on the road, they are winless in their past three home games where they have been out-scored 5-4 in the third periods in those games.
Team USA took the first four meetings of the season — including three games by a combined four goals. On Feb. 19, the Phantoms snapped the skid with a 5-4 win in Michigan. Soren Jonzzon and JT Stenglein each scored two goals in that game and Noreen says the win opened his players’ eyes.
“It was a little bit of the opposite of some of our other games,” Noreen said. “We came out firing early whereas they were chasing a bit. But they put the pressure on us late and, for them, it was probably just a case of them running out of time.
“Mentally, it gave us the edge of knowing we can beat them,” Noreen said. “But we also realized what it took for us to do it — the type of execution, preparation and effort — and I think that’s more important.”
Noreen said the ability to close this weekend’s games out, especially on home ice, would be just as important as getting a good start. It is a trend that he said he would like to see his team reverse as each game brings them closer to the playoffs and the possibility of hosting games in the first or second round.
“Sometimes when you’re at home, for one reason or another, you get a little bit comfortable and start doing some things outside yourself,” Noreen said. “That’s something we really need to focus on this weekend — just playing a simple game. “We’ve done a nice job of taking care of business on the road over the last month or so. We need to do the same thing at home.”