By Tom Williams
Regular-season hockey games don’t get much bigger than the two that will be played this weekend at the Covelli Centre.
“It’s a lot more fun, just a lot different,” said Youngstown Phantoms forward Alex Gacek of this season’s major turnaround. “This year, everyone wants to go the extra mile for as long as we can. We’re a big family here.”
In their third season in the USHL, the Phantoms (30-15-7, 67 points) already have clinched their first playoff berth and are in the hunt for one of the Eastern Conference’s first-round playoff byes. Awaiting them is a major test.
Friday’s opponent, the Green Bay Gamblers (41-8-2, 84 points), have secured home-ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Saturday’s opponent, the Indiana Ice (30-14-7, 67 points), are tied with the Phantoms for second place. The Ice, however, have one more game to play than the Phantoms.
Trailing them by just three points are the Dubuque Fighting Saints (20-18-4, 64 points).
“It’s gonna be a big [weekend] for us because we want that home ice going into the playoffs,” third-year Phantom Dylan Margonari said.
Friday’s game will be just the second Phantoms-Gamblers matchup of the season. On Dec. 16 in Green Bay, Wis., the Phantoms defeated the Gamblers, 5-3, with Green Bay native Ryan Belonger scoring the winning goal.
Gacek credited “pregame preparation” for that win.
“You could just feel the excitement and energy in the locker room, that we were going to play well,” said Gacek who was traded from the Ice to the Phantoms during last season. “That was definitely one of our better games.”
Margonari said the team can’t afford an early breakdown.
“Green Bay is at the top of the whole league, so it’s going to be a tough, hard-fought battle,” Margonari said.
Saturday, the Ice will return for their seventh game against the Phantoms this season and Gacek admits he has a little extra motivation to excel.
“And we don’t want to go into the playoffs slumping,” Gacek said.
In the first six games, the Phantoms went 2-4 against the Ice. One of those wins was a fight-filled contest at the Covelli Centre on March 7 won by the Phantoms, 6-3.
Gacek said giveaways against these quality teams will be costly.
“If we make a mistake, I guarantee they will put it in the back of the net,” Gacek said. “We’ve got bring our ‘A’ game, we can’t slack at all or they will make us pay.”
Six teams from each conference qualify for the postseason, with the top two sitting out the first round.
After two seasons of missing the playoffs, Margonari appreciates how special this year’s club is.
“Last year when we were fighting for that last spot, some guys had their mindset on home,” Margonari said of the late-season collapse that saw the Phantoms eliminated on the final day.
“This year, everyone has bought in from the beginning of the season,” said Margonari who will play for Minnesota State Mankato next season. “We put this goal up on the board and we’ve been striding toward it all season. It’s nice how we’re being rewarded with a playoff spot.”
A native of Greensburg, Pa., Margonari describes this season as “an all-around better experience. We’re closer because we are winning and we always have smile on our faces, we love being at the rink.
“We’ve been lucky to not have been plagued with as many bad injuries.”
The Phantoms especially have benefitted from goaltender Matt O’Connor staying healthy after suffering two serious leg injuries last season.
“OC is prepared every night, he comes to battle,” Gacek said. “It makes us want to block that extra shot for him, knowing that he might need a little help from playing so much. It’s great to go to battle with someone who really prepares and is really a good guy.”
The Phantoms’ turnaround is especially gratifying to the veterans.
“It’s nice to be on top of things,” said Gacek who will skate for Miami University next fall with former Phantoms defender Ben Paulides. “We had to fight for our lives last year so this has been a little more relaxing in some ways.
“But every game is just as critical as it was last year.”
This weekend, maybe even more so.