By Tom williams
The Indiana Ice’s four-goal outburst in the second period has the Youngstown Phantoms looking up in the race for second place.
Make that way up.
Saturday’s 5-2 victory before a raucous crowd of about 3,000 at the Covelli Centre gives the Ice a four-point lead over the Phantoms in the USHL Eastern Conference standings.
It was the Phantoms’ second loss to a strong conference team in two nights. First-place Green Bay overcame a 3-2 deficit in Friday’s third period for a 6-3 victory.
“Based on the guys who were healthy, I’m proud of their effort despite the results,” said Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen said, revealing that the flu decimated his lineup. “Unfortunate time and unfortunate weekend — we probably had about 14 guys who should have been playing hockey this weekend.”
The Ice outshot the Phantoms, 55-37.
Phantoms goaltender Matt O’Connor stopped 50 shots — a career high, a franchise record and the most in a USHL game this season.
“I’m proud of the way they handled it — they definitely didn’t give up,” Noreen said.
With only six games remaining to overtake the Ice (32-14-7, 71 points), the Phantoms (30-17-7, 67 points) need a winning streak plus a lot of help to earn a first-round playoff bye.
“This team has faced [adversity] since day one, people counting us out, the challenges being great,” Noreen said. “And we’ve always found a way to overcome them.”
The top two seeds in the conference receive byes. Seeds three through six open the playoffs with a best-of-three series.
“It’s a dogfight right now so if you get a series off, you’re not playing while everyone else is beating on each other,” said Ice coach Kyle Wallack, who added that a 6-3 loss at the Covelli Centre on March 7 provided motivation. “We knew this would have a playoff atmosphere.”
After a scoreless first period, the Ice began rolling shortly after goaltender Jon Gillies made a big stop. Daniil Tarasov, the USHL’s second-leading scorer, carried the puck out of the Ice zone, accelerated into the Phantoms’ end and beat O’Connor with a backhand shot.
Two minutes later, the Phantoms’ Austin Cangelosi responded with his 26th goal to tie the game. Mike Ambrosia, who injured his right leg in the first period, assisted.
But the euphoria from that goal was shattered when the Ice’s Ryan Obuchowski fired a shot from near the blue line that deflected off the goal post into the net.
A few minutes later, Tarasov scored again, assisted by Sean Kuraly, for a two-goal advantage.
Late in the period, Emil Roming’s soft backhand shot eluded O’Connor for a 4-1 lead. Then to add insult to injury, Phantoms forward Pat Conte received a major penalty and game ejection for tripping.
“They’ve been good every time we’ve played them,” Noreen said after the Ice won for the fifth time in seven meetings. “They probably have the most offensive firepower and they’ve probably got one of the two or three best goalies.”
Defenseman Eric Sweetman scored the Phantoms’ other goal.