Two critical home losses at home last weekend have made it all but impossible for the Youngstown Phantoms to earn a first-round bye for next month’s USHL playoffs.
The Phantoms (30-17-7, 67 points) lost to the two teams in front of them in the Eastern Conference standings.
First came a 6-3 loss to the Green Bay Gamblers (42-8-3, 87 points) last Friday at the Covelii Centre, a game in which the Phantoms held a 3-2 lead in the third period.
Saturday, the Indiana Ice (33-14-7, 73 points) scored four times in the second period in a 5-2 victory. That win, combined with Sunday’s 5-4 victory for the Ice over Team USA, gives Indiana a six-point lead with six games to play.
Indiana could clinch the bye as soon as Saturday.
Four of the Phantoms’ remaining six games are against the Gamblers — twice this weekend in Wisconsin and twice at the Covelli Centre on April 13-14.
Because of a flu bug that decimated the team last weekend, Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen gave his players three days of rest before regrouping on Wednesday for practice.
“The bottom line is no one other than the guys in our locker room knows what this team was going through this weekend,” Noreen said. “Half of our lineup either didn’t play or shouldn’t have played, but the guys who did play battled through it, and I’m proud of them.”
Saturday’s game saw a record performance by goaltender Matthew O’Connor, who set the franchise record with 50 saves. That’s also the highest number of stops by any USHL goaltender this season.
O’Connor, the backbone of the team’s hopes to win its first playoff series, is second in the USHL will 1,238 saves and leads the league in minutes played with 2,658.
Captain Mike Ambrosia reached another milestone in the Green Bay game when he assisted on a goal to give him 60 points for the season. He’s the first Phantom in the team’s three seasons to score so many points.
Left wing Pat Conte is closing in on another franchise mark. His five-minute tripping penalty on Saturday gave him 165 minutes for the season, surpassing Richard Young’s total in 2009-10. Conte now trails Ben Paulides by three minutes for the Phantoms record, set last season.
In the Phantoms’ first visit to Green Bay on Dec. 16, Youngstown won, 5-3, with Green Bay native Ryan Belonger scoring the game-winning goal in the third period. The future Northeastern University player has two goals this season and three in his career against the Gamblers.
The Phantoms’ other remaining games are against the Chicago Steel on April 6 at the Ice Zone in Boardman and Indiana on April 7 at the Covelli Centre.