On Nov. 11, the Youngs-town Phantoms had lost 11 of 12 games and were six games below .500.
This weekend, the Phantoms have a chance to finish their fourth USHL regular season in second place and secure home-ice advantage for next week’s playoffs.
What a reversal of fortune.
The Phantoms’ 5-2 victory on Wednesday over the Steel in Chicago moved Youngstown into a tie for second place in the Eastern Conference standings.
The top four teams qualify for the playoffs. Youngstown (37-25-0, 74 points) and the Green Bay Gamblers (35-23-4, 74 points) are 20 points behind the first-place Dubuque Fighting Saints (43-11-8, 94 points).
Trailing Youngstown and Green Bay are the Muskegon Lumberjacks (31-21-10, 72 points).
If the Phantoms and Gamblers finish tied, Youngstown head coach Anthony Noreen says his team would fall to third-place because Green Bay owns the tiebreaker (head-to-head record). Youngstown is 1-5 against the Gamblers.
For the Phantoms to finish second, they need to beat the fifth-place Steel (27-31-4, 58 points) twice this weekend at the Covelli Centre and get help.
The Gamblers’ final two games are against the Lumberjacks.
It’s possible the playoff picture won’t be clear even when Saturday’s Steel-Phantoms game ends.
The Lumberjacks-Gamblers game in Green Bay starts at 8:05 p.m.
Also up in the air is the first-round format. It could be the traditional 2-2-1 series (two home games for the higher seed, followed by two on the road and one at home, if necessary.
Noreen said another possibility is a 1-3-1 series in which the higher seed would open on the road then play three at home (mostly likely on the weekend) before finishing on the road.
The Phantoms can avoid facing the Fighting Saints first by earning two points against the Steel.
The Phantoms own the tiebreaker against the Lumberjacks.
The Steel are returning to Youngstown for the first time since the Kiss Cam incident of Feb. 27.
The Phantoms and Steel played a morning game that day, with students from about two dozen schools in attendance.
In the third period, Kiss Cam focused on two Steel players on the bench. One of them — forward Danny Fetzer — responded with a one-finger salute to the camera. Fetzer was suspended for the Steel-Phantoms rematch two nights later.
To their credit, Fetzer and Steel head coach Scott McConnell sent a letter of apology to each of the schools who had students at the game.
Fetzer wrote that he used “immature behavior, in which I do not want to be remembered by or emulated. What I did was unacceptable ... a sign of disrespect. Being 20 years old, this is something I should know.
“Sometimes you do things without thinking — that doesn’t make what I did excusable. There are consequences for actions as poor as this.”
Fetzer has owned up to his mistake and letting down his team. It might not have been the best lesson taught that day, but he and the Steel have made the best of a bad situation.