By Tom Williams
A year ago when Youngstown took on Green Bay in the USHL playoffs, the fourth-seeded Phantoms were coming off a two-game sweep of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders while the Gamblers had been idling after a bye earned from the top record in the Eastern Conference.
This time, the teams appear to be a lot closer. Going into the final weekend of the regular season, the Gamblers (37-23-4, 78 points) and Phantoms (37-37-0, 74 points) were tied.
The Phantoms’ 3-2 loss to the Chicago Steel last Friday gave the Gamblers second place and home-ice advantage for the best-of-five series that begins tonight in Wisconsin.
“Our program has taken steps so that I don’t think it’s a David vs. Goliath situation against anyone,” Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen said. “Having said that, are they the favorite in this series? Absolutely.
“If you are going to be the best team, you’re going to have to beat the best teams and they are definitely one of, if not the, best teams in the league.”
Last year, the Gamblers ousted the Phantoms, 3-1, then went on to win the Clark Cup.
The Phantoms aren’t backing down from the challenge.
“How we’re approaching the series is that we are the best team in the league right now,” said forward John Padulo, referring to the team’s 32-16 record since Nov. 11. “We’re [looking to go] in there [tonight] and steal Game 1, and change the outlook of the series.”
Green Bay won the regular-season series, 5-1. Four of those games were in the Phantoms’ early tailspin when they lost 11 of 12 games.
The two more recent games reflect the tighter standings. On Feb. 8 at the Covelli Centre, the Phantoms defeated the Gamblers, 5-2. On March 10 in Green Bay, Youngstown lost, 6-4.
“I’m really confident — we’ve got a great team and played them really well,” defenseman Ryan Lowney said. “This is the playoffs — it’s that much better hockey. I’m excited, I can’t wait to play.”
The key to the series will be how well the Phantoms’ penalty-killing unit — top-ranked in the league — does against the USHL’s second-best power play.
“In playoffs, everything is magnified,” said Sam Anas, one of the Phantoms’ top penalty-killing forwards. “One power-play goal each game could be the difference. They are a pretty talented group.”
Joining Anas up front are Austin Cangelosi, Cam Brown, Alex Dahl and Josh Nenadal, while Lowney, Dan Renouf, Eric Sweetman and Tommy Davis are the backliners.
The Phantoms also lead the league in shorthanded goals — 13. Cangelosi has 11 in his two-year USHL career, a league record.
“If our power play can get clicking and steal us a game, I think our penalty kill can shut their power play down,” Padulo said. “We definitely need to be clicking on all cylinders.”
Noreen said depth is the secret to Green Bay’s success.
“The reason this team has been so good the past few years is that they are so deep at the skill positions,” said Noreen, who is completing his second season as head coach. “Their entire second line from last year is their first line [Nicholas Schilkey, Sheldon Dries and Alex Kile].”
“That line had a lot of success against us last year in the playoffs,” Noreen said. “Kyle Novak is definitely one of the most skilled guys [in the league]. They’ve got a pretty talented group, there’s no doubt about it.”
The Phantoms won’t have forward Nathan Walker available because of a broken bone in his neck suffered on April 5 in a 5-2 victory over Team USA. Walker was hit from behind and hurt when he fell into the boards.
“Probably the scariest thing I’ve ever been a part of in hockey, just seeing the way he went in and the way he went down,” Noreen said.
Padulo said Green Bay’s Resch Center, “will be electric. It seats 7,000 so it’s a louder atmosphere there — cowbells and whatnot.
“But I think we need to feed off that energy,” said Padulo who will make his postseason debut tonight. “We’re not going to have a problem getting amped up for these games.”