By Tom Williams
Mapquest says there are 581 miles between the Covelli Centre and Dubuque’s Mystique Community Ice Center in Iowa.
Along the way, there’s no love lost between the Youngstown Phantoms and their USHL Eastern Conference final opponent, the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
“Definitely, our games this year were kind of chippy,” Phantoms forward John Padulo said.
“There’s definitely a rivalry there,” agreed forward Alexander Dahl, one of the Phantoms’ co-captains. “We played them in the [preseason] Fall Classic and there were a couple of fights right from the start.”
Defenseman Ryan Lowney says the Fighting Saints have joined the Muskegon Lumberjacks as the teams the Phantoms most enjoy beating.
“We hate them both,” the second-year Phantom said.
Friday and Saturday, the third-seeded Phantoms and top-seeded Saints open their best-of-five series in Iowa.
“Best team in the league, you’re the underdog,” Lowney said. “You’ve got to get pumped up for that.”
Game 3 will be at the Covelli Centre on Monday. If necessary, Game 4 will be there on Tuesday.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played this late [in April],” Lowney said. “It’s awesome — it’s nice playing hockey this long, especially with these guys.”
The Phantoms are alive after defeating the defending champion Green Bay Gamblers, 3-1, in the first round.
“That was unbelievable, especially the way we went out last year,” said Dahl, referring to a 3-1 loss to the Gamblers in 2012. “After splitting in Green Bay and then to sweep them at home was unbelievable.”
The Phantoms did it by shutting down the Gamblers’ top-ranked power play, surrendering just two goals in 14 attempts.
“We knew we had to shut them down in order to win,” Lowney said. “Twelve out of 14? I’d take that any day.”
The Phantoms will have their hands full with the Saints, who went 45-11-8 in the regular season.
The Saints only lost three times in regulation on their home rink. One of those was on March 14 when the Phantoms won, 4-3.
“The last time we played them, their goalie [Arthur Brey] got pulled in the first period,” Padulo said. “We need to definitely get a lot of shots at him — he may be a little suspect.”
Maybe, but Brey (24-6-4, 2.22 goals-against average) led the USHL in goaltender statistics. Phantoms goalie Sean Romeo (31-20-0, 2.75) had a much busier season.
The Saints won the other four games against the Phantoms — two in October at the Covelli Centre that launched the Phantoms’ 11-of-12 skid and two in early December in Dubuque.
Padulo thinks the Phantoms are better than their record.
“You look back to October — it’s night and day what kind of team we were then compared to now,” Padulo said. “You can see it by our record in the second half of the year — we were one of the best teams in the league.”
No one questions who was the best.
“There’s not a weakness,” Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen said of the Saints. “They have a very talented, fast, big, strong group of forwards — all four lines.
“Same thing on defense and one of the top goaltenders in the league in the back end,” the second-year head coach said. “They are as deep of a team as I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been [coaching] in the league. There’s just not many holes in their game.”
Padulo says both teams deserve the chance to advance.
“The way we are playing right now, we are at our best,” said the former Lumberjack who is enjoying his first postseason. “Obviously, they’ve [been at] their best all year.”