After stumbling in three key home games down the stretch, the Youngstown Phantoms are playing better than ever.
Maybe their nickname should be the Jekylls and Hydes.
Anyone who saw the Phantoms lose twice to the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (March 29-30) and Chicago Steel (April 12) in games they desperately needed has to be a little surprised that the Phantoms bounced the Green Bay Gamblers, 3-1. Admittedly, these Gamblers weren’t as talented as the Green Bay team that won the USHL’s Clark Cup a year ago, but they were strong enough to hold off the Phantoms to earn the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
“Unbelievable opponent that’s been in the finals for the past three years for a reason,” Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen said. “It took every bit of what we had just to have a chance to beat them.
“I was proud of the way the guys handled it, responding to being down in every game and battling back,” Noreen said.
In all four games, the Gamblers scored first. In Game 1, Green Bay netted three goals in the first period and won 3-1.
In Game 2, the Gamblers had leads of 1-0 and 2-1 before the Phantoms rallied for three unanswered goals and a 4-2 victory.
Last weekend at the Covelli Centre (which had become the Phantoms’ personal House of Horrors), the Gamblers couldn’t hold early 1-0 leads, losing 4-2 and 3-1 to go home much sooner than they expected.
“Arguably the two best hockey games we’ve played all year, three best if you go back to Game 2,” Noreen said. “It was the best display of USHL hockey that the Covelli Centre has ever seen from both teams.”
Noreen, who sees the positive in just about every situation, was happy with how his players (ages 16-20) handled the biggest win in the franchise’s four-year history.
“We enjoyed it for a few minutes afterwards,” Noreen said of Sunday’s win. “Ten minutes after the game, you could have heard a pin drop in here.
“Not only were the guys exhausted from the effort it took to win, but also they knew what lies ahead and what the effort is going to have to be to have a chance to beat Dubuque.”
Ah, Dubuque, the team the Phantoms grew to really, really dislike this season. It started in a preseason Fall Classic game that had several fights and carried over into October when the Phantoms were 4-0 and the Fighting Saints 3-0.
JT Stenglein, last year’s leading goal scorer for the Phantoms, was scratched from their first of two games at the Covelli Centre after being suspended for an unpenalized incident in a 5-1 win over the RoughRiders.
League officials, perhaps at the urging of others not at the game, reviewed the incident and suspended the Phantom. Saints head coach Jim Montgomery said his staff had nothing to do with the suspension. The Phantoms felt otherwise.
The Fighting Saints won that game 4-1, limiting the Phantoms to 13 shots. Noreen called it the Phantoms’ worst game. Had Stenglein played, it wouldn’t have made much difference. The Saints won the next night by the same score.
The Phantoms lost 11 of 12 before turning the ship around right before trading Stenglein to the Sioux City Musketeers for Cam Brown, who scored four goals against the Gamblers. From Nov. 17 through April 10, the Phantoms went 32-14.
It makes you wonder which Phantoms team will play tonight in Iowa, the one that collapsed against Chicago on April 12 when second place was on the line or the one that limited the Gamblers’ top-ranked power-play unit to two goals in 14 chances in four games.
“We’re going to have to elevate our game,” Noreen said of the team’s most-important series ever. “Special teams played a huge role in the last series and we’re going to have to win the special teams battle [again].”
During the regular season, the Saints (45-11-8) won four of the five games against the Phantoms (37-27-0).
“The last time, we got the better of them so they are probably going to have a chip on their shoulders,” forward John Padulo said of the Phantoms’ 4-3 win in Dubuque on March 14. “But we’re going to make it a physical battle with them and hope we can [generate] some bad blood.”
Round three will be at the Covelli Centre on Monday.
Tom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at email@example.com