The Youngstown Phantoms opened the 2012-13 USHL season with their best start in franchise history. Coming off last year’s fourth-place finish and first playoff appearance, the Phantoms won their first four games.
Thanks to two road wins last weekend, the Phantoms closed the first-half of their 64-game regular season with three straight wins.
In the middle of those streaks were plenty of struggles, including one l-o-n-g stretch in which they lost 11 of 12 games.
The Phantoms’ recent winning streak leaves this question unanswered — just how good is this year’s team? Head coach Anthony Noreen believes they are better than their .500 record (16 wins, 16 losses, no overtime losses, 32 points). Following Saturday’s 5-2 win over the Stars in Lincoln, Neb., Noreen said, “This says a lot about our team and how far we’ve come, especially over the past few weeks.
“It’s not easy to come to this rink and win like we did. It’s hopefully something to draw positive energy from.”
Lincoln (19-10-3, 41 points) is the fourth-best team in the Western Conference. Their arena is not an easy place to play.
Saturday’s win lifted the Phantoms into fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings, one point behind the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders who have played two more games. Right behind with 31 points each are the Chicago Steel and Indiana Ice.
This season, four teams from each eight-team conference will qualify for the postseason. (Last season, six of the eight advanced to the postseason). Gone is the old format in which six teams qualified, two earned byes and the other four played a best-of-three play-in series. Youngstown’s first playoff series victory came last April in a two-game sweep of Cedar Rapids.
To make the postseason again, the Phantoms will need just about everyone not named Daniel Renouf to step up in the second half. With a +23 rating, the second-year defenseman is the team’s Most Valuable Player. The seven games Renouf missed with injury came during the aforementioned long stretch.
Honorable mention goes to second-year forward Austin Cangelosi who leads the team with 32 points despite missing four games while representing Team USA in early November. With 24 points each, Sam Anas and John Padulo are tied for second.
As for most improved, look no further than the Phantoms’ net where Sean Romeo is 14-11-0 in his first season as the number-one netminder.
“Sean has really earned [first-team status],” Noreen said.
Romeo has done so well that the Phantoms decided to release Patrick Spano, a Yale recruit, right after Christmas so he can play in British Columbia. He’s now with the Cowichan Capitals of the British Columbia Hockey League, a junior A league similar in talent to the North American Hockey League that once included the Mahoning Valley Phantoms.
“Patrick was absolutely an unbelievable teammate and part of this organization while he was here,” Noreen said. “He’s going on to Yale next year no matter what.” In eight games, Spano posted a 2-5-0 record. As Romeo’s stature rose, Spano was stuck watching at the end of the bench.
“Us, Patrick, Yale — all felt it would be in his best interests to be somewhere where he’s going to be able to play to get himself ready for next year,” Noreen said. “We felt it was the right thing to do to give him a chance.
“He was highly sought-after when we made him available,” Noreen said. “Every team in that league wanted him.”
Taking over as Phantoms backup is Jake Moore.
“Jake Moore has been here since Day One,” Noreen said. “He’s put in as much work as anybody else and hasn’t been able to showcase it during a game.”
The other major change that occurred in the first half was the trade that sent last year’s top goal scorer — JT Stenglein — to Sioux City for Cam Brown.
Stenglein, who also represented Team USA, was traded on Thanksgiving. In 11 games, the third-year Phantom scored six goals and five assists.
With a +7 rating, Brown has one goal and five assists in his 14 games as a Phantom. He’s happy to be in Youngstown.
“There’s a lot more going on here than in Iowa — cornfields, pretty much.”
Tom Williams is a sportswriter with The Vindicator. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.