By Tom Williams
When your team is leading by two goals in one of the toughest USHL arenas for visiting teams, the last thing a hockey head coach wants to see is his goaltender skating to center ice with his gloves off.
Last Saturday in Lincoln, Neb., Youngstown Phantoms goaltender Sean Romeo couldn’t resist Michael Bitzer’s invitation to battle even though his team held a 3-1 lead a little more than halfway through the game.
Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen said everyone was watching the opposite zone as John Padulo stood up to one of the Stars after a late hit on Kyle Connor.
“As that was going on, I heard the crowd go nuts,” Noreen said. “I saw Sean [skating] at about the top of the [faceoff] circle with no gloves, helmet or stick but a huge smile on his face.”
Romeo said it was the first fight of his hockey career.
“It was a delayed penalty and a scrum down in their end,” Romeo said. “Their goalie shook his gloves at me, which means he’s asking if I want to go? I just shook my head yes and he skated out.”
Romeo said each goalie landed one punch.
“I really didn’t feel anything in the fight, but after my hand kind of hurt a little bit,” Romeo said.
Noreen admitted his first thought as Romeo was skating was frustration. One of the things he advised his players was to not let the huge crowd get into the game.
“That was gone in about an instant,” said Noreen of his frustration, adding that getting backup goaltender Jake Moore ready became the primary concern.
Moore stopped 14 of the 15 shots he faced as the Phantoms hung on for a 5-2 victory, their third straight and second of the weekend.
“I tried to calm the guys down, make it into a positive, saying Sean is sticking up for the guys,” Noreen said. “Jake did really well.
“When it was 3-1, he made some huge saves. To come in cold was pretty tough, especially after you’ve been on the bus for 10 hours that morning.”
Moore said its’s a little harder getting thrown into a game when the starter is tossed.
“You’re going in cold, you’re not expecting it,” said Moore, adding that the fight and the crowd helped his adrenaline start pumping. “I was a little shocked at first, but then I was ready to go.
“The crowd after that was unreal,” said Moore, who will make his first starts this weekend when the Phantoms play the Des Moines Buccaneers tonight and Saturday at the Covelli Centre. Romeo’s fight earned him a two-game suspension.
Moore, who said he’s never been in a fight, admitted he’s tempted after watching Romeo battle.
“But with the two-game suspension, I don’t know,” Moore said.
The fight was the second involving a goalie in the Phantoms’ four seasons in the USHL. The first one was in April 2010 when Phantoms netminder Matt Mahalak tangled with Cedar Rapids’ Cody Campbell.
The Covelli Centre was the site of another goalie battle on Jan. 27, 2008 when Youngstown SteelHounds goaltender Andy Franck took on the Rocky Mountain Rage’s Scott Reid in a Central Hockey League game.
Despite being penalized two minutes for leaving his crease during an altercation and five for fighting, Franck finished the game.
Reflecting on his skate to center ice, Romeo said he was aware he had “the biggest smile on my face. Skating out, the whole place was going nuts. They also [told me] I was laughing.
“I wasn’t angry at anybody, I was playing well, I didn’t have anything to be upset about,” Romeo said. “It was just a [new] experience.”
After being told Noreen was livid, Romeo admitted he was a little “afraid” of his coach’s reaction.
“He came in and gave me a high five,” Romeo said.
Romeo described watching the third period as feeling “helpless. To be out and watching was a weird experience.”
Last weekend’s wins over Chicago and Lincoln moved the Phantoms (16-16-0, 32 points) into fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings, one point behind the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.
“We’re hoping its a sign of the improvement we’ve made as a team over the last few weeks,” Noreen said. “We’ve seen glimpses of that. We had a great start in Chicago and I think the momentum carried over.
“That’s as tough as a road trip as we’ll have all year — play in Chicago and then travel nine hours. It’s definitely something to build on.”