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By Tom Williams
The toughest challenge of the season awaits the hottest team on USHL ice.
The Youngstown Phantoms (28-20-0, 56 points) have been sizzling as they inch closer to the franchise’s second straight postseason appearance.
The Phantoms have won five straight games, all at the Covelli Centre.
Now, the fourth-place team in the USHL’s Eastern Conference must take its show on the road for four games, beginning Sunday afternoon against the third-place Green Bay Gamblers (29-17-0, 61 points).
The schedule won’t get any easier next week with three games in three nights (one in Iowa, one in Illinois and one in Michigan).
As 2013 began, fourth place appeared to be about the best the Phantoms could hope for as a 1-11 stretch in October and November seemed to have doomed them to the lower half of the eight-team Eastern Conference standings.
But the Phantoms caught fire on Jan. 5 by starting a six-game winning streak with a 4-1 win over the Muskegon Lumberjacks (27-15-0, 64 points, second place).
The Phantoms, 15-4 since Jan. 5, have separated themselves from the lower half of the standings in the race for the four playoff spots.
Leading the way has been goaltender Sean Romeo (23-15-0), who has played in all but three of those games. Romeo’s goals-against average is 2.71 and his save percentage is .910.
During the recent homestand, Romeo won the first four games, including a 4-0 shutout and a 3-2 shootout victory over the Chicago Steel (21-25-0, 46 points, fifth place).
His efforts earned him the USHL’s Goaltender of the Week for the second straight week and the third time this season.
“These last two weeks are indicators of how far he’s come, not just from last season, but even in this year so far,” Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen said. “He’s just been so consistent lately.
“You just feel like he’s going to win you the game every time he’s in net.”
Noreen said Romeo’s teammates were contributors.
“It’s a credit to our guys, Sean included, buying in to what we’re trying to do defensively,” Noreen said. “It’s not easy.
“There are a lot of shots getting blocked and a lot of work in ugly areas, but even if we get a breakdown, we know we’ve got Sean back there if we need him.”
They’ll need Romeo at the top of his game on Sunday — the defending USHL champion Gamblers have a 4-1 record against the Phantoms this season.
Youngstown’s 5-2 win came on Feb. 8 at the Covelli Centre. The Gamblers’ wins came in early November. At home, Green Bay won by scores of 5-0 and 3-1. Then at the Covelli Centre, the Phantoms’ record plummeted to a season low of 5-11-0 with losses of 5-2 and 3-2.
The Gamblers are in a bit of a funk, having lost their last three games.
The Phantoms are 11-11-0 in road games. They are ranked third in penalty killing in the 16-team league (86.06 success percentage).
The Phantoms’ last win was the wildest of the homestand. Trailing the Tri-City Storm 3-1 with a third-period power play, the Phantoms allowed a shorthanded goal, then roared back for three power-play goals to force overtime. In the extra session, Sam Anas scored the game-winner.
“Giving up the short-handed goal was kind of a dagger in the side,” forward John Padulo said, “but there’s going to be adversity throughout the season.
“I think we handled it very well,” said Padulo, who scored the Phantoms’ third goal. “We just chipped away one-at-a-time and our power play finally started clicking.”
Next week’s trip begins on Thursday in Dubuque, Iowa, against the first place Fighting Saints (37-9-0, 78 points), easily the team the Phantoms love the least this season.
The next night, the Phantoms will take on the Steel before moving on to Muskegon, Mich., to wrap up the busy weekend against the Lumberjacks.