By Tom Williams
Fourteen of the longest minutes of John Padulo’s hockey life eventually paid a huge dividend.
Moments after the Youngstown Phantoms forward scored to tie Tuesday’s Game 4 of their best-of-five playoff series against the Dubuque Fighting Saints, Padulo was assessed a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and 10-minute taunting misconduct.
The Phantoms weathered the storm of their top player in the postseason. One minute after Padulo was sprung from the box, he made the play of the game to help set up Austin Cangelosi with the game-winning goal at the Covelli Centre.
Cangelosi’s goal and Padulo’s empty-netter sealed the Phantoms’ 4-2 victory to force Saturday’s Game 5 in Dubuque. The winner will advance to next week’s Clark Cup Final.
After losing the first two games of the series in Iowa by 3-2 and 3-1 scores, the Phantoms are one win away from the first Final appearance in their four seasons.
“I lost my head a little bit,” said Padulo, whom Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen calls his best player in the playoffs. “I’ve got to credit my teammates — they really calmed me down. I have a little bit of a short fuse. It was definitely undisciplined.”
Padulo’s time in the box was extended two minutes while he waited for a whistle to stop play.
One night after scoring the game-winning goal when the Phantoms rallied for a 4-3 victory, Padulo was charged up when he was sent back onto the ice. He stripped the puck from Saints defenseman Kyle McKenzie in the Dubuque zone.
“It was a huge forecheck by Padulo,” said Cangelosi of his second goal in two nights. “He just laid a crushing hit on their defenseman — he did that all night.
Cam Brown picked up and fired it to Cangelosi in the slot.
“Brownie picked up the puck and I saw no one was in front of the net, so I kind of snuck in back door and he gave me a perfect pass,” said Cangelosi, who beat backup goaltender Christian Frey.
Of the pass, Padulo said, “Brown hit Cangeolsi and Cange is definitely going to bury that one. He’s been our go-to guy all year and a big game like this, you’ve got to rely on your horse. Cangelosi is definitely our best player.”
Markus McCrea served Padulo’s two-minute penalty and he wasn’t idle in the box.
“He took it upon himself to spend the two minutes talking to John in the box,” said Noreen, explaining that the message was to rest up and come out of the box and do what he’s done all series.
“First shift, we score a goal and he was the best player the rest of the game,” Noreen said.
Arthur Brey, the Saints’ top goaltender who gave up three third-period goals in Monday’s game, did not play because of illness. Frey stopped 16 shots.
Phantoms goaltender Sean Romeo made 19 saves.
“Romeo again was our best penalty killer tonight,” Padulo said.
The Phantoms killed four of the Saints’ power-play chances and scored on one of their four man-advantage opportunities.
Unlike the previous three games, the Phantoms scored first. With the Saints’ Jeff Taylor in the penalty box for crosschecking Cangelosi, defenseman Eric Sweetman blistered a shot from the point that Frey missed for a 1-0 lead in the opening period.
Showing the same energy that ignited Monday’s third-period comeback, the Phantoms limited the Saints to four shots in the first 20 minutes.
But Dubuque had the best record in the regular season and showed why in the second period.
On the power play, Mike Szmatula‘s shot from the point banked off the near goalpost and into the net.
During a four-on-four situation, the Saints took the lead after a three-on-two breakout from the Dubuque zone. After Romeo stopped Seamus Malone’s shot, the Saints forward lifted the rebound over the sprawled goaltender for a 2-1 lead.
With Saints forward Joseph Manno in the penalty box for boarding, Padulo tied the game. Sam Anas shot the puck from the point, Padulo knocked it down and snapped it past Frey to set off a costly celebration.
“It was definitely tough to watch when you want to be out there competing with your teammates,” Padulo said, “but I’ve got to [accept the] consequence. I let emotions get the best of me. Those minutes I sat out, my teammates picked up the slack for me.”