The Youngstown Phantoms, the amateur hockey team that just a few months ago no one in city government seemed to want anymore despite having its best season, is one win away from competing for the USHL championship.
What’s not to love about that?
Saturday night, the Phantoms and Dubuque Fighting Saints will battle for the right to advance to the USHL Clark Cup Final. Not many outside the Phantoms’ locker room imagined such a showdown was possible, especially as recently as Monday when the Phantoms trailed the Saints, 3-1, going into the third period of Game 3 at the Covelli Centre.
The Phantoms stung the Saints with goals within 27 seconds by Cam Brown and Markus McCrea. Then with eight minutes to play, John Padulo scored the game-winner, knocking a lot of the swagger out the Saints who had only lost 11 times in 64 regular-season games.
One night after that 4-3 victory, the Phantoms’ third-period magic reappeared. Tied at 2, Brown found Austin Cangelosi unguarded in the slot and the Phantoms’ co-captain buried the puck for the game-winning goal. Padulo added an empty-netter for a 4-2 triumph.
Just like that, the top-seeded Saints’ 2-0 lead in the series had vanished as the Phantoms forced Game 5.
If they can keep the Saints close, the Phantoms believe their conditioning gives them an advantage late.
“The first three games have been extremely physical and [Game 4] was probably the most physical,” Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen said after playing four times in five nights. “Guys are wearing on each other.
“I think there is a respect, but guys are getting tired of being hit,” Noreen said. “I think it resulted in the best hockey the Covelli Centre has ever seen.”
Best hockey the eight-year-old arena has seen? What’s not to love about that?
Cangelosi said the Phantoms asked management to play their home games as soon as they returned from the first two in Iowa (losses of 3-2 and 3-1).
The USHL wanted the Phantoms to play at the Covelli this weekend, but professional wrestling, a men’s rally and a concert were already booked.
Because the Phantoms had done so well ousting Green Bay in the first round by playing four times in five nights, a schedule repeat was urged.
“We knew we are in [better] shape than they are,” Cangelosi said. “With the quick turnaround, we know we would have the advantage with stamina, energy. It showed.”
Padulo, the 5-foot-11 right wing who flies around the ice like a linebacker on skates, agreed.
“Our conditioning, we take pride in that,” Padulo said. “We wore them down. They are going to have some bumps and bruises.”
And time to heal, with three nights off in between Games 4 and 5. The Phantoms don’t mind — they feel they’re playing with house money after wiping out a 2-0 deficit.
Comebacks are nothing new to the Phantoms, who went 32-16 from Nov. 11 to the end of the regular season.
“After they scored a goal, someone said, ‘what’s different? We’ve done this all year.’” defenseman Eric Sweetman said of rallying in Game 3.
Late in the second period of that game, the Phantoms trailed 3-1 and the Saints were awarded power plays that lasted 5:56.
They didn’t score — what’s not to love about a team that defends that well?
“That team gets up on you 4-1, it’s going to be very difficult to come back,” Noreen said. “The fact that we were able to not only kill it off but grab the momentum, I thought we really pushed the pace.
“We were physical — it kind of got us back into our aggressive mentality,” the Phantoms’ second-year head coach said. “Sometimes our penalty kill has the ability to get the momentum and put us over the edge.”
Despite being down against the USHL’s best team, Noreen said his message before the third period of Monday’s game was to remind his players how far they’ve come.
“Just talked about where we’ve been all year,” Noreen said. “It’s the story of our year, it’s the story of the past couple of months, it’s the story of the first series — just about every big win we’ve had here was that same [comeback formula].”
After the Game 4, Noreen said the reward was earning “five more days together as a team.
“More than anything, that was the most important thing for these guys, buying themselves some more time.”
The Phantoms are playing in May — what’s not to love about that?
Tom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.