By Tom Williams
Everybody’s underdogs when the USHL’s best-of-five Eastern Conference Final began last weekend, the Youngstown Phantoms don’t mind that the pressure to win tonight’s Game 5 is on the home team — the top-seeded Dubuque Fighting Saints.
“All the pressure is on them,” said Phantoms forward John Padulo who scored the game-winning goal in Game 3. “They are the best team in the league — it’s all on them now.”
The Fighting Saints cruised through the USHL’s regular season, winning the Eastern Conference with a 45-11-8 record. The Saints lost just three times in regulation on their home ice at the Mystique Community Ice Center.
The Phantoms, who lost the first two games of the series there last weekend, have returned to Iowa with momentum. The third-place team rallied for 4-3 and 4-2 victories at the Covelli Centre earlier this week to force tonight’s showdown for the right to advance to the USHL’s Clark Cup final.
“The momentum should be ours,” said Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen, who is excited about the biggest game in the Phantoms’ four-year history.
“We’re going to go into a full house — what more fitting situation for this group and the story of this team than to be on the road against the best team in the league on Saturday night with a full house with your season on the line? The story of our season [is] summed up in a game like that.”
In mid-November — when the Phantoms were 5-11 after a 4-0 start — the playoffs appeared to be an impossible dream.
“We’ve had to battle through adversity this year,” goaltender Sean Romeo said. “I think Coach has done a great job of preparing us for times like this — it’s just another game, you know?
“We’re confident, for sure, but we’re definitely not looking past it. They are a great team and we’ve got to play [hard for] 60 minutes. If we do that, I think we’ll be all right.”
The Saints appeared to have the series wrapped up after 3-2 and 3-1 wins in Dubuque last weekend and taking a 3-1 lead into the locker room of Monday’s Game 3 at the Covelli Centre.
The Phantoms delivered a wake-up call — make that a wake-up wallop. Cam Brown and Markus McCrea scored within 27 seconds of each other as the Phantoms stormed into the third period, outshooting the Saints 18-2 in the first 12 minutes.
Late in the game, John Padulo scored the game-winner, giving the Phantoms new life.
In Tuesday’s Game 4, Austin Cangelosi snapped a 2-2 tie late in the third period for a 4-2 victory that forced tonight’s game.
“We’re taking it one day at a time, we can’t look to far [ahead],” Padulo said. “The road we’ve come on so far, it’s definitely been a steep one.
“Our goal was never just to make the playoffs, we’re in it to win it. I think [other] teams are starting to realize that we’re a team that could be going for it all.”
In Games 3 and 4, the Phantoms were relentless with their physical play.
“I think we’ve got them off their game and it’s definitely showing,” Padulo said. “They’ve never gone through the adversity we’ve gone through.
“They don’t want to be a physical team,” Padulo said. “They put their more gritty guys in the [Game 4] lineup, so it’s good to see we’re making them change the way they play.
“When we are at our best, that’s being physical, that’s [scoring] dirty goals, being chippy.”
In the Game 3 comeback, the Phantoms scored three times in the third period against Arthur Brey, the Saints’ top goalie. In Game 4, Brey was ill so backup Christian Frey played. Brey, who was 24-6-4 in the regular season, is expected back in goal tonight.
McCrea said the Phantoms must keep firing the puck at Brey and work hard for rebounds.
“Most of the goals we scored were gritty, dirty goals — rebounds, stuff like that,” McCrea said. “That’s exactly how you’re going to beat this team because that’s how they play.
“If we do that better than they do, get to the gritty areas, get to the dirty areas and bury some pucks, we’ll take the series,” McCrea said.
Romeo said his team must keep things in perspective.
“Once that puck drops, it’s the same ice sheet, same net, same players, same game — nothing changes,” Romeo said.
Cangelosi, who is co-captain along with Alexander Dahl, said, “We’re not done yet — we’ve got to finish what we’ve started.”