By Tom Williams
The Youngstown Phantoms’ most successful season ended with a 4-0 loss to the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the winner-take-all finale of the USHL’s Eastern Conference final.
In many ways, it’s amazing the hockey team survived so long.
Consider Nov. 11, when the Phantoms lost to Green Bay for their 11th defeat in 12 games.
And then there was April 18, when the Phantoms trailed the Gamblers 2-1 in the third period, facing a 2-0 series deficit in the first round.
And then there was April 29, when the Phantoms trailed 3-1 to the Fighting Saints and were on the verge of being swept.
The trademark of the Phantoms’ roller-coaster fourth season was how often they found ways to rebound.
In mid-November, the Phantoms were 5-11 after a 4-0 start. Youngstown went on to win 32 of its next 46 games to climb into a tie for second place entering the final weekend of the regular season.
“The whole team didn’t quit, we all believed in the system the second we got here,” co-captain Alexander Dahl said of the turnaround. “We went through a lull in the beginning of the year, but none of us gave up at all. We just kept fighting and everything started to click.”
A 3-2 loss to the Chicago Steel knocked the Phantoms into third, forcing them to open the playoffs at Green Bay.
After losing the opener 3-1, the Phantoms rallied on April 18 to score three goals in the third period of Game 2 for a 4-2 victory. JJ Piccinich, feisty John Padulo and Sam Anas triggered the comeback.
Back home, the Phantoms earned the franchise’s first best-of-five playoff series victory when they ousted the defending-champion Gamblers by scores of 4-2 and 3-1.
“He was the best player in the Green Bay series,” Anthony Noreen, the Phantoms’ second-year head coach, said of Padulo.
In the next round, their comeback magic worked one more time after falling 3-2 and 3-1 in Dubuque. In the third period of Game 3 at the Covelli Centre, the Phantoms trailed 3-1 and stormed out of the locker room for the third period, firing 18 shots at Dubuque goaltender Arthur Brey in the 12 minutes.
Cam Brown and Markus McCrea tied the game, then Padulo scored the game-winner to force Game 4.
“The majority of my goals come from the dirty areas,” Padulo said. “I take pride in that area.”
The next night, co-captain Austin Cangelosi scored the go-ahead goal in Game 4 and Padulo added an empty-netter for a 4-2 victory.
Noreen called those games the best played at the Covelli Centre during his tenure.
“All credit [goes] to our leadership for stepping up,” Noreen said. “Our [playoff] lives [were] on the line.”
The Phantoms went 37-27-0 for 74 points. Youngstown was perfect during bonus hockey sessions, winning twice in overtime and five times in shootouts.
In their final seasons with the Phantoms, Cangelosi edged Anas in scoring by one point.
In 56 games, Cangelosi (Boston College) scored 21 goals and set up 43 others for 64 points. Anas (Quinnipiac) played in all 64 games. His 37 goals tied him for second place in the USHL.
Padulo, who came to the Phantoms from the Muskegon Lumberjacks, was third with 48 points on 16 goals and 32 points.
“I make friends whenever I’m on the ice, just not with the other team,” Padulo said after a particularly chippy performance.
The Phantoms’ top four defenders — Dan Renouf (Maine), Ryan Lowney (Ferris State), Eric Sweetman (St. Lawrence) and Tommy Davis (Princeton) — will be in college this fall.
Dahl will join Sweetman at St. Lawrence while Brown will play with Renouf at Maine.
Should the Phantoms return for a fifth season, goaltender Sean Romeo, who set franchise records for shutouts (five) and victories (31), again will be the number-one netminder.
Kyle Connor, 16, was the youngest player in the USHL this season. With 41 points in 62 games, O’Connor should be the Phantoms’ top scoring threat.
“He has the nickname ‘The Franchise’ — he hates that name a lot,” Cangelosi said. “He’s the heart of the franchise; he’s going to be here three more years.
“He’s a great kid, all about the team,” Cangelosi said. “Positive energy flowing off of him. When he’s on the ice, he makes everyone better.”
Noreen has high expectations for Brecksville’s Josh Nenadal, whose special teams time increased, especially after Nathan Walker was lost for the season with a broken bone in his neck.
“Wrecking ball — nonstop energy on the ice and maybe more importantly for a young team on the bench,” Noreen said of Nenadal. “He gets us going then he goes on the ice and does what he preaches then he comes back and gets everyone going for the next shift.
“There’s a reason why Josh Nenadal is always on the ice when the other team’s goalie is pulled. He might not be a guy who scores the most points, but the things he does don’t always get noted on the score sheet.”