By greg gulas
After a two-week absence in which he helped Team USA to the Junior A Challenge gold medal, Youngstown Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen was happy to finally return to the friendly confines of the Covelli Centre.
Maxim Letunov made sure that the Muskegon Lumberjacks didn’t spoil Noreen’s homecoming.
Letunov’s hat trick and goals from both Zach Evancho and Kyle Connor helped lift the Phantoms to a 5-3 victory over the Lumberjacks Saturday in USHL Eastern Conference action.
“It was a great overall effort tonight and everyone wanted to win this one for the coach. We had an excellent game plan and executed at both ends of the ice,” Letunov said. “Our defense did an excellent job and I was able to score twice off rebounds. They also found me on backdoors so I must give them all the credit.”
Noreen said two weeks was a long time to be away from his team, but returning to the type of effort his team displayed against the Lumberjacks made it a nice return to the bench.
“We made some moves this week and challenged our guys to improve. We showed a lot of belief in those players in that room and they responded with a great effort,” Noreen said.
“We knew from day one it wasn’t if with Maxim but when, and you saw what he can do tonight. We see him do that every day in practice.”
The Lumberjacks scored first barely a minute into the game when Matt Iacopelli, with an assist from Robbie DeMontis, sailed his team-leading 11th goal (1:22) of the season past the outstretched glove of Phantoms goalie Colin DeAugustine.
It was also Iacopelli’s team best 15th point of the year.
The Phantoms took a 2-1 lead by scoring twice during an 18-second span of the opening frame. The first goal came at 13:03 when Evancho floated his second goal of the year past Muskegon goalie Jordan Uhelski.
Letunov then followed with an unassisted goal that found the back of the Muskegon net at 13:21 for the lead at intermission.
The Phantoms held a 15-6 shot advantage after the first 20 minutes of action but Muskegon tied the game 2-2 at 3:21 of the second period on Blake Christensen’s unassisted goal; the first of their five power play opportunities on the night.
Until Friday, Christensen was a Phantom. Prior to the game, the Phantoms traded him and a fourth-round USHL Phase I draft pick to Muskegon for a third-round selection and a sixth-round Phase II pick.
Youngstown regained the lead on a power play of its own, that coming on Letunov’s second goal of the game at 9:05.
When he added another power play goal at 12:14, his hat trick helped the Phantoms forge a 4-2 lead.
It was a lead they would hold heading to the final period and a lead they would not relinquish the remainder of the game.
A goal by Muskegon’s Cooper Marody at 5:48 of the final period cut the Youngstown lead to 4-3, but that was the closest they could get as Connor’s empty net goal with two seconds remaining closed out the scoring.
The Phantoms (6-10-1, 13 points) outshot Muskegon (8-7-3, 19 points) by a 37-25 count with DeAugustine improving to 4-2 while in goal.
The Phantoms finished their five-game homestand 2-3 and will take on the Lumberjacks again tonight at Muskegon’s L.C. Walker Arena.
Game time is 7:15 p.m.