By Tom williams
Trailing 18-5 in shots early, the Youngstown Phantoms surged, taking a lead into the final two minutes of Friday’s home opener against the Green Bay Gamblers.
But the winners of the USHL’s Clark Cup twice in the past four seasons took advantage of a couple of breaks, scoring two unassisted goals for a 4-3 overtime victory at the Covelli Centre.
Green Bay’s Nick Schmaltz scored the game winner late in the overtime session. Phantoms goaltender Jake Moore, who made 21 stops, said “a weird bounce came out to [Schmaltz]. He was all alone coming out of the corner.”
Moore tried to poke the puck off Schmaltz’ stick.
“It was either stay there and face their most-skilled guy or try and poke it,” Moore said. “I went for the poke and he got a really lucky bounce — it went off the goalpost somehow.”
Despite the finish, Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen said his team performed its best of the early season despite being shorthhanded on the back line.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” Noreen said after the Phantoms (0-2-1, 1 point) earned their first point. “Bad bounces, growing pains — but that was the best hockey game we’ve played. Start to finish, I really liked our [play].”
Trailing 2-1 after two periods, the Phantoms scored twice seize momentum. Luke Stork’s power-play goal set up by JJ Piccinich a little more than two minutes into the final period.
Eleven minutes later, Maxim Letunov’s first USHL goal put the Phantoms ahead 3-2 midway through the third period.
“There was definitely a high there because it was late in the game,” Moore said of the surge.
But the Gamblers (2-0-1, 3 points) stunned the Phantoms with 99 seconds remaining in regulation when Kevin Irwin stole the puck near the Phantoms goal.
“There was traffic in front and the [original] shot came from the point,” Moore said. “It hit my stick and I was in the butterfly [position].”
Moore said the puck bounced near a defenseman when Irwin swooped in to shoot.
The Phantoms were down to four defensemen for much of the game. Alex Carle suffered an injury in the second period after a collision near the boards. Kyle Mackey was ejected in that period after a four-minute kneeing penalty after a collision with Schmaltz.
The Phantoms used three forwards and one defenseman during the 4-on-4 overtime.
“There was a point on the line and we felt our best chance was to put three forwards and a D out there,” Noreen said. “We had our chances — unfortunately, they had theirs and he buried it.”
Piccinich likes that overtime strategy of being aggressive.
“I thought we needed to play more in their face late,” Piccinich said.
His third goal of the season (he scored two in 63 games last season) put the Phantoms ahead 1-0 in the first period. Taking a pass from Josh Nenadal, Piccinich beat Gamblers goaltender Jared Rutledge with a shot from the high slot for a power-play goal.
But during a two-man advantage midway through the first period, the Gamblers tied the game on Schmaltz’s tip-in of a rebound off Moore.
Early in the second period, Drew Best’s goal put the Gamblers ahead, 2-1.
Stellar penalty killing and key saves by Moore kept the Phantoms within striking distance.
“We’re making progress,” Piccinich said. “The difference between last week’s [losses to Team USA] and this week is huge. It wasn’t the result we wanted but we’re positive in the locker room.”