A lot of different words can be used to characterize this season’s Youngstown Phantoms hockey team.
One that can’t: soft.
The offseason-bound Phantoms had nothing to play for as far as the standings were concerned Saturday night at the Covelli Centre. In fact, they’ve been out of postseason contention for the better part of the season after getting off to a less-than-satisfying start.
But none of that mattered in the team’s season finale against playoff-bound Sioux City.
The Phantoms (17-37-6, 40 points) scrapped and clawed their way to a one-goal lead heading into the final period, but much like the season as a whole, the result just wasn’t there in the end.
The Musketeers (38-19-3, 79 points) scored three third period goals to win 5-3 at the Covelli Centre.
“The wins and losses don’t judge the importance of this season,” assistant captain Conor Lemirande said. “As a group we grew. Individually, we grew. It was always a positive atmosphere.”
The imposing 6-foot-6 forward, who’s on his way to Miami (Ohio) next fall, scored the Phantoms final goal of the season — a short-handed breakaway tally — early in the third period to give Youngstown a one-goal lead.
Five minutes later, Sioux City scored, scored and scored again to close out the contest.
“Conor Lemirande got better. Alfred Larsson got better. These are guys that have improved so much,” coach Anthony Noreen said. “That’s what it’s about. That’s what you love about it and that’s why you do it.”
Larsson picked up the assist on Lemirande’s goal. Tommy Parran and Josh Melnick scored first-period goals to give the Phantoms a 2-1 lead.
It was a lead they held for more than 27 minutes.
“It’s a huge testament to everyone,” forward JJ Piccinich said. “We didn’t get the numbers in the wins column that we wanted, but at the end of the day that’s not what matters.”
Piccinich, who finished second on the team in points (58) and goals scored (27) behind Kyle Connor, was one of the leaders on the team who used his play on the ice as an example.
However, personal glory was the furthest thing from Piccinich’s mind Saturday night.
“I [owe] it all to my teammates,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything without them.”
Piccinich is among those who has a decision to make about their future. But, again, that was the furthest thing from his mind on this night.
Pittsburgh native Luke Stork is one of more than half a dozen players who skated for the last time as a Phantoms, but will be back on the ice next season in Division I.
He figured why not go out with a bang.
“[Musketeers defenseman Neal Pionk] asked if I wanted to [fight] like first shift and I said no,” the Ohio State-bound Stork said. “Then I saw he had to stay on after an icing, so I was like OK let’s go.”
The two went at for what must have felt like 10 rounds because in the end, both Stork and Pionk had nothing left but to lean on each other for support.
Much like the Phantoms team did all season long. But as the music emanating from their locker room would suggest, it was a bittersweet “Closing time”.
“[The season] closed out earlier than what we wanted,” a choked-up Lemirande said. “But it’s definitely the closest bond I’ve ever had with a team.”