Whether it gets recognized or not, hockey legend Gordie Howe would’ve been proud of Youngstown Phantoms forward JJ Piccinich Thursday night.
Piccinich unofficially completed the hat trick Howe once made famous.
Piccinich got in a fight in the second period, picked up an assist in the third, and scored the game-winning goal in a shootout for the Phantoms, who defeated the Dubuque Fighting Saints, 5-4, at the Covelli Centre. It was the third win in the last four games by the Phantoms (14-28-5, 33 points).
“Huge, huge two points, huge win against a very good team,” Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen said. “Top to bottom, I loved our effort from every guy.”
He especially loved what Piccinich — known more for his goal-scoring abilities than his right hook — did.
“That’s us,” Noreen said. “We’ve talked about it from day one. We don’t care whether you can fight or you can’t, whether you’re the biggest guy or the smallest guy.
“If we’re gonna preach team toughness, everybody’s gotta be willing to go.”
The first leg of the hat trick came at 5:32 of the second period, with the Phantoms leading 2-1. Piccinich dropped the gloves with Dubuque’s Keegan Ford, who delivered the first blow. However Piccinich was able to regain his balance and counter with a clean shot on Ford.
“I kind of blacked out a little bit,” Piccinich said with a smile. “I remember falling, getting up and I just closed my eyes and swung.”
The benches showed their appreciation by tapping their sticks against the boards, and then lighting up the scoreboard for two goals in 46 seconds. Off the ensuing faceoff, Dubuque defenseman Josh Elmes fired the puck on net from the blue line and Shane Eiserman deflected it past Phantoms goaltender Colin DeAugustine to tie the game at 2.
The score didn’t stay that way for very long as Kyle Connor found himself all alone on a breakaway and beat Fighting Saints goalie Kevin Reich blocker side for his 22nd goal.
Midway through the third period, with the Phantoms still leading 3-2, Piccinich was going hard to the net with the puck when he was knocked down by a Fighting Saint defender. The puck advantageously ended up on Maxim Letunov’s stick, who threw a deke on Reich and sent a backhander into the open net.
Dubuque eventually scored two unanswered goals to force overtime. The first came from a sharp angle along the goal line and the second was with just 10 seconds left in regulation and their goalie on the bench in favor of an extra attacker.
“It was real unfortunate,” Noreen said. “We had our line that we wanted to get out there, we were just never able to get them on the ice.”
A scoreless overtime period followed, needing a shootout to decide the winner. Connor scored for the Phantoms and Alex Privitera for the Fighting Saints, leaving the game on the stick of Piccinich.
He came in with speed, put the puck on his forehand and lifted it over the glove of Reich.
“I don’t always, but this time I knew I was gonna go ahead and do that,” Piccinich said of his game-winning shot. “Reich was deeper in his net and that kind of helped. It was a good win.”