The Youngstown Phantoms had not experienced victory in 49 days.
They managed to find different ways to lose in 10 consecutive USHL games with a two-week break nestled in the middle of the streak. There were plenty of fireworks Saturday night at the Covelli Centre, but this time the Phantoms found themselves on the winning end of a 6-3 result against Team USA.
“I think the biggest thing that we try to preach in that room is not to look at results, but look at the way we work,” Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen said. “If it wasn’t for that, I think it would have been very easy for this team to fall apart and give up.”
Noreen moved 17-year-old forward Trey Bradley to a line with goal scorers Kyle Connor and JJ Piccinich a little more than a week ago. Saturday night they made their coach look like a genius as the Phantoms’ top line combined for 10 points and four of the team’s six goals.
Connor also treated a better-than-average crowd to a rare treat, giving them an opportunity to throw their hats on the ice as he recorded his first career USHL hat trick.
“That was a pretty special moment,” Connor said. “We really wanted this one and looked at it like a must-win game.”
After a sluggish Phantoms power play yielded a short-handed goal for Team USA to start the scoring, the home side benefited from an offensive zone face-off. Connor was able to find a soft spot in the defense to tie the game.
Team USA’s special teams struck again minutes later as the Phantoms failed to pick up Luke Kunin in the slot and he shot the puck through goaltender Sean Romeo’s five-hole for a power-play goal.
But similar to the first time the Phantoms fell behind, the team’s top line tied the game. This time it was Piccinich’s 19th goal of the season to knot things up at 2.
Then, with a little more than two minutes remaining in the opening period, Maxim Letunov was given a 10-minute misconduct — the first of three the officiating crew would give out in the contest — for a check from behind. With the teams playing four-on-four, the Phantoms’ Tyler Spezia applied some pressure at the offensive blue line leading to a breakaway attempt.
Spezia was hooked down from behind and awarded a penalty shot, which he buried over goaltender Michael Lackey’s right shoulder.
The Phantoms picked up where they left off just 58 seconds into the second period as Connor netted his second of the game off a perfect feed from Bradley to extend the lead to 4-2.
“Some of the plays he made tonight,” Noreen said of Bradley, shaking his head in amazment. “I thought he was very good tonight.”
Then, with 3:25 remaining in the second period Connor was set up once again by his center for his third goal of the game.
“He’s a great playmaker,” Connor said of his linemate Bradley. “He’s got so much skill and he can just keep getting better.”
Bradley, who received a new stick from his dad earlier in the day, was playing in just his fifth game in the USHL.
“I’m just gonna keep playing and let the coaches make the decisions,” Bradley said. “They’ve given me more than I imagined.”