Phantoms’ Kulbakov stonewalls hottest team
By Tom Williams
The hottest team in the USHL turned stone cold against the Phantoms’ last line of defense.
Goaltender Ivan Kulbakov stopped the first 25 shots he faced on Sunday as the Phantoms handed the Chicago Steel their first loss of the season.
Alex Mahalak, Griffin Loughran and Curtis Hall scored goals as the Phantoms won, 3-2, at the Covelli Centre.
“He is the backbone of this time, he wins us every game,” Loughran said of Kulbakov who improved to 6-1-0. “He is huge back there, provides great confidence for us.”
Also excelling were the Phantoms’ penalty killers, who skated off all but one of 11 power-play chances for the Steel (10-1-0, 20 points).
“When you give a team that gifted that many opportunities, it’s bound to bite you once,” Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson said. “The guys blocked a ton of shots and sacrificed their bodies. “That’s what you need to do.
“That was the biggest challenge that we’ve been presented,” Patterson said. “Ivan is a competitor. You look at him on the ice and you see a goalie who is a professional, he carries himself the right way.”
Kulbakov stopped 28 shots. The Steel’s second goal came with 22 seconds remaining and goalie Ales Stezka lifted for an extra attacker.
The victory moves the Phantoms (7-4-0, 14 points) into a tie with the Muskegon Lumberjacks for third place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Kulbakov was a workhorse in the opening 20 minutes, stopping all 14 shots the Steel fired on goal.
Mahalak’s first USHL goal gave the Phantoms a 1-0 lead early in the second period.
“It felt great,” the Phantoms defenseman said. “It had been a while.
“I’ve been trying to get over the hump, get the first one out of the way,” said Mahalak, who added that he wasn’t yet feeling frustrated. “You just want to get that first one out of the way, get your confidence going.”
His goal came with the Steel’s Johnny Walker in the penalty box.
“The forwards were working the puck down low and I saw an opening in the middle,” Mahalak said. “So I drove into the middle and [Nicolas] Werbik found me in the slot, and I ripped it.”
Mahalak said he wasn’t sure he had a goal when the puck left his stick.
“The goalies are pretty good in this league, so you never know,” he said. “I felt confident shooting it.”
Nine minutes later, Loughran’s goal — also his first in the USHL — boosted the Phantoms’ self-esteem.
Loughran capped a give-and-go play with Coale Norris. Michael Karow started the play back in the Phantoms’ end when he snapped a pass at the Steel blue line to Norris.
“It was awesome, best feeling in the world,” Loughran said after his shot banked off the goalpost into the net. “Caught them changing wholesale, Norris gave me a good pass, unselfish, 2-on-0,” Loughran said. “And I just put it in the back of the net.”
Curtis Hall scored the game winner with eight minutes remaining. Eric Esposito and Ty Farmer assisted.
“It’s huge to end their streak,” Loughran said. “There’s no better feeling than ruining a team’s night, especially here at the Covelli.”