No coach deserves more to see his team return to the playoffs than Youngstown Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson. After playing two seasons with the Youngstown SteelHounds of the Central Hockey League, Patterson returned to the Mahoning Valley and joined the USHL Phantoms in 2010.
Sometimes, nice guys don’t finish last.
Patterson was an assistant coach, first to head coach Curtis Carr for a season-and-a-half, then Anthony Noreen for four seasons. When John Wroblewski left last June after one season as head coach, Patterson was promoted.
His coaching style? Let’s just say he’s the anti-Bo Pelini.
“For the most part, he tries to stay even-keeled, not get too high or too low,” Phantoms assistant captain Alex Esposito said. “But like any coach during a season, we’ve seen him get a little fired up. He’s certainly [criticized] guys before.”
Then Esposito added: “He usually doesn’t over-react and it keeps us composed.”
Captain Tommy Apap said his two seasons in Youngstown have prepared him well for his next stop, Michigan State.
“I loved Wrobo and I love Brad so I’ve been pretty luck to have had two awesome [head] coaches in the past two years here,” said Apap who joined the Phantoms last season after a trade from the Fargo Force.
“Wrobo and Patty took me in and helped me develop as a player and a person,” Apap said. “Patty has just continued to that [as head coach].”
Eric Esposito is the only other Phantom who was with the team last season. Patterson’s task last August was to mold a bunch of new faces into a team. He did it by promoting the team as a family.
“Patty was saying to us that we’re going to be the hardest-working team, we’re gonna have a lot of fun and we’re going to be really tight,” Apap said. “You put those three things together, you’re going to have a good team.”
The Phantoms won seven of the first 11 games. The biggest victory came on Oct. 30 when the 10-0 Chicago Steel visited the Covelli Centre on the afternoon of Game 5 of the World Series. Ivan Kulbakov, the goaltender from Belarus, stopped the Steel’s first 25 shots in the Phantoms’ 3-2 victory.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The Phantoms lost their next six games, but Patterson didn’t panic. (Stop for a moment to imagine a Pelini press conference after six consecutive defeats).
“We actually played phenomenal through that stretch,” Patterson said. ”It wasn’t like we were getting blown out, we were playing very, very good hockey.
“The guys stuck with it,” he said. “The big thing for me is having a team that is very tight. And the guys held true to that.”
The Phantoms turnaround began during a 10-day road trip over Thanksgiving to Nebraska and Wisconsin. In the sixth consecutive loss, the Phantoms trailed the Tri-City Storm by three, before rallying to force overtime. They lost that game, 4-3, but finished the trip with four wins.
“We took nine of our next 10,” Patterson said.
That stretch propelled the Phantoms into the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Phantoms finished fourth to earn the final playoff berth on the last day of the regular season.
Minutes after the playoff berth was secured last Saturday, Patterson was asked what he felt as the third period of a 3-0 win over Team USA ticked down. His response was typical Patterson.
“Well, I mean I’m happy for the guys, it’s an accomplishment,” said Patterson, who took a moment after the game to show is son Tucker, 1, the Zamboni before meeting the press. “But at the same time I think any coach will tell you that you’re probably content for two breaths then you start thinking about what you need to do next.”
Tonight and Saturday, the Phantoms will be in Illinois to play the first-place Chicago Steel in the first two games of a best-of-five series.
Games 3 and (if necessary) 4 will be at the Covelli Centre on April 21-22.
Their task is not impossible. Only seven points in the standings separated the Steel (38-17-5, 81 points) and Phantoms (34-20-6, 74). And the Phantoms won the season series with the Steel, 3-2.
“We have to come out and play really fast and physical because of how fast a team they are,” Apap said of the Steel. “If we don’t shut them down, they will use their speed to their advantage.”
Patterson said, “We had two goals at the start of the year — make the playoffs and win the Clark Cup.”
The quest for part two begins tonight.
Tom Williams is a sportswriter at The Vindicator. Write him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @Williams_Vindy.