By Tom Williams
After the Youngstown Phantoms lost the first two games of their best-of-five playoff series to the Chicago Steel, first-year head coach Brad Patterson chose to neglect a doom-and-gloom approach.
Patterson’s message to his players before Game 3 last Friday at the Covell Centre was to stay positive.
When asked about a comeback that seemed very unlikely (the Phantoms had been outscored 10-1 in the opening games), Patterson spoke from experience.
“I’ve been a part [of rallies] a couple of times, down 3-0 and 2-0 and come back,” said Patterson, whose professional career included two seasons with the Youngstown SteelHounds of the Central Hockey League. “It’s doable.”
Four years ago, Patterson was an assistant coach when the Phantoms trailed the Fighting Saints 2-0 in the USHL Eastern Conference Finals. Even worse, they fell behind 3-1 after two periods in Game 3 before rallying for a 4-3 win.
The Phantoms won Game 4 (4-2), then fell 4-0 in the decisive Game 5 in Iowa. That’s the deepest the Phantoms have gone in the postseason in their previous three playoff appearances. The Fighting Saints went on to win the Clark Cup.
Strong performances by the Phantoms last weekend have their Eastern Conference semifinals with the Steel tied up.
The Phantoms won 4-1 on Friday and then 3-2 on Saturday to force Game 5. Those games were so much different from the first two at Fox Valley Arena (4-1 Steel in Game 1 and 6-0 in Game 2).
“They have a lot of good skill guys on their team,” defenseman Michael Karow said. “Obviously, we didn’t do the best job shutting them down [in the first two games].”
Defenseman Brandon Estes agreed, saying the Steel “move pucks very well, they get them to the net.”
Tonight’s Game 5 in Geneva, Ill., will determine who advances to the USHL’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Fighting Saints.
“[Tonight’s] a big test for us — [put] some pressure on Chicago,” Patterson said. “It’s an uphill battle.”
Saturday’s game was a thriller, with the Steel pulling goaltender Ales Stezka with 69 seconds to play. Despite the extra skater, the Steel produced no shots on Phantoms netminder Ivan Kulbakov.
“I [sound like] a broken record, I know it,” Patterson said. “That was playoff hockey to a T.
“That’s what you expect,” Patterson said. “You expect there to be close games, you expect there to be battles, you expect emotions to be high, big swings in momentum.”
Although the Phantoms are prepared to travel on to Dubuque after a victory, no one is talking about it.
“We can only live in the moment, we can only live in today,” Patterson said. “We’ve had one goal that past two weeks — to live another day.”
The key for the Phantoms will be to take the lead and avoid penalties.
“That first goal is big,” said forward Evan Wisocky who scored the game-winner in Game 4, a game in which the Phantoms never trailed.
Patterson said disciplined play is a must.
“We need to stay out of the penalty box,” he said.