By Tom Williams
Until Joey Abate beat Cedar Rapids goaltender Blake Pietila with 8:32 remaining in regulation, Thursday for the Youngstown Phantoms was a morning only a grinch could embrace.
Wednesday night’s snowstorm closed just about every school in the Mahoning Valley, forcing the Phantoms to postpone their Hockey for Health “Get Schooled” Day until April 12.
Instead of playing before thousands of screaming elementary and middle school students, the Phantoms and RoughRiders skated in a mostly empty and eerily quiet Covelli Centre.
“You try to play the same way and don’t let it affect you,” said Phantoms forward Eric Esposito, who scored the game-ending goal in a shootout as the Phantoms won, 2-1. “But it definitely affects the energy, especially [playing] early. It was tough to keep our intensity with every line.
“We would have a good shift then take a shift off,” Esposito said. “It wasn’t consistent [until the third period].”
Abate’s goal changed everything.
Esposito started the play by keeping the puck in the RoughRiders’ zone then finding Abate across the ice near faceoff circle hashmarks.
“He got in there on the forecheck, and I yelled his name,” said Abate who joined the Phantoms in November after starting the season with the Omaha Lancers. “He slid it over to me and I scored.”
He had a wide-open look.
“Especially with a smaller goalie, it looks like a soccer net,” said Abate, adding that the 5-foot-10 goalie “played [well] for being an undersized goalie.
“He played his heart out.”
Abate’s goal tied the game 1-1.
Marc McLaughlin scored an unassisted shorthanded goal in the first period for the RoughRiders (9-10-0-2, 20 points).
“The first 20 minutes were a little flat for [both teams],” said Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson, adding that Peeters “was tremendous for us in the second period. He made a couple of big stops and then in the shootout, he keeps us in there.
“He gave us the opportunity to win.”
The victory gives the Phantoms (12-5-3-1, 28 points) a three-point lead over second-place Chicago in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. Chicago has two games in hand.
It was the Phantoms’ sixth win in seven games and eighth straight game where they earned at least one point.
Peeters and Pietila stopped everything down the stretch and through the five-minute overtime.
“He’s been rock-solid, he’s been playing out of his mind the last couple of weeks,” said Abate of Peeters.
The shootout went six rounds before Esposito ended it with a wristshot.
On Cedar Rapids’ first attempt, Marek Valach scored between Peeters’ pads. On the Phantoms’ second attempt, Max Ellis tied the game with a deke that pulled Pietila to his far right, allowing for an easy tap-in goal.
“I was seeing shot all the way,” Esposito said of his game-winner, explaining that Pietila did not move out much on the other Phantoms’ attempts. His shot went left over Pietila’s pad.
Helping him select that shot was the stop Pietila made on the Phantoms’ first shootout attempt by Tommy Parrottino on a backhand try.
“[Pietila] didn’t even move, wasn’t biting on dekes,” Esposito said.
Peeters stopped 20 shots in regulation and overtime while Pietila made 30 saves.
Peeters’ strategy while his teammates are taking shootout shots?
“I try not think at all, [just] relax and stay calm, then get ready for the next shooter,” said the 6-4 goalie from Turnhout, Belgium.
Aafke Loney, Phantoms-co-owner, said the “Get Schooled” program has been rescheduled for April 12 when the Phantoms host Team USA in a morning game.
The program offers tips on drug prevention, career opportunities and STEM classes.
Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Attorney-General, and Youngstown State University president Jim Tressel were among those scheduled to participate on Thursday.
The Phantoms also have a program for high school students called “The Game of Business” which includes job shadowing and business presentations.