Special teams play ignites 4-game win streak
By Tom Williams
Penalty-kill perfection is a major reason why the Youngstown Phantoms have rattled off four consecutive wins.
The winning streak has vaulted the Phantoms (9-5-2-1, 21 points) to the top of the USHL’s Eastern Conference standings where they are tied with the Chicago Steel (9-3-1-2, 21 points).
Two wins came at home (4-3 over the Steel on Nov. 18, 7-3 over the Muskegon Lumberjacks on Nov. 22). The others were against the Central Illinois Flying Aces last weekend in Bloomington, Ill., (4-3 and 5-1).
During those games, opponents were awarded 12 power-play opportunities. All were stifled.
“Credit to both goaltenders,” Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson said of Wouter Peeters and Ivan Prosvetov. “That’s where it starts on PK.”
Patterson said the entire roster has spent some time killing penalties. Up front, forwards Tommy Parrotino, Craig Needham, Curtis Hall, Max Ellis, Eric Esposito and Michael Regush have excelled. Hall, Ellis and Esposito are veterans from last season’s squad.
“As the year went, we started having them sit in [penalty kill] meetings,” Patterson said.
Neither spent much time on the ice short-handed, but they learned.
“As I sat in on the meetings, I learned more and more,” Ellis said Tuesday. “Watching the guys helped a lot.”
With 14 points, Ellis is third on the team in scoring, trailing Matthew Barry (17) and Hall (16).
He and Hall are one and three in plus/minus that measures goals scored at even strength or shorthanded. Hall is +7, Chase Gresock is +6 and Ellis is +5.
Patterson said both have embraced a new role this season.
“Not only are they good offensively, but they’ve also been good away from the puck,” said the second-year Phantoms head coach, who added that every player leans either to being offensive or defensive.
“This league is about developing the other side that they are not as strong at,” Patterson said. “[We saw] that with Curtis and Max last year.
“They were always good offensively. Defensively, they’ve gotten miles better and they are now relied upon in key situations.”
Ellis is sporting a bruise near his right eye, a result of being struck by a puck in the Lumberjacks game. The Notre Dame commit said he had room to grow after the Phantoms finished fourth in the conference.
“Last year, I wasn’t very defensively responsible,” Ellis said. “As I sat in on the meetings, I learned more and more. Watching the guys helped a lot.”
He credits Tommy Apap, last year’s team captain, for helping him mature.
“He was a big help for me, a role model,” Ellis said. “He’s a great guy, he took me under his wing, showed me the way.
“He showed us the right stuff, the way to go about [penalty-killing],” Ellis said. “It helped a lot.”
Comparing goal scoring to a successful penalty kill, Ellis admitted that “scoring a goal is probably a better [feeling].”
In Friday’s 4-3 win over the Flying Aces, Ellis scored with 6:12 remaining in regulation to tie the game.
Eighteen seconds later, Parrotino scored an unassisted goal for the win.
Ellis said a penalty kill “provides big energy for us.
“When we’re down, it puts a little stress on the mood,” Ellis said. “When we kill one off, it lightens it back up, brings us more energy and gives us momentum.”
The Phantoms have plenty of momentum going into Friday’s game against Team USA at the Covelli Centre.
Then the Phantoms will celebrate one of the rarest things in junior hockey — a Saturday off.
“As important as it is to practice, it’s equally important to rest and recuperate,” Patterson said.