Phantoms hot March has them in line for playoffs bye

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When the Youngstown Phantoms opened their ninth USHL season last October with a 2-4-1-1 record, clinching a first-round playoff bye was a distant dream.

But thanks to a sterling record in March, the Phantoms (31-18-5-2, 69 points) are poised to earn a five-day break, maybe more, when the USHL Clark Cup Playoffs begin on April 16.

The Phantoms’ record in March was 9-0-1-1, lifting them solidly into second place in the Eastern Conference.

“Starting the year like that, you’re not happy,” Phantoms captain Eric Esposito said. “But it’s a 60-game season and there are always ups and downs.

“And we’ve had a lot of ups and downs this season, but we’re getting hot at the right time,” Esposito said. “That’s what you want.”

The USHL revamped its playoff format for this season. In recent years, the top four teams in each conference qualified.

This season, the league went back to a format used in the 2011-12 season when the top six teams in each division earned a postseason berth.

The top two teams in each conference will get a bye for the first round while the third-place team plays the sixth-place team and the fourth-place team plays the fifth-place team, with all games being played at the higher seed’s arena.

The first-round (best-of-three series) will begin two days after the USHL season ends on April 14. And the second round will open the following weekend.

“Its definitely exciting,” said forward Nicholas Cardelli, one of several Phantoms playing in their final USHL season either because they either are turning 20 or ready for college.

“This is our last year. We really want to get that bye, get a couple of days off. We know we really have a good team here to make a far push into the playoffs.

With four regular-season games remaining, the Phantoms have a seven-point lead on the third-place Muskegon Lumberjacks. The Phantoms will clinch second with one more win or a regulation loss by the Lumberjacks or two overtime/shootout losses by Muskegon.

“That’s our goal right now,” Esposito said of the bye. “Looking at the playoff schedule, it’s going to be huge if we can get [second place] for the rest. If we can get a little break, it’s going to be huge.”

Team USA (38-17-0-1, 77 points) already has clinched first place.

Standing in the Phantoms’ way this weekend are the sixth-place Chicago Steel (25-24-2-5, 54 points), last year’s Eastern Conference champions and the team that eliminated the Phantoms in a best-of-five series that went the distance. The Steel won all three of their home playoff games to advance.

The Steel are trying to hold off seventh-place Cedar Rapids and are three points behind fifth-place Dubuque and four points behind fourth-place Green Bay.

The Phantoms and Steel will play Friday and Saturday at 7:05 p.m. at the Covelli Centre.

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