Phantoms can clinch title with two wins
By Tom Williams
The biggest goal in the nine-year history of the Youngstown Phantoms has given the USHL ice hockey team the chance to win a championship on home ice this weekend.
Last Saturday in Fargo, N.D., Nicholas Cardelli shot the puck between the legs of Fargo Force goaltender Strauss Mann. Cardelli’s overtime goal set up by Joey Abate lifted the Phantoms to a 3-2 victory and a 1-1 series tie in the USHL’s best-of-five Clark Cup Final.
“That felt awesome,” Cardelli said after Tuesday’s practice at Covelli Centre. “It was a must-win for us.”
Defenseman Jake Gingell, the Phantoms alternate captain, was on the bench when the game at Scheels Arena ended.
“Cardsie slid it five-hole,” Gingell said. “All the boys were pumped. It was unreal, just to see the excitement on everybody’s faces.”
The victory came 6:32 into the bonus session that was forced when Fargo tied the game 2-2 with 52 seconds remaining in regulation.
Head coach Brad Patterson’s message to the somewhat-deflated Phantoms during the intermission was to look ahead.
“You can’t change the past, you can only dictate the future,” Patterson said of his lockerroom speech. “It’s probably good that we had a little bit of a break.
“But I think after a couple of minutes in the lockerroom, the guys were ready to go again,” the Phantoms’ second-year head coach said. “They probably wished that the Zamboni didn’t have to do the whole ice sheet.
“They were charged up and ready to go.”
They still are. Tuesday’s practice was spirited as the Phantoms prepare for the biggest home games in their history.
“The boys are definitely excited, we have a chance to make history,” said Gingell, who is completing his fourth full USHL season and second here.
“It’s a privilege coming here every day and getting to make each other better,” captain Eric Esposito said. “This late in the season, [practicing is] awesome. We love it, we’ve got a tight group.”
Gingell said the Phantoms are playing for more than themselves.
“Everybody realizes that this is a lot bigger than just us,” Gingell said. “This is for Youngstown.
“The main goal of your team is to put Youngstown on the [hockey] map and get more people excited for hockey here,” said Gingell, who will play for Michigan in the fall. “If we can do that, we can make a difference for [new] players coming in.”
Although the Phantoms have home-ice advantage, it won’t be easy. The Force won Friday’s Game 1 (4-1) by scoring three goals on the power play. In Game 2, the Phantoms killed off all eight Force power plays.
“We know we’ve got to stay out of the box,” said Esposito, the team’s captain who is finishing his third season here. “You can say it won us the game.
“When your kill comes up huge like that and you’ve got confidence in your kill, it’s make everything a lot easier.”
Esposito respects the Force, the Western Conference’s third seed that ousted top seeds Waterloo and Omaha, but feels a strong start in Friday’s Game 3 is important.
“We just have to punch them in the nose early, get them dazed,” said Esposito who will play for New Hampshire in the fall. “It’s a dogfight — it’s who’s winning more battles, who’s playing harder on the forecheck.”
This is the first Cup Final for the Phantoms and second for the Force, who are completing their 10th USHL season.
Last week, the Phantoms spent about 37 hours on their bus going to North Dakota and then home. It’s the Force’s turn this week.
“We definitely learned a little bit about [the Force], the way they play between the whistles, after the whistles.”
Gingell says playing into late May “unreal. Every day, I wake up excited to go to the rink. You realize how lucky you really are to be around your brothers every day.”
“It’s really fun, especially with what’s at stake,” said Cardelli, who started the season with Fargo and was traded to the Phantoms in late January by Cedar Rapids. “It’s not every year where you have a chance to win a championship.
“So we’re really excited to have this opportunity for this weekend.”