Phantoms to open playoffs at home against Madison Capitols

Staff photo / Brian Yauger. Phantoms forward Michael Munroe fights for positioning with Team USA’s Will Horcoff during Saturday’s contest in Michigan.

Last season, it was the journey up the mountain.

While the Youngstown Phantoms’ flag is still planted atop the mountain, the climb begins anew.

The landscape is a little different this year. Youngstown doesn’t have the luxury of a first-round bye this season as the fourth seed, and as a team, they have a Clark Cup-sized target on their backs.

First up on the docket for the Phantoms’ title defense run, the Madison Capitols.

Madison (33-23-4-2) finished as the fifth seed with 72 standings points as opposed to Youngstown’s 76.

Led by the scoring attack of Austin Burnevik, Andrew Kuzma and a solid netfront tandem of Carsen Musser and Patriks Berzins, like every team the Phantoms could face on this postseason run, it’s not going to be an easy task.

“They have a ton of skill up front,” Ward said. “Austin Burnevik, Andrew Kuzma, those guys are legit players in this league and they’ve got good goaltending. It’s going to be a formidable task. At this time of year, everyone is a hard out. Madison’s going to come in here with a ton of intensity.

“We had a pretty intense series last time we played them, and obviously we build a lead there and they’ve been good at sticking around in games, and we’re gonna have to be at our best to finish them off. They’re well coached, they’re organized and it’s going to be a great first-round test for us.”

Fans should be familiar with the Capitols as they made the trip to Youngstown for a two-game set at the end of March.

Each team got a win out of the heated back-to-back, with the Phantoms getting three out of a possible four standings points.

There’s a balance to achieve, especially within playoff hockey. Almost a game within a game. You want to be physical, you want to be intense, but you can’t let things get out of control.

For a team that prides itself on its aggression like the Phantoms do, maintaining that balance and staying disciplined is essential.

“I think that for us, we play on the edge in general,” Ward said. “Playoffs are just a whole other level of discipline than the regular season. You can kind of play on that edge and and sometimes cross it and for us, we want to make sure that we’re disciplined and we don’t put ourselves at a disadvantage. Our guys have been good and when it’s time to reel it in, you just reel it in. I think we’re always going to play hard, we’re always going to be physical, but in the playoffs, you play for each other and you play to hang another banner, so that’s our goal here.”

Speaking of banners, the Phantoms return eight players who saw playoff action on their cup run last season, including blueliners Andrew Strathmann, Tomas Machu and Jack Willson.

As the team prepares for the summit once again, that experience is invaluable.

“You can’t replace experience, especially in this league,” Ward said. “We’re so fortunate to have some returners that have been there and know what it takes. I think those guys are especially chomping at the bit. Andrew Strathmann (who didn’t make the Plymouth trip) just texted me and said that he’s itching to go, so it’s nice that those guys aren’t complacent.

“I think that’s what we look for in our players and the culture we try to build here — you never want to be complacent, always want to push forward and leave this organization better than when you found it. Those guys certainly did that last year and we’re looking for our group here to do it again.”

After every win, the Phantoms hear these words:

“Today is where your book begins. The rest is still unwritten.”

With the postseason beginning today, those words may hold more weight than ever.

Game 1 of the series is tonight at the Covelli Centre. Puck drop is set for 7:05 p.m.

Have an interesting story? Contact Brian Yauger by email at byauger@tribtoday.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @_brianyauger.


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