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Phantoms finishing was a win in itself

Staff photo / Brian Yauger Phantoms forward Georgii Merkulov glides up the ice during a game last season against the Chicago Steel. Merkulov will be attending Ohio State University in the fall. He was a key part of the Phantoms’ success this year but will not be returning next season.

YOUNGSTOWN — To say the 2020-21 season for the Youngstown Phantoms was tumultuous would be an understatement.

With weeks in between games and very few contests with a full lineup, the odds were never fully on the team’s side.

While the Phantoms finished with an underwhelming 12-30-5-2 record and as the only team to play less than 50 regular-season games, making it through a season where everything was thrown at them is an achievement in itself.

“It’s an emotional night for not only us as a staff, but for the guys as well,” Patterson said after the team’s season-closing victory over the US National Team Development Program. “This year, we’ve alluded to all the different circumstances that we’ve been through together. Those guys showed up every day and worked hard. It’s a credit to them to push it through here tonight.

“Ultimately you want to go out on a good note so you have good memories, and those relationships (among the team) are key. That’s what we talked about over the past 24-48 hours.”

Staff photo / Brian Yauger Youngstown Phantoms captain Reilly Funk puts a shot on net during a December contest against Green Bay. The Phantoms had much to overcome this season, including multiple injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Phantoms closed the year by winning three of the last four games, taking down Muskegon 4-3 in overtime and then beating Team USA 7-6 in overtime and 3-1 in the season finale.

As is the name of the game in junior hockey, players move on to different teams and this season is no different, in that regard. Like this year’s Phantoms roster, the 2021-22 version will look much different than the season prior.

Georgii Merkulov, who played in 74 games with the Phantoms, scoring 73 points (20 goals, 53 assists) will be moving on to attend college at Ohio State.

Another player who will be moving on from Youngstown, in his case for the second time, is winger Jack Malone. Malone finished the season as the Phantoms’ leading scorer, tallying 41 points in 44 games.

“Jack is one of the all-time Phantom greats,” Patterson said. “We see the execution, but what you don’t see is how he is around other people. He’s a terrific human being. He’s a great guy to have that Phantoms sweater beside moving forward. I expect great things from him in the future, and I’m very fortunate to have been able to work with him. I look forward to seeing his career path moving forward.”

Malone was with the Phantoms before attending Cornell University, where he played until the Ivy League shut down all athletic competition for the foreseeable future because of COVID-19. Malone was a sixth-round draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2019.

Riley Duran, who was an affiliate player for the Phantoms for the last couple seasons before joining the team full-time this past year, is moving on to Providence College. Captain Reilly Funk will be moving on to Northern Michigan University.

When October rolls around, there will be a whole new Phantoms team hitting the ice, but like in year’s past, Patterson and the players stay in touch.

As they closed out the season, the most important thing was to close out the year strong. Patterson wanted the 2020-21 Phantoms to be remembered for the work they put in, given the chaotic circumstances.

“We’re all going to stay in touch in the future, but it’s probably not going to happen where we’re all in the same room at the same time again,” Patterson said after the final game. “We should cherish that moment, and cherish what you put into this year, and really leave it all out on the ice tonight, and the guys did that.”

The USHL Draft is set for May 26 and 27. The first phase of the draft is composed of players classified as U17s for the upcoming season, and the second phase is composed of players of all ages eligible to play junior hockey and are not currently protected by another USHL team.

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