Phantoms set for home opener

Staff photo/ Brian Yauger Phantoms defenseman Charlie Lieberman lays out Tri-City forward Trevor Connelly in the team’s first game of the season.

YOUNGSTOWN — With the Youngstown Phantoms’ yearly USHL Fall Classic trip in the books, the team shifts its eyes toward the home opener.

Despite walking away from Pittsburgh with two losses, the young Phantoms squad has shown promise. The team has a Clark Cup-sized target on its back, and that’s what they’ve gotten so far.

“Obviously we have a young team where a lot of guys were playing in the USHL for the first time and for us it was important to get that experience,” second-year coach Ryan Ward said. “That environment can be a little intimidating with all the scouts and the colleges, but it’s great for our guys to get that experience and learn what the USHL is all about.

“Now we have some real life scenarios and situations that played out that we can teach from and raise the standard of how we do things and the guys actually have a little bit of a frame of reference.”

Game 1 of the season saw the Phantoms drop to Tri-City, who Ward cited as one of the best teams in the Western Conference, in a 2-1 contest. Defenseman Sascha Boumedienne scored the lone goal for Youngstown.

Cedar Rapids got the better of the Phantoms in Game 2, 5-1. Braiden Clark scored the lone Phantom goal in that game.

Through two games, Ward has seen signs of what the team can be, but they’re obviously not there yet. To him, there needs to be some changes in the team’s compete level and offensive aggressiveness before Saturday’s contest against the US National Team Development Program U17s.

“I think we need to up our compete level a little bit and I think we need to up our battle level,” Ward said. “I think we need to obviously generate more quality scoring chances. We’re looking to build on our team’s speed and our transition game and off the rush, just making sure that we are moving properly.

“For us it’s all about what we do. We’re not really looking, at this point in the season, at our opponents with a fine tooth comb. That comes later on in the year. I think for us, we’re just focusing on getting how we play down and really hone in on what we need to do well and what we need to do better heading into the October schedule.”

The opening two games were the first time the coaching staff was able to hone in on getting the guys to play “their” way. The preseason serves as more of an opportunity to build a roster, rather than refining playstyle. Now that the roster is set, the Phantoms are doing the heavier lifting in installing a system.

“I think we need to play a little bit faster from a mindset standpoint that will allow us to use our speed,” Ward said. “I think we need to get out of our zone a little bit faster and that just comes with repetition and understanding how we play and our team systems and all that. … I think for us, (the Fall Classic) was a great jumping off point to really start to hone in on how we play as a team and it’s been good. It’s been a good couple of weeks and our young guys are getting more comfortable and finding their own identity within the league and that’ll continue to improve as the year goes on.”

Saturday’s game, in addition to being the home opener, will be the night the team raises its championship banner up to the rafters.

For the team, it’s one last time to celebrate last year’s group before completely turning the page onto this year.

“It’s great, it’s going to be a great culmination of all the hard work of last year, and I think that it’s also a great time for our new players to understand that it’s their turn to put the 23-24 team on the map and forge their own chapter,” Ward said. “We’re excited to pay homage to the group that was here, to remember our past and where we’ve been, the adversity and the experiences that brought this organization to where it needs to be.

“We’re excited to look back on that with fond memories. And then we’re excited to turn the page and get started on writing our own chapter in this book. I think the guys are ready for that. We certainly respect where we’ve come from, one of the best seasons I’ve ever had, but after that banner gets put up here on Saturday. There won’t be much thinking about last year.”

Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. at the Covelli Centre.



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