It's good to be back home. After a couple weekends in Plymouth, Michigan, the Phantoms looked to kick off their home season with the Madison Capitols coming to town. We were hoping to build on the success of last week against the NTDP U17 squad but playing a regular USHL team is a much different beast than playing against kids in face cages, no matter how cherry picked the kids are. Fortunately, the Phantoms were more than up to the task, especially netminder Ivan Kulbakov, as the Phantoms blanked the Caps 2-0 in the first ever home opener shutout in team history.
The opening frame was mostly a feeling out process for two teams that haven't played each other since late last season. The Phantoms quickly settled into their game, an aggressive forecheck and backcheck that left the Caps struggling to get out of their zone and unable to to really set up much in the Phantoms end. Despite the Phantoms not giving hem much room, the first frame was pretty evenly played. That is until a Michael Karow dump in took an unusual bounce off one of the stanchions. Madison goaltender, Daniel Lebedeff, had gone behind the net to cut off the dump but the puck went right into the low slot area for Austin Pooley to easily put into an empty net for his 5th of the season at 16:18 of the first. Shots on goal were 7-6 Madison but the Phantoms had the lead heading to the locker room after the first.
The Phantoms began to squeeze the Caps in the second, holding them to just 4 shots on Kulbakov. On at least two occasions it looked like they initiated contact with the Phantoms goalie in an attempt to stir things up and possibly cause the aggressive netminder to think twice about playing the puck. This backfired in two ways. First, they got called for a minor penalty on the second one, clearly clipping him when he did not have the puck. Secondly, the Eastern European goaltender did not seem to be rattled and quite the opposite, seemed more into the game and his teammates responded physically to protect their goalie. The frame was scoreless with the Phantoms outshooting the caps 9-4.
The Phantoms held the 1-0 lead most of the third period. With time running down, Madison called a timeout with 2:10 left after a puck blown dead on the back of their net. I don't know if the timeout was called to regroup or to draw up a play but I'm pretty sure the plan for the Caps involved them winning the faceoff, they did not. Tommy Apap won an offensive zone draw and the Phantoms cycled the puck down low. Alex Esposito would lay a no-look backhand pass to the crease for Apap to get a one-timer on Lebedeff. Lebedeff made the save but Noah LaLaonde, in his first game of the season, was waiting for the rebound to make it 2-0 with just 1:55 left. Shots were 14-6 in favor of the Phantoms in the period at that point, Madison would get one more shot with Lebedeff pulled for the extra attacker but that was all they would add to the scoreboard, the final 2-0. The Phantoms outshooting the Caps 29-18.
The Phantoms put on an impressive game for their first of the season at the Covelli. There was a lot to be happy about if your a fan. First, this is team that does not make anything easy on their opponent. When Madison had the puck a Phantoms was usually harassing them in all three zones. They are quick to close the game and the forecheck made it very hard for the Caps to clear their zone at times, if they cleared it at all. The transition game was smooth and the Phantoms not afraid to just take the shot. You'll probably hear the word aggressive with this team a lot. Ivan Kulbakov was impressive in net and, while he wasn't overly challenged most of the game, made some very good saves in key moments. He didn't let the Caps rattle him with a little contact either. It will be interesting to see if Coach Patterson plays him in back-to-back games after the shutout or if Darion Hanson gets the nod. Austin Pooley has scored at least a goal in all four games and has 5 total goals to lead the USHL. Noah LaLonde looked strong in his season debut looking no worse for having not even having played in preseason.
Both teams are back at it tonight. A little over 1,300 were in attendance last night, a bit of an improvement over last year and much better than the couple before that. I'm hoping we'll equal that at least tonight but attendance can be a bit mercurial in the early season. The Phantoms are winning early in the season, that helps a lot. I'm sure Madison won't take a shutout loss lightly and will be looking for some way to light the lamp. The Phantoms just need to keep playing their game and we should be able to get another couple points in the standings. Until then, here's the highlights.
Austin Pooley puts it into an empty cage.
Noah LaLonde with the rebound.