Sometimes when a team is struggling in some fashion the best medicine is facing another team with worse problems. That's pretty much what we saw last night when the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders came into town. The Phantoms had lost the last 2 games and the last 4 at home. The Riders are having one of those historically bad seasons. They're getting better as the season progresses, but not by enough to put one in the win column last night.

The first period was more of a feeling out process. Neither team did much and both looked a little tentative. Shots were 7-6 Phantoms, neither side able to score. An early second period powerplay for the Phantoms led to Alex Esposito tapping home a shot from Dominic Dockery that was trickling through Riders goaltender Zack LaRocque at 4:28. The older Esposito had not scored a goal since 10/28 with 13 games in between then and now. The Phantoms would extend the lead when an Andrew Petrillo point shot would find some way through LaRocque, who once again got a piece of the puck but it still managed to find it's way in at 11:21. The 2 goal lead would be short lived, a tenacious neutral zone defense lead to Dalton Messina knocking the puck off a Phantoms defender's stick at the blueline to the stick of Matt Kidney just inside Phantoms zone and he rifled it from the right faceoff circle over the glove of Ivan Kulbakov just 0:25 after the second Phantoms goal. The Riders would tie it at 16:28 when defenseman Jake Johnson would flip a puck from the Phantoms blueline back towards Kulbakov, just trying to keep the puck from clearing the zone but the puck would hit a Phantoms player and take a couple odd bounces in on Kulbakov and somehow found a hole. I was sitting with as good of a view as you can get on it and I just knew that it was going to be trouble for the goalie.

That was about all for the Riders. With just under 1:30, Bobby Hampton managed to spring Grant Loven on a breakaway around a flatfooted Alec Mahalak. Hampton came in cutting from left to right in front of Kulbakov, trying to open up the five-hole. Kulbakov shut that down with ease and Mahalak cleared the puck. Then with play continuing and just 0:13 left, Coale Norris used a Riders defenseman as a screen and put a laser past LaRocque. The Phantoms outshot the Riders 14-6 in the frame. Chase Gresock would add an insurance goal at 6:36  when Curtis Hall would put a shot on net from the halfboards just outside the right faceoff circle and the rebound came into the slot for a crashing Gresock so put neatly into the back of the net. The 4-2 score would hold annd the Phantoms outshot the Riders 7-5 in the frame and 28-17 overall.

Yesterday was the annual School Day Game, when we bus in the local schools to fill the arena and pad attendance. For the few season ticket holders and other fans who still attend the morning game, it's a surreal experience and a loud one.The kids and fans in attendance were treated to an exciting game, too bad it just wasn't a win. 

The Muskegon Lumberjacks opened the scoring. Anthony Del Gaizo carried the puck into the Phantoms zone but the sweeping stick of Ty Farmer sent the puck to the end boards. Del Gaizo would recover the puck and send a pass to Mikael Hakkarainen, recently acquired from Chicago for defenseman Derek Daschke, and the Finnish forward would launch a shot that was a little faster than the glove of Ivan Kulbakov at 7:28. The 'Jacks lead would not hold too long, just over 2:00 later Cooper Zech tried to bring the puck out from behind his own net but Phantoms affiliate call-up Dalton Hunter stipped him of the puck from behind and put a turnaround shot through the legs of 'Jacks netminder Kieth Petruzzelli. It's easy to see why Hunter, a 2014 9th round Phase 2 draft pick for the Phantoms, is leading the NAHL in points. The Phantoms Michael Karow would pick up a major penalty and game misconduct for head contact late in the period but Muskegon failed to score on it, including the time carried over to the second. Shots would end up 11-10 in favor of the 'Jacks but the score would still be tied at the end of the frame. 

The 'Jacks would add a late second period goal to take a 2-1 lead to intermission when Koby Bender would deflect a shot in the slot from Marc Del Gaizo at the point. Phantoms outshot the 'Jacks 11-7 in the second, setting up a memorabel third period. The Phantoms tied it early in the frame when Petruzzelli weakly tried to clear the puck out of his crease and sent it to Alex Esposito in the crease who immediately hit Brett Murray on the backdoor at 3:36. Both teams would fight to get anything on net for most of the period but nothing got past a goalie until the final few minutes of the period when Bo Hanson cleared the puck with a nice arial dump pass up the boards and Koby Bender poaching behind the Phantoms defense. Bender took the pass near the right corner boards and put a beautiful no-look behind the back, backhanded centering pass to Will Smith on the doorstep of Kulbakov's crease for a go-ahead goal with 3:03 left to play. With mostly zeros on the clock and Kulbakov pulled for an extra attacker, Alec Mahalak sneaked down from the point and found the puck in traffic and jammed it home. The question was, was there any time on the clock when it crossed the line. The refs initially signaled goal and after a brief conference, confirmed 0.6 seconds were left when the Phantoms tied it up. The shots on goal were 8 a piece in the third.

The Phantoms just don't seem to catch a break at home. We're currently the best team on the road but conversely the second worst at home, only the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders have a worse home record. The last team the Phantoms beat at home was the Chicago Steel and the Phantoms were looking to cache in on that again last Friday but fell short by a goal.

The Phantoms started in a dominant fashion, controlling the play for a good part of the first period. The Phantoms got on the board first, Alex Esposito lead the rush into the attack zone and laid a pass to Nicolas Wekbik just as they crossed the blueline. Werbik took the pass entering the right faceoff circle and launched a wrist shot from the dot that beat Steel netminder Ales Stezka at 10:32 of the first period. The Steel would answer back with 3:04 remaining. Jake Jaremko would take a pass from Reggie Lutz and drove into the attack zone. A Phantoms defenseman, I think Ty Farmer, swent down in a slide early to block a shot allowing Jaremko to slide easily into the slot and fire off a shot that beat Ivan Kulbakov. The Steel would grab the lead early in the second period, 2:10 into the frame, when Tyler Gratton flipped a deceiving backhander from the right faceoff circle through a little traffic that I think Kulbakov would have wanted back.

After the second goal the Phantoms seemed a little deflated but would continue to get shots on Stezka throughout the second period. The Steel tightened up the defense and blocked a lot of shots in the third period and Stezka made several excellent saves to keep the score 2-1. The Phantoms would not even get a puck through traffic and on net during the over 1:30 of 6 on 5 with Kulbakov pulled. shots on goal were 8-6, 13-6, 5-6 with the final shots on goal 26-18 in favor of the Phantoms. Good defense and excellent goaltending won the day for Chicago.