The Phantoms were back last night for one last home game before the Christmas break. After beating Cedar Rapids 4-2 the night before I expected the RoughtRider coach Mark Carlson to tighten the reigns a little. What we got was a little bit tighter contested game, and it was. It was also the home debut of Phantoms netminder Britt League, something else we expected. 

The Phantoms got on the board early. Curtis Hall chipping the puck up the boards and behind the Riders defense and chasing it created a 2 on 1 with Chase Gresock. Hall delivers a pass to Gresock in the low slot that appeared to go off of Gresock's skate and not his stick and past goaltender Drew DeRidder at 3:20. I won't claim to have definitively been able to see a kicking motion but I've seen less waived off. The Riders briefly seemed to protest to the ref but the puck was dropped without any delay for replay. That would be the lone goal of the frame and shots were 10-4 Phantoms.

The Phantoms would push the lead to 2 goals in the second. A rebound from a Noah LaLonde shot came right to Gresock who went high over the glove of DeRidder for his second of the night at 7:30. The Riders would start to push back. Riese Zmolek sent a pass up the boards to Steve Agriogianis. Agriogianis would get around Alec Mahalak and managed to put a nice looking backhand through the five-hole of League despite the harassment of Mahalak from behind at 15:30. The Riders would get several more chances before the end of the frame but League held his ground, making several consecutive saves. Shots were 7-4 for the Riders in the second. The Riders would continue the pressure in the third, outshooting the Phantoms 11-6 but the 2-1 score would hold until the final buzzer.

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.