Guess who's back, back again... OK, I'll spare you the rest. Things have been pretty hectic with my schedule so I haven't had the time to do the previews but hopefully things are getting back to normal. After a couple skipping a couple weeks of previews and the holiday break, I think it's week 12 or at least that's what I'm going with. It's the last week of 2017 and the Phantoms (12-6-3-1) are in the top spot of the Eastern Conference and taking on the leagues worst team, the Madison Capitals (7-14-0-1), at home Thursday and Friday then hopping up to Plymouth to face the NTDP U17's (4-5-0-0).

The Caps are bad. They've never really been a good team but this year things have finally caught up with the Suter family team. Yeah, USA Hockey is no stranger to nepotism but when the team owner has a brother and a cousin on the bench and another cousin on defense it doesn't look good. The cousin on defense, he's an alternate captain after only playing 7 games last season. Things got worse for the Caps in the offseason when they decided to move to another arena, an arena that wasn't anywhere up to USHL specs. Of course this didn't go over too well and they were forced to move to another arena late in the offseason. Yeah... the Suter name and the team name is on that arena as well, go figure. If Bob Suter's Capitol Ice Arena holds the 1,300 people they say it does, then I'm a real hockey writer. OK, that's the end of the rant on nepotism.

There are a few bright spots on the Caps roster. Returning for his third season, this season as the team captain, is forward Alec Broetzman and he is leading the team in points with 10g and 9a. Behind him is a rookie '00 born top prospect, Ryan O'Reily. O'Reily, a NHL CSS C-ranked skater, has a rookie best 13g, as well as a pair of assists. Mick Messner is another third year returning forward and the only player with more than a game played for the Caps that has a +/- above 0, a whopping +1 with 3g, 11a. On defense Connor Mayer, brought in after playing last season in Sioux City, is probably the most solid defensively. Also playing well on the blueline is the Chinese born defenseman, Misha Song. Song is in his second year and both he and Mayer have a +/- of an even 0. In net, Dryden McKay is in his second year as the top netminder. McKay played well last season all things considered, 18-17-0-3 with a 2.70 GAA, a .917 SV% and 2 shutouts. This season his numbers are down considerably, 6-10-0-1 with a 3.42 GAA and a .904 SV%. Seeing limited action as the backup is Joey Lamoreaux who is 1-4-0-0, a 3.42 GAA and a .911 SV%.

And just like that, we're a couple games into the second quarter of the season and the Phantoms (9-5-2-1) are contending for the top spot in the East. This week we get a light week with only one game on the schedule, a Friday night meeting with the USA NTDP U17s (3-4-0-0). This will be the Phantoms first meeting with the younger NTDP squad and I'll be honest, I have very little data on them.

So, to phone this one in I'm mostly just looking at the stats. The only players I have any scouting reports on, and they are pretty much available to anyone. If you don't keep up on the NTDP and scouting reports, here is one name you need to remember - Jack Hughes. The 16 year old is already being compared to the likes of some previous NTDP members like Jack Eichel and Austin Matthews, also I've heard him compared to Connor McDavid. To be fair, I wouldn't make such comparisons yet but from what I've seen on video but Johnny Gaudreau isn't too far of a stretch. He is an extremely slick skater, has incredible vision, poise beyond his years and amazing scoring and playmaking abilities. In USHL action he has 3g, 11a. Cole Caufield is another name I've heard mentioned. An excellent goal scorer, Caufield has 7g, 2a on the season. I have no clue on defense. The only one that anything stands out is Marshall Warren. Warren has 1g, 4a on the season and a plus/minus of +5. That +/- sticks out since not a lot of U17 defensemen are on the positive side of that stat. In net we have a piar that have both played 5 games and have almost identical minutes played 208 and 209 respectively. Leading the new netminders is Spencer Knight at 2-1-0-0 and a 3.46 GAA and a .902 SV%, fairly respectable numbers for a the NTDP U17s. Splitting the duties is Cameron Rowe at 1-3-0-0 with a 5.17 GAA and a .820 SV%.

The Phantoms are arguably the hottest team in the USHL at the moment with a 4 game winning streak and 7-2-1-0 in the last 10. In November the Phantoms earned 15 of the possible 18 points for the standing with the 3 points dropped being an OT and a regulation loss to the NTDP U18s. Max Ellis and Curtis Hall are both looking to raise their stocks for the upcoming  NHL draft. Ellis has points in 7 straight games, tied with Jack Hughes for the longest current point streak in the league, and points in 10 of the last 11 games. Hall has points in 6 of the last 7 including 8 goals scored. Defenseman Zach Metsa has a 5 game assist streak going. Also looking good on defense is Julian Kislan despite his defense parthner Jake Gingell has has some penalty issues lately. As usual, the story of the week is in net. With Ivan Prosvetov down with an injury, Wouter Peeters has had to start 3 consecutive games after going over 3 weeks without a start and nearly that long without even a relief effort. He won all 3 in regulation. Prior to the Muskegon game last Wednesday, he had a 0-3-0-1 record with 4.34 GAA and a .859 SV% in 4 appearances. In the last 3 games he's posted a 2.33 GAA and a .924 SV%. That's quite a turnaround. He now stands at 3.37 GAA and a .890 SV%. Prosvetov is 6-2-2-0 and has appeared in 12 games with a 3.07 GAA and a .904 SV%.

It seems too soon but we're almost done with the first quarter of the season and moving into the second. The Phantoms (6-5-2-1) started out floundering a little but have managed to get thing heading (mostly) in the right direction. If the Phantoms play their cards right and can sweep the week, they will be sitting in at least second place in the Eastern Conference points standing with the possibility of being in first with some help. This week is an odd one. The first game of the week is a Wednesday night, Thanksgiving eve, tilt against Muskegon (4-8-1-1) that starts at 8:05pm. Then to work of that turkey, a normal Friday and Saturday road trip to Central Illinois (7-6-0-1) to play the Flying Aces. We've had multiple meetings with both clubs over the first 14 games.

First up is the Lumberjacks. We've played the 'Jacks 5 times and beat them twice in regulation, beat them once in OT and lost in a shootout. They have struggled at times to score consistently and other time have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net. Between the two, they're tied for last place in the league. One of the reasons for some of their woes is the loss of Michael Graham and Mikael Hakkarianen, both went down with concussions the second time these teams met. One player expected to pick up the slack was Jachym Kondelik, a NHL CSS B-ranked skater. Since that game, he has 1 goal and 4 assists out of his 3g and 5a on the season. Only 2 of his points, both assists have come against the Phantoms. Not exactly lighting it up. Fortunatly for the 'Jacks, a few players have stepped up including newcomer Matej Pekar (3g, 8a), team captain Anthony Del Gaizo (6g, 4a), and  the well traveled veteran Wyatt Bongiovanni (5g, 4a). Their defensive core is solid with Marc Del Gaizo, Colby Bukas, and Clayton Philips. The real issue for the 'Jacks in netminding. Adam Brizgala, their 2nd year netminder, has kept pace or at least seems to be treading water OK. He's appeared in 12 games and posted a 4-4-1-1 record with a 2.73 GAA and a .903 SV% plus a shutout. His current backup, Keegan Karki has not managed to stay afloat. In 3 appearances, 2 games plus a period of relief, he has a 4.37 GAA and a .839 SV%.

 The we head to Bloomington to face the Flying Aces. We've faced the Aces three times on the season so far. We didn't fare so well on opening weekend, losing 4-2 and 5-1, but managed to bounce back to steal a couple points on the road in a 3-2, come from behind, shootout win earlier this month. We're tied in the points standings but the Aces have the next two tie-breakers, regulation/overtime wins and head-to-head games, With a couple of newcomers leading the scoring, Jakub Lacka (7g, 5a) and Tyler Madden (5g, 6a), the Aces aren't lacking in the scoring department. Another forward to watch is Drew Elser. Elser has 6g and 2a and has scored a goal in each of the 3 games he's played against us, half his goals on the season. Their defense compliments their offense, nothing flashy just solid skills and hard work. Among them are veteran Simon Butala and newcomers Cory Babichuk and Davis Bunz. In net, Kris Carlson has emerged as the top netminder with a record of 4-4-0-0 with a 2.95 GAA and a .904 SV%. Behind him is rookie Zach Stejskal, 3-2-0-1 with a 3.58 GAA and a .867 SV%.