OK, it's time for the first road trip of the season as the Phantoms (0-2-0-0) load the bus and head to Fargo to take on the Force (0-1-1-0). Both teams looked solid in preseason and both had problems on opening weekend.

Fargo has the talent up front to compete with just about anyone. Garrett Van Whye, Nicholas Cardelli and Logan Jenuwine all looked really strong in preseason. Also someone to keep and eye on is Ryan Savage, a C-ranked skater on the NHL CSS report. On defense, Clayton Philips is highly touted and had a strong showing at the Fall Classic. The 3rd round Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick has great mobility and passing ability, a guy who can run the powerplay from the blueline, creating a lot of space down low for his teammates. Also looking good in preseason was John Shultd, a big defenseman who can play physical as well as having good offensive ability. In net, Ryan Bischel looked good as a backup last season, a 2.21 GAA and a .904 SV% and like a solid starter at the Fall Classic. He got dinged pretty badly last weekend, 7 goals in 96 minutes.

For the Phantoms, Curtis Hall is the obvious offensive threat. Chase Gresock also played well in preseason and opening weekend. I won't comment much else on offense, the lack of consistency between preseason and last weekend has left me scratching my head. On defense, Gianfranco Cassaro looked really good at times during the opening weekend, one of the few players I thought looked like he played as good last weekend as he did in preseason. Andrew Petrillo also looks really good to start, much stronger and faster than last season. In preseason, he was very active on offense as well as defense, often time seen down behind the opponents net. The big question is in net. Neither Ivan Prosvatov nor Wouter Peeters really looked impressive. I'll leave stats out but both had issues. Prosvatov had the first start and missed some routine saves, one in particular where he failed to hold the post on a stuff in from the side had me worried. Peeters seemed technically a lot more sound and his movement seemed a little sharper and faster than what I saw in preseason. However, he seemed to have issues with rebound control and also flubbed a hard around behind his net leading to a turnover and easy warparound goal against. Both looked like with a little more experience they would be very good number two netminders but both looked like the had a ways to go before either was a clear number one.

And away we go! We're getting ready to drop the puck on the 2017-2018 season after an interesting preseason. The Phantoms steamrolled through the Fall Classic undefeated, including a couple dramatic wins. Final rosters should be set, as of this writing it hasn't been released but between the league and USA Hockey, I'm pretty sure I know what to expect. Normally, these beginning of the year previews are hard to write for a guy who hasn't seen much of his own team, yet alone the opponents. This year is much better after having see all 16 regular teams and the NTDP U18s, at least parts of two games each. We're kicking off the season against the Bloomington Thunder, er... I mean the Central Illinois Flying Aces. Yeah, welcome to the USHL where rebranding a franchise six weeks before the start of the season is a thing. From what I've heard this actually isn't as bad a move as you might think but after rumors about the team trying to fold in the off season but being denied after filing the paperwork to the league too late, it certainly doesn't make you look like the most professional organization.

But putting aside the stuff off the ice, the Aces don't look bad on paper. They have three players on the early NHL central scouting service list and another two on their affiliate list. One of these players is forward Tyler Madden, a C-ranked skater. Also looking really good on the offense in preseason were newcomers Lucas McGregor and returner Calen Kiefiuk. Their defense also looked really good. Mike Callahan is B-ranked on the CSS and a solid defender. Returning from last season are Simon Batula and Charlie Raith, both in their fourth USHL season. Raith alone has 120 USHL games under his belt. If there is any weakness it's in net. Zach Stejskal is a CSS C-ranked netminder who has a couple games of affiliate action with the Thunder last season in addition to a good Minnesota high school record. Also on the roster in net is Kris Carlson. Carlson, an overager, had decent numbers in preseason, a serviceable backup netminder but in the single game I saw was not what I would call a number one goalie. He had good numbers in the NAHL last year but got shelled in 10 USHL games as part of the Waterloo Black Hawks in the 14-15 season. Either way, goaltending will be the thing to pay attention too.

For the Phantoms, we have a good slew of returning players. For forwards, Curtis Hall lead the charge in preseason after a good performance in the Hlinka Memorial Tournament and the All-American Prospects game. This landed him on the CSS with a C-rank. Eric Esposito also looked to be a powerhouse with a pair of shorthanded goals at the Fall Classic. Tender Trevor Kuntar looked more than ready to compete at the USHL level. Jack Malone and Dalton Hunter were affiliates last season and look to ready to to be part of the regular roster. Another player to watch is Eriks Zohovs. Zohovs is an overage Latvian import who put up good numbers in the NAHL with the Shreveport Mudbugs last season and good numbers in Europe and international play before that. On defense we have a couple returners, Jake Gingell and Andrew Petrillo. Petrillo especially looked to be much improved, bigger and faster and frequently using his speed and size to jump into the offensive rush. He certainly doesn't look like a defenseman who will spend a good part of the season as a healthy scratch. The Phantoms, like the Aces, will have to see how things work out with their goaltending. The Phantoms are looking to Wouter Peeters, a 3rd round NHL draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, to replace last years star performance by Ivan Kulbakov. Despite the high draft pick, Peeters numbers in Europe have not been the strongest in the past season or so. In addition, in the very limited time he's played, one preseason game and a game against a NAHL team, he has not exactly wowed anyone. He'll need to get sharper and faster to compete at this level. Backing him will be Ivan Prosvatov. The 1st round, 6th overall KHL drafted netminder also did not really live up to the billing in preseason. Prosvatov had some issues tracking the puck and will need a little work as well. Given time to work things out, both have the potential to be excellent USHL goaltenders but time will be in short supply when the puck drops.

Aaaaand away we go. It's that time of year, well almost. Once again, I find myself looking to write something up with just a handful of articles and sketchy rosters. And once again we're back at the UPMC/Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, PA for the Fall Classic. This time it's the new and 'improved' Fall Classic, a single even instead of separate East and West with all the USHL teams participating in a 5 day event. I highlight the improved part because I sympathize with the Western Conference fans who are miffed about being cut out. However, I can't contain my enthusiasm to see 23 games in one place.

Anyway, it's usually it hard to qualify a junior hockey team in preseason and the Phantoms are no exception. We have a good core group of returners and a lot of really promising prospects and things look good but I only have a game against a NAHL team to go by. On offense the biggest news is the return of Nicolas Werbik who lead the team in total points (39) and was tied for second on the roster in goals (18). He's a guy you really look at as having the potential to dominate the league this season. Curtis Hall, a tender last season, has made a lot of noise to start the year with a good performance internationally in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and the All-American Prospects Game. He looks to be much bigger, stronger and faster and will want to make a name for himself. Also a tender last seasn, Max Ellis looks to play a different role this season. Last season Ellis cause a lot of havoc for opponents with his line mates of Marshal Moise and Tommy Apap. This year Max is moving to center and may play on the PK more than the PP, allowing him to better use his speed and backchecking ability. In addition to a few other returning forwards ,affiliates Jagger Joshua, Jack Malone and Dalton Hunter look to join the squad full time. Hunter is a big overage forward who has put up good numbers with the NAHL Johnstown Tomahawks and hopefully can do the same at the USHL level in his last season of his junior eligibility. In addition the Phantoms have some new faces. Michael Regush is a big forward with good BCHL experience, putting up 14g and 22a in 47 games last season. Matt Berry and Gueorgui Fedulov are also players with good Junior A/NAHL experience. Also add in some AAA Minor and prep/high school prospects like tender Trevor Kuntar, as well as Connor Pooley, Alex Barber and Craig Needham.