Well, we made it to the last full month of the regular season. As the NCAA gears up for their "madness", USHL hockey enters its crunch time as teams work on playoff position. The Phantoms (19-21-6-2) hope to turn things around after going 0-2-1-0 last week, and this week will be looking to keep themselves in 5th place in the Eastern Conference. The good news is this week we play the first team out of the playoffs in the conference, the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (18-22-4-1). The 'Riders are struggling to get back into a playoff spot, and their mounting injuries are making that a tall mountain to climb.

Leading the 'Riders in scoring is Nikolai Mayorov (24g, 13a). After playing a game in the QMJHL following his move from Russia to North America, Mayorov opted to move to the USHL and landed in Cedar Rapids. He has great speed and stick handling, his puck pursuit is good, and his shot release is exceptional. Grant Silianoff is a veteran forward with over 100 USHL games under his belt. Passed over in last years NHL draft after a hand injury, Silianoff is a high octane scorer who had good hockey IQ and keeps his head under pressure. Zach Faremouth (10g, 14a) is a player added from Fargo in a trade. Faremouth was expected to and has made an impact on the 'Riders offense. By impact on offense, I mean impact on the opposing team. Faremouth checks in at 6'2" and 218lbs and plays twice as big as that.

The blueline is where the 'Riders start having issues. They are missing a pair of very key pieces. First off, veteran player, initial team captain and Anaheim Ducks draft pick Will Francis went down with a season ending injury after 10 games. Then in January Ben Meehan, a NHL CSS ranked defenseman, went down for the rest of the season as well. Jack Millar has stepped into a top defenseman spot. The second season defenseman has used his size (6'4", 220lbs) and had a good run at the USA Junior A Challenge. Garrett Sundquist, another bigger defenseman at 6'3" and 210lbs, has been a solid addition to the 'Riders this season, posting a +/- of 15.

The Phantoms (18-19-5-1) really needed a good weekend at home to keep themselves moving forward in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They managed a pair of regulation wins against Muskegon, and this week they make another bus trip to Iowa. First up is a stop in Waterloo to face the Black Hawks (29-11-2-0) then it's on to Des Moines to face the Buccaneers (19-21-1-2).

The Hawks are led by a group of veteran forwards. This includes the teams top scorer Xander Lammpa (13g, 28a), a skater with excellent puck and stick handling skills. Griffin Ness (17g, 23a) is a versatile two-way forward who takes pride in playing defense as well as being the Hawks leading goal scorer. Wyatt Schingoethe (13g, 28a) to me is one of the more interesting players on the Hawks. The NHL CSS C-ranked skater was tendered last season by Waterloo and played all 62 games of the regular season last year, plus 3 of the Hawks 4 playoff games. He has a high hockey IQ and a very developed all round set of skills. Another, high C-ranked forward for the Hawks is former NTDP player Ryder Rolston (15g, 14a), who had 4g and 1a in 6 games against the Phantoms last season.

On defense, Brehdan Enghum (3g, 12a) leads the team in  +/- at a positive 19, as well as leading the defense in scoring. Ethan Szmagaj (0g, 14a) is a good skater and playemaker who can use his wheels or his passing to get the puck out of trouble and up ice for a scoring chance. Mason Reiners is a stay at home defenseman that interests me as someone who might be a dark horse draft pick.

In net is where the Hawks shine. Gabriel Carriere is the #18th ranked NHL CSS netminder for North America. In his 28 games played he has a record of 17-6-2-0 and has posted a 2.82 GAA, a .899 SV%, and a shutout so far for the season. Logan Stein, in his second USHL season, is more than a capable backup. His stats are actually better than his partner but his NHL CSS ranking is only #28. With 19 appearances under his belt this season he has a 12-5-0-0 record, an impressive 2.22 GAA, an equally envious .915 SV%, and a league leading 4 shutouts. Two goalies on the NHL's scouting report is impressive and a huge reason for Waterloo's success this season.

Well, if you are reading this, we're back in full swing. With updates being a little hit or miss the past couple weeks, it's good to be back to normal operations. The (16-19-5-1) Phantoms need to get back to "normal" and by that I mean .500. That's not happening this weekend but we can get close. And to help we have the Muskegon Lumberjacks (18-19-4-0) rolling into town and we've had a lot of success against them this season.

First up is offense. The 'Jacks have had a few issues scoring, same as us. Danil Gushin (18g, 20a) and Alex Gaffney (12g, 16a) are the names that have been mentioned a lot this season, I've covered them enough. Rhett Pitlick (12g, 22a) will be the big focus of this preview. Rhett, a 5th round Montreal Canadians draft pick, isn't the power forward his older brother Rem, former 'Jacks forward and the USHL's 15-16 season goal-assist-points leader/Player of the Year. Rhett is a smooth, hard skating forward with soft hands. His speed and agility can throw defenders for a loop, good luck getting a solid hit on him when he's moving.

Christophe Fillion is a guy who's flown under the radar but is now third on the team in scoring with 11g, 18a. He notched a pair of goals against us on New Years Eve in the 'Jacks only win against the Phantoms this season. Cameron Berg, a fast skating forward, came to the 'Jacks in December in a trade from Omaha where he was originally tendered. He has 16g and 12a in 38 games, 14 of his goals and 10 of his assists came in 24 games in Muskegon.