We're getting down to the final stretch of the regular season and the Phantoms (30-18-1-4) have clinched a spot in the post-season, and now are focused on moving up the standings in hopes of getting a bye in the opening round, a luxury for the two top teams, and home ice advantage.
Currently they're the 3rd seed, but only 2 points separate the 2nd spot, currently Chicago, and the 4th spot which is held by Cedar Rapids. Catching the top spot seems to be a long shot, that's held by Muskegon (36-14-3-1) but if we're going to make up the 5 1/2 games we're behind them in the standing in our remaining 9 games, we'll likely need a win over them this Friday.
The Lumberjacks are a team we're very familiar with. This kind of makes it hard for me to write because I don't want to sound too repetitive. The top threats are still Egor Afanasyev (23g, 32a), Booby Lynch (19g, 31a) and Mikael Hakkarainen (19g, 28a).
This time I'd like to focus on two of the rookie '02 players on the 'Jacks roster, Danil Guschin and Alex Gaffney. Both are small, fast forwards who may factor heavily into the 'Jacks success in the future if not sooner. Guschin (16g, 19a) shows a lot of offensive promise. He's not afraid to shoot the puck and also can put a soft pass to the tape of a teammate. Gaffney (13g, 6a) is a decent offensive forward but he also adds a level of defensive responsibility. He has great vision and a high hockey IQ and is not afraid to go to the corners with bigger players.
On defense, I don't think I've covered Alex Yakovenko this season and that needs to be corrected. The Kazakh blueliner has not garnered the attention he probably deserves outside the state of Michigan. Yakovenko had a decent season with the 'Jacks last year and this season he has dominated at the position when the 'Jacks have had a slew of talented defenseman. He has 17g, 32a and has set the 'Jacks single season record for defensemen points. He is second in the league in goals, assists, and total points for defensemen and his +/- is +45, 5th best of all skaters in the league.
It's hard to mention the 'Jacks success without netminder Brandon Bussi's name following shortly after. When the expected number one goaltender, Keegan Karki, was not able to start the season due to injury, Bussi took over and has not looked back. He's appeared in 47 games and has a 30-10-3-1 record. He is third in the league in GAA with 2.35 and SV% with .918. His 7 shutouts leads all goaltenders in the league. His backup, Ryan McInchak, came to the 'Jacks from the the unsanctioned NCDC. Since his arrival, he's played in 13 games with a 2.95GAA and a .901SV%.
For the Phantoms, things are really on a roll. At 8-1-0-1 in the past 10 games, we're arguably the hottest team in the league right now. What could possibly slow us down? A simple answer is injuries. Forward Joseph Abate wen't down during the last home stand, injured in the Friday game vs Green Bay.
Team Captain Craig Needham was elevated to a top line center following this, however he left the game last Sunday after blocking a shot in Madison. With 4G and 2A in the last 5 games, his production will be missed if he's out this week and long term.
On defense, Jayson Dobay returned to the lineup from injury but Liam Dennison went out with injury and missed both games in Madison. Dennison has been the most consistant defensive presence we've had this season and that is a hole that will be very hard to fill. Steve Holtz is still out but might not be far from returning, that would certainly be some relief on the blueline.
Aiden Gallachar scored a goal in each of the 3 games last weekend, he has been improving steadily, and that's been a huge help as well. Christian Stoever got the nod in his first start February 22 in net in last Saturday's game in Madison picking up the win. Chad Veltri has won 5 straight and has not lost in regulation in 8 games.
The Phantoms started off the season badly against the 'Jacks, going 0-3-0-1 in the first half of the season series. In the last 4 games we're 3-0-0-1. Out of the 8 games played so far hald were decided by a single goal, 5 if you discount an empty net goal in the last meeting. This is the last game of the season series and both teams are going to lay it all out.
The 'Jacks have been in first place in the East the entire season and clinched their playoff spot weeks ago. They've been coasting to the finish for a while. The Phantoms need to capitalize on the fact that they've been fighting for position and use the momentum they've built over the last few weeks. This means a strong start and not letting up off the gas until the final buzzer sounds.
Next week we play the USA NTDP 4 times in the week, 3 against the U18s. This is probably the roughest stretch of the season. I'm not sure I'll get a preview done but I'll cross that bridge when it comes. We play the NTDP 6 times overall before the end of the season, ending the season against the U17s. I guess that's the oddities of junior hockey scheduling.