Well, it was a very interesting past week.
Just in case you have been under a rock, the Phantoms (33-20-1-4) played a Wednesday morning "Kid's Day" game, followed by a Friday and Saturday road game, then finished up at home Sunday evening, all against the USA NTDP. Only the Friday game was supposed to be against the U17 squad but after a brawl at the end of Satuday's game, USA Hockey decided to send the U17s for the Sunday game. This has riled up a lot of people in Youngstown and across the league, as well as a few people outside of the USHL. Suspensions to Josh DeLuca, Tristain Amonte, Christian Stoever aside, this might be something the Phantoms can turn into momentum with an "us against the world mentality". Any psychological lift at this point is a good thing as we will be fighting to the finish for the coveted 2nd place spot in the Eastern Conference, and this week we face a tough opponent in the Sioux Falls Stampede (36-15-5-2).
On paper, the Stampede aren't a team that's going to jump out at you as being a top contender. They aren't loaded with veterans or big name prospects, but they do have a lot of pieces in place that seem to work well, and if not this year, they could pose a big threat next season.
Their scoring leader is Artem Ivanyuzhenkov (25g, 23a), a big '98 Russian in his second year of USHL action. Ivanyuzhenkov is comparable to our Brett Murray in size and ability, he has a great shot and can use his frame to get positioning to use it. He also plays a little more physical than Murray and leads the team in PIMs, something to keep an eye on. Behind him are a pair of rookies - Anthony Romano (25g, 20a), a B ranked skater on the NHL draft report, and Jami Krannila (17g, 26a), a C ranked skater with great play making ability. The latter is more defensively responsible, but occasionally crosses the line when things get physical. Kranilla was a scratch in the Stampede's game earlier this week, I don't know if he's injured, and if he doesn't play that'll be a big loss for the Stampede.
On defense, rookie Ryan Johnson (6g, 18a) is another B ranked skater on the scouting report who has earned a WJAC gold medal and played in the USHL Top Prospects Game. Matt Kessel is a veteran who played in Fargo and Chicago last season and has proven to be a solid defensive asset on the blueline for the Stampede this season.
In net is Jaxson Stauber, a second year netminder who appeared in 22 games for the Stampede last season. This season he's played in 26 games with an 14-8-1-0 record, a 3.12GAA and a .878SV%. They had Chad Veltri as their backup until dropping him, allowing the Phantoms to pick him up. After dropping Veltri to make room, they brought in Alec Calvaruso, who left Colorado College. Since joining the team, Calvaruso has taken over the top spot and appeared in 29 games with a 18-5-2-1 record. He's posted a 2.68GAA and a .888SV%.
The Phantoms ran into a lot of trouble against the U18s. I won't get into a discussion about it but we saw a few players suspended for the last game. Since the league is going to sweep this under the rug with no announcement, we may have dodged a huge bullet. From what I've heard, and this is hearsay so it may not be accurate, 2 out of 3 of those were one game. Josh DeLuca should be the only multiple game suspension and that will only be 2 games, one already served, so he'll be eligible for Saturday's game. With Matthew Barnaby back in the lineup, the only significant injury at the forward position is Joseph Abate. I've heard his progress is promising but he will not be in this weekend.
Garrett Steele was called up to fill in on Sunday. The '02 forward tallied 18g and 9a in 20gp for the Belle Tire U16 program and looked comfortable on the ice Sunday, registering a couple shots and was not afraid to throw a hit. If the Phantoms feel they need to dress a forward in place of DeLuca to keep the lines rolling this weekend, I'm fairly confident he'll hold his own.
The Phantoms also reunited the 3M line for some offense last weekend. This was instrumental in coming back from a 2 goal deficit against the U17s last Friday to win in a 7 round shootout. Chad Veltri got the nod in the U17 games and posted wins in both while Christian Stoever was fed to the U18 wolves. You can't fault him for the losses but with Veltri still playing well he'll probably keep his top netminder position.
To win this weekend, the Phantoms just need to keep playing their brand of hockey and forget last week. This will be a meeting of the 3rd place team in both conferences and both teams are playing to move up to the second spot. Sioux Falls will come at us hard. This should be a really good, highly contested series. They're a fairly well balanced team that scores a lot of goals but maybe gives up more than they should. If we can play tight defense and shut down their top line, we'll come out on top.
We have a lot of promotions this weekend. Friday is the orange-out/Pittsburgh Penguins night. Saturday is redux of superhero night (since the last one got snowed out and hardly any fans made it), and Guns and Hoses night for first responders. Between those and the fact that this should be a hard fought pair of games, I expect a decent crowd this weekend. I hope I'll have some good highlights to back that up as well.