Well, here we go. It's the "second season" and you can pretty much hit the reset button. The Phantoms (0-0) did not get the help they needed this weekend from Central Illinois (R.I.P.) or Muskegon, so they finish in third place in the Eastern Conference with no bye in the first round.
This means we face the 6th place team, the Dubuque Fighting Saints (0-0). We've played the Saints four times, dropping the first one at the Fall Classic, but beating them the next 3. We havn't faced them since December 30th, so a lot has changed since then.
The Saints are an odd team. Despite being one of the biggest teams in the league, 2nd in average weight at 187lbs and 1st in average height at 6'2", a lot of their damage is done by smaller players. Matias Maccelli is their top scorer by far, leading the team in both goals and assists, 31 and 41 respectively, which tied him with Erik Haula as the top scoring Finnish player to have played in the USHL. The 5'11", 165lbs winger is a projected 3rd round NHL Draft pick, can stick handle in tight spaces and has a great shot.
Keeping with the trend of smaller forwards is the line that is probably the most exciting to watch outside of our 3M line, the lineup of Reise Gaber (22g, 28a), and the Jackson twins, Dylan (13g, 31a) and Ty (15g, 25a). The line averages 5'8" and 151lbs but use their speed and agility to drive teams crazy.
They do have some larger forwards that will contribute in their own way. Derick Contessa (11g, 9a) and Cooper Haar (6g, 11a) can grind players down on the boards, both are 6'3" and 205+ lbs. Willie Knierim, who left Ohio State after 2 seasons there, is the big guy to watch at 6'3", 206lbs. However, he has also put up 18g and 29a and also leads the team in PIMs with 140, double the next guy in line.
Ex-NTDP/University of Michigan forward James Sanchez is another larger forward at 6'2", 198 lbs with 16g and 24a on the season. Sanchez has been an injured scratch for a while, having last played on March 22nd. If he's not available for the Saints, that's a big loss for them.
On defense, they have a very good core of experienced players. This will be one of their big strengths going into the playoffs. The big name is J.D. Greenway, a 3rd round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2016 NHL Draft. Another ex-NTDP player and ex-NCAA player, Greenway has returned to the USHL for his last year of eligibility. He's big at 6'5" and 212lbs and can contribute on offense (9g, 24a) as well as hold the blueline. He's been criticized for occasionally taking bad penalties though, something to watch out for in the series.
Jacob Semik has a lot of USHL experience, 150 regular season games and 7 playoff games, and plays a smart defensive game. Aiden Fulp and Chris Lipe are also big defensemen with plenty of USHL experience.
In net, we can expect to see Matthew Thiessen. Thiessen is a late, 7th round, Vancouver 2018 draft pick after posting good numbers in Canadian Junior A hockey with the MJHL's Steinbach Pistons. In his first season of USHL action he's played in 47 games with a record of 18-18-4-4. In those games he posted a 3.01GAA and a .889SV%. He earned his first shutout earlier this month in a game against Chicago. Thiessen has been a fairly average goalie in pretty much every regard, his performance in this years USHL playoffs is going to be his chance to show the Canuck's they were right to pick him.
Backing him up will be Aaron Randazzo. He's played in 22 games with a 10-8-0-0 record, posting a 3.23GAA, a .880SV%, as well as a shutout against Madison back in March. He's a serviceable backup but barring an injury or the Phantoms running up the score, I doubt we'll see him.
For the Phantoms, things are looking pretty good. Joseph Abate returned to the lineup Friday, a little ahead of schedule. That leaves Liam Dennison as the only notable injury keeping a player out of the lineup.
The 3M line is obviously the top threat. Brett Murray has scored the most single season goals of any Phantoms with 41 and is second in single season points with 76, just 4 points behind Kyle Connors 2014-2015 record of 80 points. Add in Jack Malone (19g, 40a) and Connor MacEachern (26g, 30a) and you have arguably the best line in the league. A couple other players have picked their games up down the stretch. Ben Schoen has points in 8 of the last 11 games, and several of those have been at really key times. Matthew DeMelis has points in 9 of the last 11 games as well. These are players who can really add depth if they can keep it up through the playoffs.
On defense, it's been a group effort. I'm not going to single most players out here, good or bad, with one exception. Thomas Farrell has not been on the bad side of the plus/minus column since February 22nd in Des Moines. There were a few games in between then and now that we would rather forget. To not go down as a minus in those games is an accomplishment. For the most part, all the blueliners have done an excellent job down the line at blocking shots, keeping the crease cleared and all the little things like clearing the zone, etc. The only thing to really comment on is the absence of Liam Dennison, who might be back sooner than later.
It's been a long, strange season regarding goaltenders. Thankfully that's all behind us and both netminders are doing well at this point. Chad Veltri should be the number one goaltender heading into the playoffs. He's played in 35 games, 25 for the Phantoms. Overall he's a 21-8-3-2 record, a 2.86GAA, a .902SV%, and 3 shutouts. With Sioux Falls, he was a 3.75GAA and a .875SV%, but with the Phantoms he has a 2.54GAA and a .912SAV%. All 3 of his shutouts have come in a Phantoms jersey. If he can keep up these numbers or even improve somewhat in the playoffs, the Phantoms stand a very good chance of a deep run.
Backing him up is Christian Stoever, who has played in 27 games this season, all but 1 as a Phantom. He's posted a 13-7-0-1 record, a 3.84GAA, a .865SV%, and he earned a shutout against Sioux Falls earlier this month. Stoever is the only one of our netminders to have seen Dubuque this season and that was his only game in Cedar Rapids, a 5-2 loss.
So what should we expect out of a best of 3 series at the Covelli. I think a lot of it will boil down to who has the jump out of the gate. The Saints finished their season at home on Saturday and got on the bus to Ohio. They were practicing on Kent State University's ice yesterday. I expect they're ready to play, we will need to be too. These teams met in the second round last season with the Phantoms sweeping the series. There will be guys on their side who remember that as well. Which team can get their top lines producing quickly will be a big factor. Neither team has a goalie with any USHL playoff experience. If either team's netminder can take their game to the next level that will give their side a huge edge in the series. Despite their size, Dubuque has had issues with physical teams and we like to play rough. That should favor us, especially at home.
If we can take control of things early in the first game, this could easily be over in 2 games with not a lot of problems. If Dubuque can get things going on the road with such a short turn around, we could see all 3 games. Obviously, the home ice factor favors the Phantoms and I expect that will ultimately give us a win.
I won't even mention attendance, I don't expect much with the quick turnaround and weekday games. If you've never seen playoff hockey, you're missing out. If you can make it to the games, you really need to get to the Covelli Centre. It's intense. I don't have any other words to describe it.