The Phantoms (7-5-2-0) are back! It seems like it's been forever since we've had hockey in Youngstown. In reality it's been about a month since the last games at the Covelli, and we've seen some ups and downs on the road. Fortunately, I think it's been more of the ups. Since the last games at home were a weekend pair against the Steel that ended pretty badly, it would be great to see the Phantoms get some home wins, but that will be a tall order against a couple tough opponents. First up is the NTDP U18s (4-0-0-0) on Saturday, then the Des Moines Buccaneers (7-5-0-1) on Sunday. Yeah, Saturday and Sunday but at least it's not Sunday and Monday.

I don't think I need to say too much about the NTDP, especially the U18s. They've won all 4 USHL games they played and just recently swept international competition at the Five Nations Tournament 4-0, taking home the gold medal. I'm not going to go into the scouting report stuff.

Thomas Bordeleau (5g, 2a) is good two-way forward, he moves the puck very well and has the ability to find space to make a play. Luke Tuch, whose brother Alex played for the NTDP as well, is a large power forward and is a lot like his brother. He can use his frame to make the space to make a play, a real beast to try to defend. To me the real raw gem on the U18s is Ty Smilanic (2g, 2a). His name hasn't been mentioned the same as some of the previous scoring forwards for the NTDP but he has the IQ, vision, hands, skating ability, etc to be a big scorer someday.

On defense they are about as stacked in talent as on offense - like, no duh right? Their blueliners sometimes don't get the credit the forwards do. Eamon Powell, Owen Gallatin, and Jake Sanderson are a few names that don't get thrown around much but will probably get a lot more notice as their careers continue. None are the biggest guys on the ice but they are all defensively responsible and really move the puck well. These guys didn't make a lot of mistakes as U17 players and as their physical size and abilities catch up to the older players, I think we'll see a lot of them at higher levels.

Both USA netminders have only played 2 games in the USHL this season, and both won those games. Drew Commesso has the better stats, only allowing 1 goal on 48 shots. That gives him a 0.50 GAA and a .979 SV% as well as a shutout. Noah Grannon has given up 3 goals on 40 shots for a 1.50 GAA and a .925 SV%. It's a good bet that whoever is in net is going to be stingy.

After a few sub-par seasons for Des Moines, the Buccaneers  actually have a pretty good team to start the season. Alex Laferriere is their leading scorer with 8g and 10a so far on the season. That's good enough for 4th place in the league and only 2 points behind Trevor Kuntar for the lead. Laferriere isn't going to wow anyone with his skating but he gives 100% every shift, is one of the better passers in the league, and has a deceptive shot. His skills are good enough to land him a "C" ranking on the NHL CSS report, which could climb if the '01 born player could improve his speed and skating. Joey Strada (10g, 4a) and Mason Nevers (6g, 6a) round out the top 3 scorers. Strada and Nevers usually play on a line and seem to feed off each other very well, giving them a second good scoring line.

The Buccaneers have an interesting defense core. Noah Ellis (3g, 5a) is a highly touted rookie, a CSS ranked dman with decent size and good puck movement skills. He'll be someone to watch to see if they don't move up the scouts rankings sooner rather than later. In the same mold is Lev Starikov, another bigger young defenseman who is maybe a little more defensive minded and less of a two-way guy. Nicklas Andrews is a player I'm interested in. He's not a guy who shows up on the scoresheet or scouting reports but with a +/- of 9, he's a player who looks like he can match up with most of the leagues best forwards.

In net, we're pretty familiar with the Bucs goaltenders. Their starter is Cameron Rowe, a former NTDP netminder. Rowe can be a little bit of a streaky player and had a bit of a shaky start to the season and has posted a 3.80 GAA and a .890 SV%. Backing him up is Christian Stoever, who played most of last season for the Phantoms. Stoever seemed to me to be prone to swings in confidence but looks like he's been a fairly even goaltender this season with a 2-2-0-1 record, a 3.24 GAA and a .907 SV%.

Last week the Phantoms split the weekend games with Sioux City, dropping a 2-1 game on Saturday before bouncing back for a 4-1 win on Sunday. Reilly Funk broke a 7 game goal-less drought with 2 goals including the lone goal in the Saturday game. The real story was the grinders though. The Beaton-Cassidy-Kern looked especially good last weekend, putting in 2 goals in the Sunday game.

The DeLuca-Marek-Dahm did not score last weekend, but looked strong in both games as well. Dominic Basse played very well, allowing only 3 goals on 57 shots. His stats have improved dramaticly from the start of the season and he's now at a 3.12 GAA and a .902 SV%. Colin Purcell is still looking to get back in net after starting the season with a pair of pretty good games, followed by a pair of really bad losses.

It's interesting to see how things play out this weekend, in that we play 2 really different teams. Against the NTDP U18s, I think the key is to make sure you take advantage of the chances you're given. Those kids will probably not give you a lot of golden opportunities, the Phantoms will have to fight for everything. Winning the 50/50 battles will be critical, as will minding the little details on defense.

The Bucs are a solid team, not great, but not one you can overlook on your schedule. To me, getting pucks on net early and getting into the head of the goaltender will be a big factor. Discipline has been better for the Phantoms lately and, with the problems we've had so far this season, continuing to improve there will be a big part of both games.

And we're back at home finally. I'm hoping that the early cold won't hurt attendance. Since we're not playing on Friday, we don't have to compete with high school football, and the Browns and Steelers played Thursday so most of the Valley's NFL affiliations are out of the way for Sunday. I still don't think we're going to see a big crowd on Sunday but I would love to see us pack the house on Saturday for the NTDP. The promotions, as per the teams website schedule, are Saturday's Boxing/WWE night and Sunday is Princess/Pirate night. I haven't seen any advertisement for either so I don't expect that'll play much into attendance. Hopefully I'll have a few good highlights to post with the recaps so stay tuned.