Well, the Phantoms (16-17-5-1) are still struggling to break the .500 mark again. Last weeks 3 of 4 possible points against Cedar Rapids was offset by the previous 1 out of 6 points to Green Bay. That leaves us pretty much spinning our wheels in the 6th spot in the East. That's the good news for the week. The bad news is, this week we get our first taste of the Eastern Conference's 2nd place team, the Dubuque Fighting Saints (25-9-1-0). A lot has been said in the media about the Chicago Steel's loaded roster, overlooking the Saints and what might be one of the most exciting offenses we've seen in a while. Let me tell you why this squad is worth the price of admission.
The offense for the Saints is lead by the '01 born Jackson twins, Ty (13g, 32a) and Dylan (16g, 26a). They're not the biggest players in the league but they're fast, they're crafty, and they can give your defense fits trying to keep tabs on them on the ice. They have the vision, IQ, and the creativity to match their speed, and that makes them as dangerous as any linemates in the league. Riese Gaber isn't related by blood to the Jacksons but he is certainly cut from the same cloth (24g,12a). You can just go back and reread the description of the twins and you know what Gaber is about. Mark Chermeta, (15g, 22a) is a good east-west player who can pull the trigger on a shot or set up for a pass. Former Central Illinois Flying Ace Stephen Halliday (8g, 17a) is the only Saint currently on the NHL's scouting report. Halliday is a bigger forward who can use his size and passing ability to make plays. He's fairly cool-headed and able to think on his skates.
On the blueline, they have a good core group. Aiden Fulp (1g, 9a) is a seasoned USHL defensemen with a good head on his shoulders. Braden Doyle (7g, 19a), a 6th round L.A. Kings draft pick, is a good offensive defenseman who has good poise, skating and play making ability. If he manages to get a little better at defensive positioning, he might be a force to reckon with. Kaelan Taylor and Luke Robinson are both very good at keeping the puck out of their own net and have a +/- of +20 and +19, respectively.
In net, Erik Portillo is the starter. The 3rd round Buffalo Sabers draftee has a record of 15-4-1-0 with a 2.07 GAA and a .919SV%. He was scratched last weekend due to illness. If he can't go this weekend t,he Saints won't be hindered too much. Aidan McCarthy is no slouch a 9-5-0-0 record, a 2.48 SV% and a .896 GAA. McCarthy also has the Saints lone shutout of the season.
The Phantoms problems are still pretty much the same as I've already documented the past few weeks. The good news is, players other than Trevor Kuntar have been contributing to the goal scoring. The bad news is, sometimes when he isn't scoring no one else is picking it up. Matthew Cassidy seems like the only real consistent scorer with goals in 5 of the last 6 games. We'll probably need more than Kuntar and Cassidy to light the lamp this weekend to get any points. Yusaku Ando, Reilly Funk, and John Beaton are all players we know can get it done. Garrett Dahm has been playing strong of late, I think if he could have a breakout weekend we'll have a lot better chance at success.
The Phantoms have avoided significant injuries and suspensions the past couple weeks. The most notable injury is Colin Purcell, who left after the second period of the game against Tri-City on January 17th with a lower body issue. Dominic Basse has played every minute from the third period of that game through last weekend. Fatigue is starting to become a concern for Basse, but even if Purcell is able to play he'll not have played in a game in half a month. Dubuque is not the team you want to use to try to ease back into the game. The only other injury scratch was defenseman Austen May.
The Saints have the second lowest shots per game in the league with 26.60 shots/game. Not coincidentally, they are the top in the league in goals against at 2.46 goals/game. They're also 5th in shots for (30.97) and 3rd in goals for (3.86). So the Phantoms will not only have to balance taking advantage of the chances they are given, but they'll also have to limit the chances they give up. Making sure we get shots on goal and burying scoring chances when they come will be key to offense. That means not hesitating to put the puck on net, we have a bad habit of waiting just a split second too long to shoot. On defense, we have to mind our positions and not run around to make a hit that isn't needed. Limiting stupid penalties will be critical as well, but we've been much, much better at that lately.
I didn't think special teams would be big factors the past couple weeks. And I was wrong about that. Dubuque sports the 3rd best powerplay and 4th best penalty kill in the league. I think this weekend will be a real test of our middle-to-lower-half of the league special teams. If we can kill penalties and maybe cash in on a powerplay or two, then we'll be doing OK.
Then we'll be back at the Covelli for a couple games next week. Maybe we can get back to .500 (or better) and start really pushing to make up ground in the standings.