Another week and another weekend set of games, and this weekend is big. If you can't watch the Fasthockey games and didn't see last weekends two games against the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders you missed out on some great hockey. The good news is, this weekend the 'Riders coming to the Covelli for a rematch. The Phantoms can sweep the regular season series but you can bet the USHL's first place team isn't going to take being beat twice in their own house lying down. They'll be looking to make it a true grudge match.

These teams feature the two best offenses in the league, the 'Riders also boast the best defense. Last weekends games were fairly evenly matched, with a two goals being the highest margin either team managed to build. Chris Birdsall carried the full load in net for the Phantoms while Ben Blacker and Ryan Larkin split games in goal for the 'Riders. It will be interesting to see which goalies the coaches tap this weekend. I didn't see any real performance difference between the two 'Riders netminders, both are young but talented. If I had to chose I thought Larkin was the better of the two. Birdsall will probably be called to duty for the first night at least but I've been unable to second guess coach Noreen's goalie rotation this year. Defensively the Phantoms tightened their defense up a lot on the trip to Iowa and matched, if not out preformed, the top ranked 'Riders defense, especially last Friday. The 'Riders adjusted well for Saturdays game so it'll be interesting to see if either team makes and changes for this weekend.

The biggest difference this weekend is going to be with the Cedar Rapids offense. You would have to figure they would want to make some sort of adjustment there after the Phantoms held them to just 5 goals in the pair of games. We won't have to wait to see the line charts, it's obvious already. Mid-week the 'Riders dealt Joey Marooney and three draft picks to Green Bay for Joe Wegsworth. Marooney is now on his third USHL team this year, starting the season with Sioux Falls where he had 4 goals and 2 assists in 18 games before being traded to the 'Riders where he had 2 assists in 12 games. Wegsworth spent the past two years playing with the USA NTDP where he was a more physical presence than a scoring threat before joining the Green Bay Gamblers this season. He's found a little bit of a playmaking touch this season, posting 5 goals and 16 assists in 35 games. Earlier this month when the Gamblers visited the Covelli, he set up a Brian Bowen goal with a nifhty spin pass. Wegsworth should be a solid addition to the 'Riders though the Cedar Rapids squad isn't known for good mid-to-late season runs.

There isn't a whole lot to say. It's two top teams going head-to-head in what could be a first round playoff match. For that matter, Dubuque is in Muskeon for a pair of games. These two teams are in between the Phantoms and the 'Riders in the Eastern Conference race. There are big points in the standings this weekend all around. If you like good hockey, you need to get down the the Covelli this weekend.

 

Welcome to week 17 and the first weekend the Phantoms are looking at the playoff race from the outside. I guess that just makes this weekends road trip more dramatic. This weekend features the first two of four straight against the USHL leading Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. The 'Riders are the only team right now with an offense that scores more than the Phantoms and they have a solid defense to boot, leading the league in lowest goals against. It's hard to find any chinks in the armor but Cedar Rapids has been in similar territory in past seasons and are not known for finishing the season strong.

Lets start with the forwards and the first name you need to know about the 'Riders front-men is Andrew Oglevie. Oglevie is in his fourth season with Cedar Rapids and has played just shy of 200 USHL games. He's third on the team in scoring (11g, 24A) and a huge presence with his experience and leadership. Leading the scoring onslaught for the 'Riders is Czech import Juri Fronk. Fronks 22 goals leads the team and his 17 assists put him atop the total scoring chart for the 'Riders. Another main contributor is Erik Foley with 16 goals and and 14 assists. Defensively they're lead by veterans Charlie Curti and Clark Custer. Both have held down the backend well and also have contributed somewhat to the offense. Also worth keeping an eye on is Mitch Reinke. Reinke, a product of the Minnesota high school hockey system, is putting up similar numbers to the veteran leaders in his rookie season.

Before the start of the season, goaltending looked like it would hamstring the 'Riders but that doesn't seem to have happened. Danny Tirone looked like the #1 guy and with a good draft pick in Tyler Parson's, Chris Birdsall was the odd man out and traded to the Phantoms. First Parsons decided to play in the OHL where the 17 year old has 3.31 GAA and .904 SV% in 20 games. Next Tirone was told he would get an early start at the University of New Hampshire, where he was a commit, after their goalie had some serious off ice charges. He was traded to an USPHL team closer to UNH to easier facilitate the mid-season start. Fortunately for the 'Riders and unfortunately for the rest of the league, they added a pair of young prospects, both 17 years old, that have developed into a good tandem in net. First they acquired Ben Blacker in the Indiana Ice dispersal draft. Blacker has posted a 16-5 record with 1 shutout and has a 2.46 GAA and a .924 SV%. Later they traded Muskegon for the rights to Ryan Larkin, an NHL CSS "C" ranked goalie, who has 10-3 record, also with 1 shutout, and a 2.13 GAA with a .924 SV% as well. The 'Riders good defense has let these young guys develop early and now they look like a brick wall in front of the net.

Welcome to week 16, we're over the halfway mark of the season and the Phantoms are cruising. We've won 4 straight at home and have gotten at least a point in the standings the last 9 home games. We have another pair of home games this weekend before heading to Cedar Rapids for two of the biggest road games of the year so far. This weekends match-up features the first ever meeting between the Phantoms and the expansion Madison Capitols. The Capitols started out the their inaugural season pretty roughly, it took them 7 games to earn their first win. They've since turned things around some and are now 2 1/2 games behind the Phantoms and having played one less game. Since I don't have much else here for news and not much info on the expansion franchise, I'll keep this basic.

A few of the Caps have a little USHL experience before the start of the season but there are no real standout players here, at least not in how they would like to standout. Offensively, their point leader and primary catalyst is Will Johnson. The USHL rookie has 9 goals and 27 assists for 36 points, 15 points more than the next highest in points, Freddy Gerard. F. Gerard has 10 goals, the most on the team and 11 assists. Both He and his brother Charlie are from the Cleveland suburb Rocky River, Ohio so this will be somewhat of a homecoming. Both played some AAA minor with Tommy Parran with the Cleveland Barons U18. Daniel Willett and Alec Vanko are two solid defensemen that have previous USHL experience. By my data, both goalies are USHL rookies but have decent numbers. Darren Smith is 9-5-3 on the year with a 3.13 GAA and a .909 SV% with 1 shutout. Garrett Metcalf is 6-5-2 with a 2.94 GAA and a 0.917 SV%. On paper, the tandem looks like they can at least give the Caps a fighting chance. The onle player who does standout for the Caps is Chad Pietroniero. Pietroniero leads the league in penalty minutes with 148, 127 of which came after he was traded to Madison after playing 2 games with the Sioux City Musketeers. This includes 6 fights, including one in each of his last two games, numerous other misconducts and being suspended for a game 3 separate times. Otherwise he has 3 goals and 2 assists on the season, so you know what his job is on the ice.