OK, here is a rush preview. We have a rare Monday night game against Chicago and I have an optometrist appointment later today. Then this weekend we play a Friday and Sunday game against the bottom-most team in the west, the Lincoln Stars. I don't have a lot to say about the latter and last night we saw all we needed to see of the former. 

Chicago handed us our second home loss of the season last night 5-2. The Steel played a good team game and got outstanding goaltending from Cale Morris. The Phantoms were depleted on defense and DeAugustine was chased on 4 goals in 10 shots. Truth be told, however, I blamed the lack of attendance, 602, as the biggest problem the team faced. Two questions linger after the loss. Can the Phantoms quickly forget last nights loss and focus on tonight? Will we have 6 defensman dressed and on the bench? I like the odds of Chris Birdsall getting the nod in net after replacing DeAugustine last night. I don't know how Chicago handles back-to-back road games in net but if Morris feels up to it I'd reckon he'll get the nod again for Chicago after last nights excellent performance. 

Well, to start I'd like to apologize for the lack of a recap of the last game. MY job is eating all my time and it's either a recap or a preview and the preview won. I still have to make this short and I think something of a recap is in order. We lost 3-1 to Muskegon, Max Letunov split the defense to score our only goal. We coughed up the puck to their best player to tie it 1-1 after two periods. Then we gave up a shorthanded goal and an insurance goal in the third. We could have been in second place in the Eastern Conference but we landed in fourth. Later in the season this would be a bigger deal but it's still way too early to get upset. So our first home loss is out of the way. The more disturbing fact is that we're 0-3 when tied after two periods. We need to be able to finish games strong and win close fights. But let's move on.

This week we see a pair of odd games. The first is a Wednesday morining tilt against Bloomington. I guess I don't need to break down the Thunder, we've seen enough of them to know their game. The Thunder are on a three game losing streak that started with a pair of losses at the Covelli. They'll also be missing Blake Gober who'll be serving a suspension for removing Josh Nenedal's helmet. To replace him they've inserted Maxim Dzhioshvili, a 6'5", 220lbs 18 year old from Moscow Russia. Bloomington may be a wounded beast and should be treated accordingly, be cautious you don't let them bite you and put them down quickly. Expect the Phantoms to not sit around after losing for the first time at the home. I think the 10:15 am is a 'kids day game' so hopefully we'll pack the stands with screaming school kids for an energetic crowd to give the home squad a little extra push.

Then on Sunday we get our first look at this seasons Chicago Steel team. Winners of the past two games, the Steel have a good team and are right behind the Phantoms in the standings. They have a wealth of returning players on both offense and defense. They have a goaltending duo that includes last years backup Cale Morris and rookie John Lethemon, both 18 years old. Both have posted decent numbers 2.83GAA, .908SV% and 2.60, .917SV% respectively. The Steel have a very solid group of defenseman with four guys that have real USHL experience as well as some rookies and players who served as affiliate call-ups. I don't see anyone as a real standout on the blueline, they don't need it. At least on paper, this is a group effort. Ofensively, they have a dangerous group of forwards capable of putting up big numbers if you let them. Fredrick Olofsson leads the pack and the NHL Chicago Blackhawks 4th round pick (98th overall, 5 places in front of ex-Phantom JJ Piccinich) has 7 goals and 5 assists on the season. At 6'2", 204lbs he's not huge but has enough size to push the defense a little and a complete set of offensive skills. Also able to contribute are Mason Bergh, Robby Jackson (last years USHL Rookie of the Year) and Connor Murphy, who lead the GOJHL in scoring as well as picking up several awards in that league. 

On paper, this is a good team. The Phantoms will need to be ready to go for the early Sunday evening game (5:05pm). I'm not going to call out any players to step up, I'd like to see the whole team raise the bar a little. Our top scorers need to be our top scorers, secondary scorers need to add some points and role players need to find their role. It's still early in the season but every game counts. We can't overlook Bloomington because we've beat them a few times either. It'll be interesting to see if Chris Birdsall gets a start this week too. The biggest question for the Phantoms this week is "will you be there?"! Seriously, a big crowd to support the team would go a long way to helping them win. It's getting a little ridiculous to see so many empty seats when they're playing so well.

Hey, hey, hey, we're four weeks into the season and things are shaping up well for the Phantoms. Things are really starting to click in most aspects of the game and we're starting to see the progress we didn't see last year at this time. Over last weekend we saw the Phantoms bounce back from a tough OT loss to Dubugue, in what was probably their poorest performance of the young season, to record a 6-0 shutout the next night. Two streaks ended over the weekend, the first being Kyle Connor's 5-game scoring streak, started in game 1, ended Friday when he was held off the scoresheet. No matter, he scored twice in less than 0:20 and added a pair of assists later on Saturday. On Saturday, the Phantoms 6 game PP goal scoring streak ended. The Phantoms had also had this streak going since the first game but didn't seem to need the PP since they tallied 6 even-strength goals, showing they aren't just a special teams club. Speaking of special teams, they're still firing on all cylinders, with Youngstown ranked 3rd in powerplay percentage (24.14%) and 2nd in penalty kill percentage (90.91%).

Taking 3 out of 4 points on the road is a good weekend and that should give the team a little momentum coming into a long home stand, 8 games over 4 weeks. We have a good chance to make an early run up the Eastern Conference standings. We can cement ourselves as a real contender in the conference. The first point of order in that is this weekend with a pair of games with the Bloomington Thunder. The Thunder our are big rival this year and we have 6 more games to play against them, three over this home stand. Both teams have identical 4-2-1 records. The Phantoms have won both previous meetings but the second one, our home opener, was the Thunder's lone OT/SO loss. The Phantoms had a 2-0 lead at one point in the game and could be a half game ahead of them if they had closed them out in regulation. These little things add up. For their part, the Thunder are doing well for an expansion team. They play a gritty brand of hockey that should be familiar to Phantoms fans. 5 out of their 7, 3 out of 4 wins, games have been decided by 1 goal. # games, 2 wins and 1 loss (to the Phantoms) have been decided in shootouts. So fans can expect a couple close games. The last meeting the Phantoms won in a SO but it took 7 shooters and some heroics from Josh Melnick to keep us in it and Kiefer Sherwood to win it.