Happy New Year Phantoms fans. 2014 has been an uphill climb for the Phantoms, the second half of last season and the first half of this season, and we've seen a lot of changes both on the ice and in the front office. The uphill climb seems to be paying off and this year we've witnessed some really outstanding hockey. The past couple games the fans have responded as well and that's something we've needed to improve on. We finished 14-7-5 (.635 win %), averaging the most goals for per game in the league (4.08), third in the league in power plays and second in penalty kills. We closed out '14 in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the potential last playoff spot, but only by a thread and some luck with Green Bay beating Madison earlier in the week. Muskegon and Cedar Rapids top the conference but are starting to cside back to within reach. Dubuque just leapfrogged us with a win in Bloomington to close out the year. 

Now it's 2015, nearly half the seasons schedule has been played and we need to keep moving forward and the first week of the new year is going to be a real test. It's three games in three nights, actually a little less than that, and on the road. This is the first of four times we play a set like this. Neither team we face this weekend is too hot at the moment but everyone's New Years resolution is to win and both teams have shown promise. Tonight we play the Chicago Steel at 8:30 EST. The Steel are pretty simple to break down. Mason Bergh is almost unstoppable on offense and Cale Morris specializes in shutting down offenses. Despite having the top scoring forward in the league so far this year and one of the leagues best goalies, as well as a well rounded team to fill in, the Steel have a losing record (12-13-2) and just haven't gotten it going consistently lately. Their last game of the season, however, they did beat the slumping Muskegon Lumberjacks.

Then we play in Des Moines Saturday night at 8:05 PM and Sunday afternoon at 4:05pm. I don't have much info on the Buccaneers. They're a Western Conference team. On offense I recognize Joe Widmar, a capable scored from Indiana and Tanner Karty, playing his fourth year for the Bucs. Alec Rauhauser is the top scoring defenseman in the league, tied for first in goals and first outright in assists. Goaltending seems to be a soft spot. Ryan Ruck is the veteran top goalie, Ryland Pashovitz the rookie backup. Both are averaging over 3.00 goals per game though Ruck has a decent .905 SV%. The Bus were a team initially not given much of a chance to succeed but came out of the gates red hot to start the season. They've fizzled out to a 13-11-4 record and 6th in their conference. 

My take on the rough weekend is defense and goaltending will make or break us. The big question mark is Chris Birdsall. He hasn't suited up the last two games. One game we had an emergency goalie holding down the bench, Grant Valentine, and the next we had an affiliate, Ryan Bednard. I wouldn't mind seeing Bednard, a NHL CSS C ranked goalie, get a start in net sometime for the Phantoms but this weekend would be a tough time to do it. Fortunately for the Phantoms, Bednard finished 2014 with his NAHL team in Johnstown, PA. The offense will come with patience as long as we play good defense and stick to fundamentals, we don't need to force it trying to run up the score. 

After this weekend, the Phantoms will be back at home for two weekends and four games. I hope to see a lot more people at the Covelli, especially with the holidays over. 2015 could be the best year of hockey yet for Youngstown, you don't want to miss any of it. 

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