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.

The Phantoms need to forget all about how good the 'Riders are. The first thing we need to do is play defense. Chris Birdsall and Collin DeAugustine need a little help getting back to playing a consistent game. Both netminders have had their ups and downs but playing some good defense in the early going will go a long way to building confidence and keeping pucks out of the net. We can't force offense and the expense of defense against these guys. We just have to wait for our chances. This also means on the powerplay - for the love of God stop playing forwards on the point so much. We need to hit hard but stay disciplined and not have our best players getting misconducts. Taylor Best will be coming back off f suspension again. He'll add a little more depth than we saw against Madison but he'll need to stay out of the box and not lose his cool. I'd like to see him playing the 'Riders when they come to the Covelli, that means not getting another suspension this weekend. Most of all, our goalies need to bring their best game this weekend. As mentioned earlier, Birdsall was traded from the 'Riders where he was a backup the two previous seasons. I'm sure he would like to show his old team they made a mistake as well as justify his CSS "B" ranking that some people have questioned.

The 'Riders are always a fun team to watch regardless of weather they're climbing the standing, riding the top, or crashing and burning. They say 'familiarity breeds contempt' in hockey, we'll be pretty familiar with these guys by the time we see them at the Covelli. This is the first of nine straight games versus the teams ahead of us in the Eastern Conference, with five of those games on the road. This is a big stretch for the Phantoms. We need to hunker down, play good defense and get some regulation wins. Madison, Dubuque and Muskegon will have to wait though, the focus needs to be on Cedar Rapids and that's all that matters this weekend.