Welcome to the heat of the second half of the season. Teams are making trades and getting ready to make their push up the standings towards the playoff race. Today the Phantoms dealt Trey Bradley to Sioux Falls for a fourth round USHL Phase 2 (Entry) draft and a second round Phase 1 (Futures) draft. Bradley had been showing a lot of improvement as a player but the Phantoms are stacked at the forward position and we gave up a few picks to get Ryan Lomberg. So we reloaded some draft picks and have an open roster spot. I could see an affiliate like BC High's Ryan Shae moving up to fill it. We could also see a player moving from NCAA, another junior league or a European import. The Phantoms have made moves like this in previous seasons and I doubt they moved Bradley just to get some picks.

Despite having a formidable offense, the Phantoms have had issues scoring at home lately. It may be a good thing to be on the road this weekend but three games in (less than) as many nights could prove rough. The first night is against the Muskegon LumberJacks. We've split the season series so far, both teams winning two, one of those in a shootout at home. The 'Jacks are 6-3-1 to start 2015. Last weekend the 'Jacks split a pair of games hosting the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Other than that there isn't much to say about Muskegon. It's the same squad as usual. Keep you eye on Ian Iacopelli, he might not be tallying the numbers some people though but he is a major catalyst for the team. Another guy who may not get as much mention as an offensive threat is Griffin Molino. Molino leads the team in assists with 29 and total points with 41. Eric Shierhorn has been solid in net and has a 2.54 GAA and .925 SV%. Michael Latorella is a decent backup, 3.39 GAA and an .899 SV%, but we probably won't see him unless Shierhorn is chased or injured.

Then on to Madison for the Phantoms first visit to the Wisconson capitol to face the Capitols, who are breathing down our neck for the last playoff spot. The Caps handed us two solid losses in our barn and like Cedar Rapids did to us, we would like to pay them back in kind. The Caps are 0-4-1 since the games in Youngstown and have placed the leading assist and total point scorer, Will Johnson, on the season ending IR. This is retroactive, Johnson was out of the lineup when they came into Youngstown but to know a star player is done for the season is a huge momentum killer. Freddy Gerard is the guy who could step up and provide the offensive spark, he certainly showed us this in Youngstown. If the Caps want to make a playoff run, they'll need to rely on their goaltenders, Darren Smith and Garrett Metcalf , who stole the show in Youngstown. Smith is 10-6-4 on the season with a 3.19 GAA and a .908 SV%. Metcalf, 7-6-3, boasts a 2.85 GAA and a .918 SV%. Both have a shutout on the year, Metcalfs coming at our expense.

The Phantoms pretty much need the same mindset for all three games. Keep it tight and close and bury your chances when you get them. Above all, we need solid goaltending, especially to start the game. Chris Birdsall has been bearing most of the load lately. Birdsall, 9-6-1 this season so far, has a 2.82 GAA and a .898 SV%. These aren't bad numbers but he's been beat early in games and I think he does a lot better if he gets support early and can play with a couple goal safety margin. Collin DeAugustine's numbers don't differ much, a 10-6-1 record with 3.35 GAA and .892 SV%. Again, not bad but we'll need better. DeAugustin hasn't had a start since 1/9 when Green Bay came to town and gave up 5 goals in the two games he was in relief of Birdsall for a period a piece. Defensively we've played the last four games as well as any we've played the past couple seasons. It payed off dividends in Cedar Rapids when we were scoring, it was all for naught in Youngstown when we weren't. I wouldn't change much if anything here. On offense, it's hard to say what the recent downturn in performance is. We threw the Kitchen sink at Ryan Larkin last weekend and got nothing. Then only thing I can say is if we get a chance we have to make it count. Stars and role players, forwards and defensemen, we can't simply blow chances.

Will have to see how the Bradley trade works out. Sometimes opening up ice time for other players can help team production but Trey was a good guy and coming into his own as a player. Hopefully we'll know soon how they're filling the open spot. A good showing on a tough road weekend can also give a team a lot of momentum. Next weekend we're back at the Covelli for a pair against Dubuque, another team we're trailing in the standings. I won't call these must win games but considering how close the point standings are, these games are increasingly important to us making the playoffs.