The Phantoms are officially the top team in the USHL, at least to begin the week. The past 25 weeks of hard work have lead up to this but there are still four weeks to go including this one before the playoff start. The past weekend we saw another Western Conference team come into the Covelli, and like the weekend before it we saw the Phantoms bring them to the point of a meltdown. This time it was the Sioux City Musketeers who started last week atop the leagues standings. This week we get Matt Miller back but lose Kevin Conley for 4 games, 2 for removing an opponents helmet and 2 for fighting in the last 5 minutes of the game. The Musketeers got 5 games split between 3 players (2,2,1) for the night. This weekend the Phantoms go on the road for their last 3 games in (less than) 3 days weekend. The Phantoms will also be taking an impressive win streak with them. Currently at 14 games this is the longest such streak in the league this season. I've gone back the past 12 years on Pointstreak and found 2 times where a team has posted a 16 game win streak and both times the team won the Anderson Cup. In 05-06 Sioux Falls did it and most recently, last season, the Waterloo Blackhawks did it. Ironic, since the next opponent we play and will have to beat both nights to get to 16 wins is the Waterloo Blackhawks.

This weekend will also be a reunion tour of sorts. Starting with a pair Waterloo where we'll get to see an old friend, Bryan Lemos, and Tyler Sheehy will get to see his old mates from the past couple seasons. Since the trade, Lemos has 1 goal and 3 assists in 5 games. Sheehy has 1 goal, 4 assists in 4 games. The Blackhawks are 3 1/2 (7 points) games out of the last playoff spot with just 8 games left, 1 less than most of the rest of the Western Conference race. It's starting to look grim for them and a pair of losses to the Phantoms would be devastating. Desperation hockey is hockey at it's finest and the Blackhawks better be desperate. For the Blackhawks, look for Brock Boeser for the offensive lead. Boeser is tied for 4th in the league in scoring with 2 other players, including Josh Melnick. I can't comment much on defense, I'm not familiar with the blueliners. I can comment on their starting goalie. Cale Morris started out the year in Chicago. He was instrumental in the Steel winning their only 2 games in the Covelli this season before he was traded to Waterloo. In my opinion, he's been the best goalie in the USHL this year.  He's 3rd in both GAA at 2.35 and SV% at 9.24 and has done it on two teams that don't have the defense the other top goalies have benefited from. His combined record is 22-12-4 with 4 shutouts, all 4 coming with Waterloo. Getting plenty of pucks on him will be a key factor. The Phantoms probably won't be able to generate the desperation of Waterloo but they'll need to fire themselves up somehow to match.

Then after two evening games in Partytown, they'll sneak in a matinee game in Chicago for a short reunion with Carson Vance in a matinee game. Connor McDonald will get to visit his former team. Also, Connor Yau and Alec Vanko played defense for Chicago last season. So, as the admin of the best USHL message board will point out, half our defense is ex-Steel. This will be one of 2 games we play in Chicago over the last stretch of the season. The Steel aren't out of the playoffs yet, despite trading off a lot of key players such as Connor McDonald and Robbie Jackson. They still have Mason Berg and Fredrik Olofsson, a very dangerous pair of forwards. In goal the have Lassi Yrjola (10-6-1) 3.10 GAA, .903 SV% and 1 shutout. and Trevor Gorsuch (4-1-0) 3.15 GAA, .906 SV%. They don't look bad on paper but lets see how they handle the Phantoms. I'm not sure how desperate the Steel are, their trade deadline actions looked like a team resigned to not making the playoffs. Despite that, they're only 3 1/2 games behind Muskegon and Dubuque for that last spot with 9 games left. This being an afternoon game coming on the heels of 2 night games, the Phantoms biggest obstacle will be fatigue.

So the next big test for the Phantoms is keeping the win streak alive over a long road weekend. Max Letunov missed last weekend with an undisclosed injury. If he's back in the lineup, obviously we get a huge boost to our offense. Since there is no panic over the playoffs, I don't see rushing him back into the lineup. If he's 100% the put him in, but if he's not I really don't see coach Noreen taking any chance of him not being ready for the playoffs. In his absense both Kevin Conley and Matt Alvaro stepped up their games with a pair of goals each last weekend, Conley getting his on Friday and Alvaro on Saturday. Kevin Conley also got his third fight of the season but unfortunately it was late and he pulled off his rival's helmet. He'll sit out until next Saturday, 4 games. Having Letunov in the lineup will make for a full complement of forwards but we may be short if he's not ready. With it being 3 games in (less than) 3 days, it will be interesting to see what happens there. The long weekend makes it hard to play without 4 full lines of forwards, perhaps Noreen might move a defenseman to a forward position since we usually dress 7 defensemen now.

We certainly outmatch both out opponents this weekend. Even if they're not playing for a playoff spot, and there's still hope for both, they're playing to stay above .500 and to spoil. It would be a small bit of pride for either to say they ended our big streak. The Phantoms need to worry less about the streak on the road and focus on just beating the teams they play and staying healthy and off the suspension list. You can't blame them for any of the suspensions. Matt Miller's reaction to the hit on Vas Kolias was understandable and the 2 games he got for it were an acceptable consequence. I guess you can say half of Kevin Conley's were for a stupid move, he knows better than to pull off they other guy's lid, but the Musketeers started the fight and it was certainly a good one. I don't really blame Sioux City either, it was a physical game and that's how things end up sometimes. This week, however, we need to avoid these brouhahas as much as possible. Staying out of the penalty box will go a long way towards not getting too fatigued. We need to see some nice, simple road hockey. Short shifts, smart play and all those cliches as well, I guess. This kind of play is key come playoff time so let's see what we can do as a test this weekend. Another milestone we can surpass this weekend is our 12-13 season points record of 74. Keep in mind it took 62 games to reach that, the USHL experimented with a 64 game season that year, we could do in in 53. We're already at 71 and need a win and an OT loss to tie and two wins or a win and two OT losses this weekend. Of course 77 points sounds a lot better. Also, 74 points clinches a playoff spot.

The side stories seem to overshadow the games this weekend but the Phantoms need to keep focus. It's fun for the fans and I'm sure it's fun for the team but there is still business to be done. And with another road weekend coming up after this, plus a midweek morning game in Chicago after that before coming home to the Covelli, the Phantoms need to get ready for the road. In the long run, home ice advantage in the playoffs is everything. Better to win on the road now than play on the road then. That's enough for this week,