It's finally the preview for the home opener. Opening night at the Covelli is just around the corner and after a few trips to Plymouth, I'm really looking forward plopping my butt into my usual seat. This season, the Phantoms (2-1-0-0) kickoff the home stand against the Madison Capitols (1-1-0-0). This is also our first test against a normal USHL team in regular season. The only other game we played against a USHL team other than the NTDP was a 3-1 win over Cedar Rapids in preseason.

Madison comes into their third USHL season looking to improve over their sub .500 performance in their freshman and sophomore seasons. The Caps started their third season with their fourth head coach. After some ownership changes in the off-season, Ryan Sutter has taken over as GM and named his brother Garrett Sutter as a coach, as well as Garrett's son Jake as an assistant coach. Yeah, sounds shady but the Sutter family is synonymous with American hockey so we'll hold off judgment until we see if they can accomplish what the last three regimes have not. This season they have a little more firepower up front. Mick Messner , who played 27 games for the Caps last season, has landed himself on the NHL's CSS report with a goal and 2 assists on the season. Rookie Kamil Sadlocha is also on the CSS report in  the early goings of the season. Eetu Selanne, son of NHL great Teemu Selanne, has a goal and an assist in his 2 games and showed a lot of taent during preseason. Also looking impressive in preseason is Russian returning forward Eugene Fadyeyev, a smooth skater with good vision and also doesn't slack off on the defense. Marcel Godbout is another player that the Phantoms should look out for. Godbout isn't exactly a prolific scorer, but the fourth year, four team USHL veteran scored 6 goals as well as adding 3 assists in 10 games against the Phantoms last season. Cole Hults and Robby Fosdick make up most of the Caps experience on the blueline, a solid pair of returning defensemen.  Daniel Lebedeff is the top goaltender, getting the start in both games this year for the Caps. He's the USHL veteran presence, having played in 6 games for the Caps last season posting 3.06 GAA and a .896 SV%. This season he's starting out with an impressive 1.52 GAA and a .955 SV%. Dryden McKay played part a single game last season for the Green Bay Gamblers, a little over half a period. He let in 2 goals on 6 shots and ended up with a 11.39 GAA and a .667 SV%. Ironically, the game he played in was against the Caps who picked him up after the Fall Classic where McKay was still playing for the Gamblers.

The Phantoms return to the Covelli with a solid offense, leading the USHL in total goals scored with 16. Austin Pooley is the league leading goal scorer, tied with Chicago's Greg Prinz with 4 on the season, as well as second in the leage in total points with 5, tied with several other players. This is a much appreciated surprise from a guy who was brought in for grit and and his PK prowess. We have a host of guys looking to be big scorers, Brett Murray, Max Ellis and Griffin Loghren all impressing more than just this blog writer. Heck, I could name half the forwards on the roster, Alex Esposito, Nicholas Werbik, Brad Cocca and Coale Norris all look like potential 20+ goal scorers. On defense, Michael Karow has landed himself on the NHL CSS. Marcus Joseph has great two-way skills as well.  It's a little early in the season for me to see how the defense is going to shape up, especially without playing any regular USHL teams yet. Both Darion Hanson and Ivan Kulbakov look strong in net. Hanson got a pounded a little on opening night but rebounded well when he played in the second game last weekend. He's posted a 3.00 GAA and .900 SV% in his 2 starts. Kulbakov is a more aggressive goalie, like many Eastern European goaltenders. In his only game he posted a 1.00 GAA and a .941 SV%. The race for the top goaltender is still in effect and I won't make any predictions yet.

I think the big key to this weekend is getting our offense in gear early and get the crowd engaged. Our goalies and defense will get a little better test of their skills than they have been so far in preseason and against the NTDP and getting some early chances and hopefully burying them would go a long way to helping take the pressure off them. First goals will be big but we shouldn't panic if we go down a goal or two. Mostly this weekend will be establishing team identity and having fun in front  of the home crowd.

Speaking of the home crowd, it would be great to get a big one this weekend to kickoff the home hockey season. In addition to the beginning of the home stand, there is also an ending this weekend. The Phantoms are retiring their long time mascot, Sparky, on Friday. I'll admit I'm more than a little sad. I guess I'll leave it at that and I hope I see a lot of you there this weekend.