Well, we made it to the last full month of the regular season. As the NCAA gears up for their "madness", USHL hockey enters its crunch time as teams work on playoff position. The Phantoms (19-21-6-2) hope to turn things around after going 0-2-1-0 last week, and this week will be looking to keep themselves in 5th place in the Eastern Conference. The good news is this week we play the first team out of the playoffs in the conference, the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (18-22-4-1). The 'Riders are struggling to get back into a playoff spot, and their mounting injuries are making that a tall mountain to climb.

Leading the 'Riders in scoring is Nikolai Mayorov (24g, 13a). After playing a game in the QMJHL following his move from Russia to North America, Mayorov opted to move to the USHL and landed in Cedar Rapids. He has great speed and stick handling, his puck pursuit is good, and his shot release is exceptional. Grant Silianoff is a veteran forward with over 100 USHL games under his belt. Passed over in last years NHL draft after a hand injury, Silianoff is a high octane scorer who had good hockey IQ and keeps his head under pressure. Zach Faremouth (10g, 14a) is a player added from Fargo in a trade. Faremouth was expected to and has made an impact on the 'Riders offense. By impact on offense, I mean impact on the opposing team. Faremouth checks in at 6'2" and 218lbs and plays twice as big as that.

The blueline is where the 'Riders start having issues. They are missing a pair of very key pieces. First off, veteran player, initial team captain and Anaheim Ducks draft pick Will Francis went down with a season ending injury after 10 games. Then in January Ben Meehan, a NHL CSS ranked defenseman, went down for the rest of the season as well. Jack Millar has stepped into a top defenseman spot. The second season defenseman has used his size (6'4", 220lbs) and had a good run at the USA Junior A Challenge. Garrett Sundquist, another bigger defenseman at 6'3" and 210lbs, has been a solid addition to the 'Riders this season, posting a +/- of 15.

If losing a couple top defensemen was bad enough, the 'Riders are worse off in net. First off, last November they lost Shamil Shmakov in November. He played in 7 games with a 4-3-0-0 record, a 3.03 GAA, and a .901 SV%. Aiden Harper, acquired from Sioux City in a trade, was the next to fall at the end of January after 13 games, a 4-5-1-0 record 3.44 GAA, .873 SV%, and a shutout. Derek Mullahy had at least been a stablizing force in net, having been the guy who had been in the position all season. He went down at the beginning of February after playing 30 games. His record was 10-13-3-1 with a 3.10 GAA, a .896 SV%, and a shutout. That leaves Andrew Pichora, an '03 netminder from Bethel Park, PA. Pichora has played most of the season with the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite U16 and 1 game with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights of the NAHL. In the 6 games he's had with Cedar Rapids he has a record of 2-4-0-0 with a 3.04 GAA and a .897 SV%. Backing him up, possibly, is Carter Clafton. Clafton has good numbers in Minnesota high school, a 1.63 GAA and a .935 SV% with Grand Rapids high.

The Phantoms are mostly healthy. The only notable new injury was Bradly Marek. Marek left the game on Saturday with an obvious upper body injury. I can't say for certain on his status at this time but it did not look good. The only other injury is Austen May, who has been out for quite some time.

Going into this week, the Phantoms seem to have trouble finding anything resembling consistency. After a pair of regulation wins in Muskegon at home then taking 3 of 4 points on a trip to Iowa, the Phantoms only got 1 of 6 points last week, dropping games to Chicago, the NTDP U18s, and Waterloo. This week should be a lot easier than last week but we can't underestimate the 'Riders, a wounded animal can still bite you. Despite their defensive and goaltending issues, they still do not give up as many goals as you would think. The key for the Phantoms will be getting to the netminder. They have a couple of kids in net with little to no USHL experience. We need to pepper them with shots, crash the crease, and otherwise do everything possible to make the goalie as uncomfortable as possible. Throw everything you can at the net, even the Covelli's kitchen sinks.

We're now averaging over 1,500 per game for the season in attendance. Once again, I have to applaud the front office's efforts. Andrew Goldman and company have done a wonderful job of getting butts back into seats and I don't see any reason this week will not add to the progress. Friday will be a "Baby Crawl" promotion. I guess we're having a race of some sort, hopefully no one needs a pit stop for a diaper change. I've heard we're going to have rugs put down so they have something clean to crawl on. Anyway... Saturday will be Milltary Appreciation night. That's always a big draw and we also have $1 beer going on.

That's pretty much it for this week. Next week will be a big rematch against Dubuque at home before we're back on the road for a couple weeks to finish out March. Let's go Phantoms!