The Gamblers are a very solid looking team on paper this season. They have a bevy of returning players including Jesse Tucker, their top returning scorer, who enters his third season putting up 18g and 25a last season. Adding to the Gamblers offensive front is Ryan Kirwin, who came over from Madison in the dispersal draft. Kirwin scored 25g 16a last season with the Capitols, but 6 of those goals, as well as one assist were against the Phantoms in 6 games played. Also keep an eye on Jackson Kunz. The '02 forward has a handful of affiliate games prior to this season and he scored a pair against Muskegon in the Gamblers only game so far.
On defense, it's the same as the forwards with the Gamblers returning a nice compliment of blueliners. Mason Lorhei is a good two-way guy, good at protecting his own end and can set up the play to boot. Lorhei had 8g, 29a in 48 games last season. Xan Gurney is a well traveled defenseman, having played in Chicago and Fargo prior to Dubuque. He's as tough as the come and he'll be a guy Dubuque is looking at for toughness as well as keeping their net free of pucks. Damian Carfagna is a newcomer, an '03, who is on the NHL CSS initial players to watch list so we'll... um, watch him.
In net, we have a pair of new netminders for the Gamblers. Matt Davis is the only one with a USHL record, stopping 33 of 35 in last weeks win over Muskegon. He has a couple seasons of Junior A experience in the AJHL with the Spruce Grove Saints. Jed Baliotti was the backup last weekend. He's put up pretty good numbers in prep school but I don't have a lot of other info on him. Former Dubuque netminder Aaron Randazzo is showing on the Gamblers roster after initially being on the Sioux Falls roster before being cut. Randazzo spent last season in the NAHL splitting his time between the Odessa Jackalopes and the Maryland Black Bears. In the 18-19 season with the Saints he has a 10-8-0-0 record in 22 games. He posted a 3.23 GAA and a .880 SV% along with 1 shutout. He only played a little over half a period against the Phantoms stopping the only shot he faced.
The Phantoms are coming off an impressive season opener, a 5-3 win over the Saints. Mattias Sholl looked OK in net, Georgii Merkulov showed us that he is ready to dominate this season, and newcomer Cole Burtch stole the show as well as the game with a 3 point (2g, 1a) performance. Forward Will Hillman pulled off some heroics of his own late, blocking shots as the clock ran down before launching the puck 150 feet for the empty net goal. Bradly Marek, Mike Brown, and Kenta Isogai all looked solid. Special teams were excellent, 5 for 5 on the PK and 1 of 4 on the PP, including the game winner with 2:24 left in regulation. I'll say this now, what a great job by Coach Patterson and the rest of the crew to get the team ready for the drop of the puck. This was one of the best opening nights I've seen in a while.
Cade Lemmer had a couple shifts that looked good before he picked up a 5 minute major, game misconduct, and 3 game suspension for a reported head contact call early in the first, an attack zone hit on Henry Thrun. I've pointed out before that Lemmer was a penalty liability and contributed little else. Well, this game he was doing everything right. Good defensive and offensive effort, in the right position, and ready to make a good hit to separate man from puck. From my replay, the latter is exactly what he did. The principal point of contact was shoulder to shoulder, from the side not behind or blind. Thrun was playing the puck and Lemmer did not extend dangerously, leave his skates, or propel Thrun unnecessarily into the boards. It was a good hit.
So what to look out for this week against the Gamblers. I'll be honest, I don't know at this point. The Gamblers don't look flashy on paper but they have experience and grit. I think patience and staying out of the box will be the biggest keys. There will be a feeling out process and whoever makes mistakes will end up on the short end of the stick. Both teams will probably have goalies still getting their legs under them as far as USHL speed goes, whoever protects their netminder early will have a big advantage as well. I'm not sure how much the travel as well as schedule uncertainties will factor into things. My guess is that's not a big issue this early in the season, but it's something to ponder.
With only one game next week, against the NTDP U17s, I'm not sure if I'll get a real preview done. The U18s postponed their games this week, something to keep an eye on. At least if this game is cancelled we can stay home. We will see.