The Phantoms are ready to play their first home game since last season cancellation.
Hockey Returns to the Covelli! - The Phantoms are ready to play their first home game since last season cancellation.
Hockey Returns to the Covelli! - The Phantoms are ready to play their first home game since last season cancellation.
It almost seems too good to be true, like a dream even. The last game the Phantoms played at the Covelli will have been 272 days from this Friday's scheduled home opener. That's almost 39 weeks ago. Goals by Josh DeLuca, Jayson Dobay, and Trevor Kuntar sealed a 3-1 win over Cedar Rapids. It's a little hard to fathom, with over a month left in the regular season, that would be the last time we saw those players in Phantoms uniforms. Heck, for that matter it will be the last time we saw the RoughRiders until at least next season.

Now we're in the "new normal" which isn't anything close to being normal. In the first month of the current season, the Phantoms (1-2-0-0) have played 3 games and seen 7 games postponed, including the last 4 straight, for reasons related to the pandemic. Since this has been published, it's getting close enough to game day that it looks like we might actually play this week and at home with some fans. We will kick things off against our rivals, the Muskegon Lumberjacks (2-2-0-0) in what might be one of many games against them. I had written a bit about the 'Jacks for last week. The good news for me is their games were postponed as well so all my data is still up to date.

The 'Jacks have a good amount of returning players from last season but might not have had a lot of scoring. That is until the OHL let teams loan players to the USHL. This allowed their leading scorer from last season, Danil Gushchin to return to the 'Jacks for at least part of this season. In the abridged 19-20 season, Gushchin put up 22g, 25a in 42 games. So far this year he's put up 5g, 4a in 4 games. The crafty forward will be a major force as long as he's in the USHL this season. Cameron Berg is another returner expected to score. More of a power forward than Gushchin, Berg has put up the same numbers, 5g and 4a.

On defense, the 'Jacks have a lot of good players on paper. In addition to solid defense their blueline should add a lot of firepower on offense. That's on paper, in reality the solid defense has not shown up. However, 7 of the 25 goals the 'Jacks have scored were off the stick of a defenseman. Leading that is Tyler Dunbar who scored his 3 goals all in one game against Dubuque, the first Muskegon blueliner to score a hat trick. Alex Gagne is one of their defensemen who hasn't been burned too badly, in fact in addition to 1g and 4a, his +/- is already at 6. Donald "Hank" Kempf is a defensively responsible veteran, and former Phantom John Larkin help try to shore up the 'Jacks back end.

In net, it's a tossup. Christian Stoever was the presumptive top netminder. The well traveled goalie, in addition to stints in Youngstown, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, and Madison, came to the 'Jacks in the Madison dispersal draft. So far on this campaign he's appeared in 3 games with a 1-0-0-0. His numbers have not been good since the season started, a 7.25 GAA and a .745 SV%. Of course, he always seems to play better against the Phantoms. Czech netminder Jan Skorpik was expected to be more of a backup but with Stoever's numbers in the toilet, he looks a lot more like the starter early on. He has a 1-2-0-0 in 3 appearances, and while not good by any means, his stats are besting his rivals by a decent margin, 5.92 GAA and a .838 SV%. You have to wonder if trading last year's starter, Jack Williams, to Waterloo was a bad idea.

I'm still getting familiar with the Phantoms, having not seen the team in person yet this season. The league is not helping with no IR list, and minimal transactional information to go on. Cole Burtch was off to the races when the season started, tallying 3g, 3a in 3 games played. Make no mistake, some of that is playing on a line with Georgi Merkulov (2g, 2a) who looked like he was playing at an elite level beyond what we saw last season and ready to be a dominate player before we had to pump the breaks for a couple weeks. Reilly Funk (2g) looks a lot stronger so far this season as well. Will Hillman, Adam Eisele, and Jaden Grant, just to name a few, are all players who look very promising so far. That said, with the premature pauses on the season so far and only online viewing, it's hard to fairly assess the depth of talent we have.

Austen May is the only name left from last seasons Phantoms roster as far as defense goes. The addition of Bennett Zmolek, a "loan" from the Cedar Rapids dispersal draft, and David Gucciardi from Muskegon give us a good amount of experience on the blueline. Grand Hindman and Mike Brown give us a decent amount of size on the backend and the latter might be a little bit of a surprise when it comes to adding something on the offensive side of things.

In net, we have Matias Sholl (1-1-0-0) and Kyle Chauvette (0-1-0-0). Neither had any USHL experience until this season. Sholl has allowed 8 goals on 59 shots and Chauvette 4 goals on 38 shots. You can do the math if you need it but it's too early to make any judgments. I do like the athleticism and skating ability I've seen from Sholl. Neither is what you would consider imposing in net, both list at 5'10", Sholl weighs in at 165lbs and Chauvette 150lbs. Missing is Colin Purcell, who is supposed to be back this season. He is listed on the roster but has not dressed, we can assume at this point that is injury related. Without an IR list I can't really even begin to speculate though.

The Lumberjacks are off to a fast start when it comes to offense. They are averaging the most goals for in the league, an incredible 6.25 goals per game. I mentioned earlier their defense was contributing a lot to that, 7 of their 25 goals have come from the sticks of the defensemen. I also alluded to the fact that their defense wasn't exactly holding down the fort, that is evident in the fact that they average the most goals against as well - 6.50 goals against per game. Again, if you need it the math is pretty simple, that's not a formula for winning.

I'm sure playing any game this week will feel like a small victory, some games at the Covelli should be huge lift. With all the uncertainties right now, familiar ice under our skates is the best thing for the team. Considering the state of the 'Jacks defense, the Phantoms need to come out of the gate with a charge. Take that energy and press the Muskegon defense early. Put shots on their goalie and try to keep ours from seeing a lot of early flurries. Make it the usual physical game we expect between these teams and turn it up a level. It's a little early to establish real special teams tenancies but the 'Jacks are at 50% on the PK, giving up 7 on 14 attempts. If things get chippy (they will) then we might use that to our advantage.

Here is usually where I talk about promotions and attendance. This season I'm probably going to have to talk about something else here. Attendance will be what it will be. We're in the middle of the worst public health crisis of out lifetime and we are probably in the worst months of it so far. If tickets are available and you feel safe to come, that is up to you. If you do come, wear a mask and for God's sake, pull it up over your nose. Remember to wash your hands and try to distance yourself as well as possible from others. I still believe we can get through this safely and still see some hockey. It's not going to be like it was, we will all have to live with that. But if we all do our parts and do not let our guards down, hopefully we can have as close to a "regular" season as possible.