The weekly previews return and the Phantoms are off of a 2 week hiatus!
We're back! - The weekly previews return and the Phantoms are off of a 2 week hiatus!
We're back! - The weekly previews return and the Phantoms are off of a 2 week hiatus!
Well, I'm back with a preview. I'll be honest with you, I'm not even sure what week to call this, what with all the postponements and games not played. This has been the hardest season to try and track the league, and the past couple months my work schedule and home life have not let me even begin to worry about it. With so few updates from the league it's not easy to jump back in but I'll give it a shot. This week the Phantoms (6-14-2-1) hit the road and head to Muskegon (16-11-1-2) for a pair of games then return home to face the league leading Chicago Steel (21-7-2-0).

We meet the Lumberjacks in Muskegon while they are on a 5 game skid, only managing 1 point in a shootout loss to Green Bay. Back for the 'Jacks is Danil Gushchin, the San Jose Sharks prospect, now in his 3rd season for the 'Jacks. He was not expected to play in the USHL this season but the pandemic has thrown the OHL season into chaos and he was "loaned" back to Muskegon for the season. Gushchin has 17g, 22a on the season to lead the team in scoring. Not far behind him is Cameron Berg with 17g, 20a on the season and a little bit of a drop off between 2nd and 3rd with Tanner Kelly and his 12g, 15a on the season. 

On defense, the 'Jacks have a very promising '03 in Jacob Guevin. With 6g, 17a Guevin leads all rookies, forwards and defensemen, in total points and assists. He is also 3rd overall in defensemen scoring. In addition to his offense, he has not sacrificed anything on defense, he's second on their blueline in +/- and +9. Speaking of the most hated stat, the plus/minus, Alex Gange has an impressive +22 while adding 3g and 13a.

In net, it has mostly been Jan Skorpik in net. In 19 games played, he has a 9-6-0-2 record while posting a 3.89 GAA and a .853 SV%. The 'Jacks started the season with Christian Stoever backing up Skorpik, but he was dealt to the Sioux Falls Stampede where he played a pair of games before being sent to the NAHL's New Jersey Jr. Titans. Nate Reid is now the backup and has 10 appearances under his belt, a 4-4-0-0 record, posting a 4.10 GAA and a .800 SV%.

Then we get the Steel at home. The Steel have the top 4 scorers in the league, one a NHL draft pick, a NHL CSS "B" ranked skater and 2 "C" ranked. The Montreal Canadian's 4th round pick last year, Sean Farrell has 18g, 37a on the season. That's 16 points ahead of the next non-Steel player, which is the 'Jacks Danil Gushchin. Behind him are Matt Coronoto (24g, 27a), Erik Middendorf (22g, 23a), and Josh Doan (17g, 23a). Yikes! That is a lot of firepower.

On the blueline, Ryan Ufko has been a good part of the Steels success. The '03 dman is in his second season and has turned things up on offense with 8g and 21a while mostly keeping his own net clear of pucks. Also keeping the puck out are a pair of big '00 defensemen, Colton Huard (3g, 12a) and Jack Babbage (4g, 11a) who have a +/- of +17 and +15 respectively.

The Steel have an interesting trio in net. Nick Haas is the starter, despite having somewhat worse numbers than his backups. Haas has a 9-4-0-0 record in his 13 appearances, a 3.67 GAA and .870 SV%. Seeing limited play on the season is '03 netminder Jack Stark. He's played in 5 games this season, winning all 5 with 2.19 GAA and .910 SV%. Stark has mostly been played against weaker opponents, including 3 games against the Phantoms, but still an impressive start for the young netminder. Also appearing in 4 games recently is Simon Latkoczy, coming to the Steel from Madison's dispersal draft. Latkoczy started the season in the Slovakian junior system and played in the World Junior Championship U20 tournament posting a 2.61 GAA and a .922 SV% and a shutout in his 3 games in the WJC. He's 3-1-0-0 in Chicago with a 2.19 SV% and a .910 SV%.

Well, at least I have some info more than raw stats for the Phantoms. For the most part I've ignored a lot of the stats this season anyway. Georgii Merkulov has delighted fans with his display of skill this season. His speed, hands, vision, and IQ are all top rate. However, he was scratched the last weekend the Phantoms played with no updates given. Team captain Reiily Funk has also been impressive but that was before he went down a couple weeks ago with a lower body injury and he is not expected anytime in the immediate future, he still has at least a few weeks to go. Jack Malone continues to be a set-up machine after returning to the team from Cornell University in December, we're hoping he can add a few more goals himself as we go on. Newcomers Cole Burtch (9g, 8a) and rookie Jack Silich(4g, 7a) have also been very impressive in their first USHL season. Jaden Grant has shown the most improvement since the start of the season and has been one of the strongest forwards after not playing for nearly a month due to injury. He's been highly motivated and has earned himself a lot of ice time, playing both the PK and PP.

On defense, Mike Brown has been a huge asset. And yes, the pun is intended. At 6'2", 210lbs Brown has the mass to play evenly with the best in the league without getting pushed around. His speed and mobility are very good and he has decent hands and can move the puck as well. Grant Hindman and former Cedar Rapids RoughRider Bennett Zmolek have also looked steady on the blueline. Austen May has show exceptional skating and offensive capacity, one of the few dmen you see regularly pinching in on offense. We just need to see a little more defensive coverage from him.

In net, it seems like Mattias Sholl has emerged as the top netminder. With 17 appearances he has a 4-11-1-0 record, a 3.62 GAA and a .889 SV%. He's shown exceptional athletics, and is a very quick and precise skater. Kyle Chauvette has been the backup for most of the season, a more positional goalie who is always in position to make the first save. In 9 games he has a 2-2-1-1 record with a 3.94 GAA and a .854 SV%. Just to make things interesting for this week, I finally get to mention Colin Purcell as anything but on the IR list. Purcell made his return to the Covelli in the last home weekend against the USA NTDP. Purcell did not look up to his usual form however, allowing 5 goals on 21 shots. It's hard to say if it was rust or his injury still nagging at him but we have certainly seen him play better.

Yeah, we have a lot more going on. Additions to the roster in the way of Winter Wallace and Carter Rose just to name a couple. Another fun addition was Sergei Kuznetsov who came for a tryout from Belarus, seemingly appearing on the roster out of the blue. Most recently, the Phantoms traded Nate Hanley to Green Bay for Brayden Stannard. The Phantoms have not played since the trade. Players like Jack Mesic and Cade Lemmer have been dealt down to the NAHL.

So, what can we expect this weekend? I'm not going to sugar coat it, we haven't been that good this season. That said, we have seemed to play both the 'Jacks and the Steel fairly evenly. Really, only 1 game vs Chicago this season looked like we were out of reach. If we can take it one shift at a time, eliminate mistakes, and really make sure we mind the little fundamental details, we have more than a chance at getting a few points. The 'Jacks are always a tough fight in their barn, but the Steel will be in-between trips to Plymouth to play the NTDP, a game on Friday and a game on Sunday. The biggest thing, in my opinion, will be making sure we get shots on goal. We average 23.74 shots per game, dead last in the USHL. I wouldn't worry but when you give up 30.83, 3rd worst in the league, you put a huge burden on your netminders.

Also, will rust be a factor? We have gone two weeks without playing a game. One one hand, it is nice to rest players mid-season and maybe heal a few injuries. But, it has to be hard keeping players in game shape and ready for the puck drop. This is one of those factors that show the true mettle of the bench bosses.

With 1 game at the Covelli, we will get to flout our attendance over the Steel. Yeah, it must really suck to be the best team in the league and not be allowed to have any fans in the building. We're averaging 460, which is middle of the road this season considering several teams have no fans in attendance in this pandemic season. Saturdays have been better for us, with the last couple having over 700 in the seats. The Covelli Centre has done an absolutely outstanding job at keeping things safe and under control this season with regards to Covid-19 protocols. With only a few incidents needing attention, a stick tap to all involved who have so far made it possible for fans to enjoy live sports in person. This is a rare privilege these days. Hopefully I'll see some of you this Saturday.