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The USHL Fall Classic is back in Cranberry.
The Fall Classic Returns! - The USHL Fall Classic is back in Cranberry.
The Fall Classic Returns! - The USHL Fall Classic is back in Cranberry.
A big hello to all the Phantoms Phans and Phollowers! Okay, enough with the cheesy spelling. We're back and hopefully this will be a better season all around for the Phantoms, the USHL, and hockey in general. While the pandemic is doing a rollercoaster of ups and downs, the USHL Fall Classic is this week. The Phantoms will kick off the campaign mid-week against some foes we haven't seen in a while - the Lincoln Stars and Waterloo Black Hawks. Neither opponent had a good season in 20-21, but none were quite as bad as us. Both won 10 more games, though they played 4-5 games more. Dear Hockey Gods, I hope we are done with the missed games.

With very little data on either team, this is going to be an odd preview. Starting with Waterloo, who's biggest change is on the bench. P.K. O'Handley, who had been the head coach since 02-03, stepped off the bench for a front office role. Matt Smaby steps into some big shoes in his first year of USHL coaching, and it will be very interesting to see how this affects the Hawks.

On offense, John Waldron has the experience. While not known as a prolific scorer, he's been a consistent depth player who might just take his offensive game up another notch. In terms of returning scoring, Michael La Starza is their top point getter from last season, or at least as far as I can find. The '04 forward notched 11g and 13a last season, and he'll be someone to watch this season. Carter Batchelder is an interesting prospect, having played in the Minnesota high school system and put up very good numbers at that level.

On defense, Cooper Wylie looks like a solid veteran blueliner. He's a formidable two-way defensman who added 2g, 16a last season. One familiar name on the back end is Tyler Procious, a solid defender picked up from Muskegon in the off season. 

And in net is another face that may be familiar from the Muskegon Lumberjacks, Jack Williams, who gave the 'Jacks a fighting chance in the 19-20 season. His numbers went down a lot last season as a backup in Waterloo, but that might be more a reflection of the Hawks as a whole, not him. I'm not so much interested in numbers, he's a dependable netminder and if he starts against the Phantoms, we'll need to work a bit harder to put the puck in. Emmett Croteau also did backup duty with the Hawks last season as an '03 netminder. His numbers were a bit better than Williams, comparable to the Hawks starting netminder, Charlie Glockner. I don't have any info other than raw stats on Croteau but he's an interesting prospect and I wouldn't mind seeing him at least once in action.

Lincoln is also one of several teams to have a new head coach, Rocky Russo. More interesting to a long time Phantoms fan is the addition of Art Brey as an assistant coach. Some will remember him from his playing days as Dubuque's netminder when the Saints won the cup twice in 3 years. That includes a very hard fought 5 game series against the Phantoms in 12-13 that might have ended differently if the league had replay. The Phantoms were down 2-0 in the series and down 3-1 heading into the 3rd with Brey letting in the game winner with less than 4:00 left on a power play goal from John Padulo, one of my favorite moments as a Phantom fan. Anyway, I digress...

The Stars look to have a decent offense this season. Aidan Thompson returns as their leading scorer from last season. Thompson had 10g and 23a last season and is a versatile, multi-use player who can fill a lot of roles and is also very defensive minded. Two players I don't need to give you any details on are Jack Larrigan and Jack Silitch, both wore Phantom jerseys last season. Both can be expected to want a little revenge for being traded and you know how that usually turns out, watch out when these guys hit the ice. Also interesting to note is Yu Sato, a Japanese born forward heading into his second year. If he dresses as well as Kenta Isogai, it will be the 4th time in Phantoms history they've been part of a game with a Japanese born player on each bench. That has to be a record for junior hockey and maybe for North America.

Lincoln returns several defenseman including third year veteran Dalton Norris, who is the brother of one-time Phantoms Coale Norris, and Michael Mastrodomenico, whom I have heard mention in high regard. Joaquim Lemay is an interesting addition out of the BCHL, a 6th round draft pick of the Washington Capitals.

In net, Kaidan Mbereko was picked up in the Phase 2 draft as he aged out of the NTDP. In his days playing for USA, he's 3-0 against the Phantoms. He'll likely be a higher ranked netminder in the NHL's CSS report, and more importantly he'll be a hard one to put pucks in on if we face him in Cranberry. Aiden McCarthy, who was a Dubuque netminder in 19-20 and part of 20-21 until he was traded to Lincoln, is on the roster but I don't show him as playing at all in preseason. Cameron Whitehead and Jackson Baker both have played some minutes of preseason and both have good youth hockey records with the latter at least dressing in the NAHL and USHL, but no action to speak of.

Now onto our Phantoms for 2021-2022. OK, there has been a few potential, last minute changes. Veteran defenseman Mike Brown is on his way to Merrimack and the addition of forwards Kyle Bettens from Cedar Rapids and Primo Self from Dubuque change things a bit. Highly touted forward Stivan Sardarian has not played in preseason that I know of. It's really is pretty hard for me to come up with something here, I know almost as little about our team as I do the rest of the league. It's been hard to keep up with the way the pandemic has hit all levels of the sport.

Jaden Grant and Cole Burtch look like solid offenive leaders, Kenta Isogai looks to improve on his first season as well. Winter Wallace looks like, well... Winter Wallace and he'll be joined by his brother Ocean and that will certainly give us some extra toughness but let's hope they keep the PIMs down.

Even with Brown off the roster, Carter Rose, Bayard Hall, and Kyle Furey will give us some veteran presence on the blueline with some new comers like Chase Pietila, Cole Teleki, and Chris Hedden. 

Kyle Chauvette returns to the net after a rough season last year. He looked a lot faster and more nimble in the crease from what I saw in preseason. Owen Bartoszkewicz will be backing him up after a stellar season in the NAHL with the Wichita Falls Warriors, earning him the Southern Division goaltender of the year. If anything, depth in goal will be a very important focus to start the season.

We will have to see what we get once it's all put together on the ice for the Fall Classic. The big test will be if the Phantoms bench bosses can have them ready to go when the puck drops in Cranberry. Will having a veteran coach give us that edge? Will the returning players be ready to bring their game to the next level? Will first year USHL players be ready for the speed of USHL action? There are a lot of questions that we won't see the answers to until the clock starts running. After last season, I really think a good start to this season is critical for rebuilding the team. Nothing sets the tempo and general attitude in the locker room like some early wins.

I think the key will be for the Phantoms to shrug off the past and get back to playing Phantoms-brand hockey from the start. With rookie coaches on the other bench and teams still trying to find their identity, playing our game at our pace and making our opponent react to that (instead of us reacting to them) will go a very long way. As always, trying to insulate our netminders while they get their legs under them would be great, even better if we can do that by putting up some offense at the other end. Avoiding dumb penalties would also be helpful.

Next week we're off to Plymouth for a Friday game against the U17s, then we open up the Covelli Centre against the same squad on Saturday. I guess we'll cross that bridge next time. Until then - GO PHANTOMS!