The Phantoms (5-6-0-2) return to Covelli this week, this time with some wind in their sails. The Phantoms are on a 4 game point streak, with 3 wins out of 4 and 7 out of 8 points in that stretch. They'll need every bit of momentum they can muster this week, facing a Madison Capitols (9-2-1-0) team that is exceeding all expectations and put a couple of beatings on us a few weeks ago in their barn. The Caps have become a dark horse favorite in the league, surprising everyone with their best start in team history, good for second place in the Eastern Conference and the USHL overall. All this with first year head coach Tommy Upton, a familiar name for Phantoms fans, and after sitting out the last season due to the pandemic.
I'll be honest, I tried not to underestimate this team after seeing their return to the league this season, but it's the players I didn't really get strong reads on that are doing most of the scoring. A few of the players expected to be the reliable scorers have been more like role players. Others, like third year veteran Jack Horbach, have gone from role player to playmaker with 3g and 11a. This leads the team in points and ties his career season high in just 12 games. Goal scoring has come from a few players that weren't on scouting radars. Jack Musa has had respectable numbers in AAA (AYHL North Jersey Avalanche) and the NAHL (Odessa Jackalopes), but his 8g leads the Caps along with 5a to put him just behind Horbach in points. Jake Dunlap had a few affiliate stretches in the past 2 season in Fargo, along with solid play in the NAHL (Janesville Jets). But his 6g, 1a have been a big boost to the Caps. I could also mention Nick DeSantis (5g, 5a) and Tyler Haskins (4g, 9a) for stellar play, the latter also on the NHL's CSS Players to Watch List.
On defense, it's been Luke Mittlestadt with 4g, 7a. I had mentioned him in the Week 3 Preview and nothing has changed. He has been a solid defensive player and his playmaking has been evident in all three zones. Ben Dexhheimer, an '02 rookie, was one of the better defensemen in the prior series between these two teams. He might not have shown up on the scoresheet but he was noticeably involved in the play almost every shift. Another rookie, '04 Trey Ausmus, has also made the NHL CSS list for his play on the blueline.
In net, third year netminder Simon Latkoczy is finally getting his chance to be the clear number one netminder, and he's making it count. He's 8-1-0-0 with a 2.64 GAA and a .909 SV% along with a shutout... against us. The only other netminder still on the roster with any action is '03 rookie Marino Ramirez. Ramirez has played 2 games and is 1-0-1-0, an OT loss at the Fall Classic and a shutout against the NTDP U17s. He has only allowed 2 goals on 42 shots for a 0.99 GAA and a .952 SV% in his limited action.
The Phantoms come into the week flying high after trailing Muskegon most of the last weekend but still getting points. Powerplay goals by Ryan Alexander (8g, 2a) and Adam Ingram (7g, 8a) have were keys to success last weekend, and this pair of players have been a large part of our offense this season. Beyond the scoring, they have also generated a lot of energy with their on-ice hustle. Winter Wallace got his first of the season. Captain Jaden Grant (5g, 4a) continues to contribute more than just goals and assists, putting in hard work in the uncredited areas. But to win against the Caps, I think we'll need more from the secondary scorers. It would be a big lift to see Evan Werner, Tyler Catalano, or Morgan Winters get their first USHL goal.
On defense, I guess not having a lot to say sometimes says a lot. I've been talking about Trey Taylor and Carter Rose as being leaders, Taylor as a QB on the powerplay and Rose steeping up his two-way game. Taylor notched a pair of assists on the PP and Rose added an assist at full strength last weekend. I won't say there isn't room to improve in our own end, but during this point streak there have been far fewer mistakes. And overall we've managed to keep the game more under control, even when our opponent has the momentum. It's been a group effort and we'll need that to continue to improve this weekend.
Kyle Chauvette got both starts last weekend, making four straight and 3-0-0-1 in that span. Last weekend he posted a 1.44 GAA and a .952 SV%, besting his effort from the week before that earned him USHL Goalie of the Week honors. On the season he's a 2.75 GAA and a .910 SV%. His confidence in net has been a real stabilizing factor in the last couple of weeks. Owen Bartoszkewicz hasn't played since the 3-2 loss to Cedar Rapids. He's 1-3-0-0 in 6 appearances with a 3.11 GAA and a .887 SV%. It'll be interesting to see how the Phantoms plan on riding Chauvette. He has definitely in the zone as of late, but you don't want to risk fatigue issues and you would like to see the backup get some minutes as well.
The Phantoms have to be sharp this weekend. I can't help but to keep saying it. They have to be ready when the puck is dropped. Madison will be. A strong start is critical and they cannot let up for even a shift. They have to be disciplined and no matter how the game stars, avoid getting frustrated. As I alluded to earlier, getting some more secondary scoring might really help too. Madison held us to 1 goal in 2 games in the last meeting; it doesn't have to be pretty but we need more goals than that. Otherwise, keep playing our game and improve on what we've done the last few games.
After a good road weekend, we're back at the Covelli. Hopefully the success carries over to a decent crowd this weekend. Saturday's $2 beer has also been supplemented with $5 tickets - anywhere but on the glass! You can't beat that. Hopefully I'll have some good things to write and some highlights of the games in the recaps. Stay tuned.