Happy New Year, welcome to the 2022 part of the 21-22 season. The Phantoms (10-11-2-3) finished last year with points in their last 3 games, 2 OT wins and an OT loss, and are looking to start the season improving upon that. The first step in that will be beating a team we've locked horns with a few times already, the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (12-12-1-0). This will be the first games at the Covelli Centre since November 26th and I'm sure we're all missing live action. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, I'll explain that later.

The 'Riders are the lowest scoring team in the East. They're lead by Adam Flammang with 12g and 10a. Flammang has decent size and a wicked shot and scores a lot of his goals on the rush. Second on the team is one time Phantoms forward Coal Burtch (9g, 9a). Phantoms fans know well that Burtch can shoot the puck. We also saw Burtch leave on a streatcher last the last time these teams met, a late October game at the Covelli. The injury was not major and he played the next week. Curious enough, he was a healthy scratch the last game the 'Riders played in favor of an 8th defenseman. Since I mentioned both of these guys in the Week 4 Preview, let me mention Zaccharya Wisdom. Wisdom was a rookie ('04) player I saw a lot of potential in at the Fall Classic. He hadn't put up anything on the scoresheet yet last time these teams played. Since then he's posted 3g, 7a. He earned an early C ranking on the NHL CSS Players to Watch List and is an exceptionally smooth skater with soft hands, and given he's finally getting on the board I think he's someone you don't want to take your eyes off of when he's on the ice.

On defense, Travis Shoudy leads the defensemen in points with 3g and 10a, 2g and 4a on the PP. The problem is he also has the worst +/- on the blueline with a -7 so he's more of an offensive defenseman. In terms of shutdown defensemen, look no further than Joe Fleming (1g, 4a). He's a big, rough customer that you don't want to tangle with in the corners, or really anywhere for that matter. His liability is penalties. He leads the league in PIMS with 107, 19  more than his nearest competitor. He also leads in major penalties with 5, 2 of those for fighting. One of those non-fighting penalties as a hit to the head of the Phantoms Kenta Isogai in Cedar Rapids and I take umbrage with the league for not suspending him when Phantoms with less egregious hits in the game did.

In a previous preview, I called the 'Riders goaltending situation "curious, a bit messy even" although I still consider that a normal thing for them. I had expected Geno "Andrew" Pichora to be in the mix, however, when these teams last met he was playing in the USPHL NCDC. Instead an undrafted overager ('01) with a year in the NAHL was carrying the load and a highly touted '02 Phase 2 (5th round) draft pick from Latvia was getting limited play. Since then, it's gotten more interesting. Connor Hasley, the overager, has played in 20 games with a 9-9-1-0 record, a 3.40 GAA, .877 SV%, and a shutout on the season. Latvian born Bruno Bruveris had only seen 2 games of action before playing 4 games in 2 weeks against the Phantoms early in the season. He played well enough to earn 3 wins, the last game of the series was a 4-2 loss in Youngstown and his last USHL game. He had a record of 3-2-0-0 with a 2.60 GAA and a .908 SV% as well as a shutout. Bruveris appeared as a backup a few times with an emergency netminder mixed in before the 'Riders got Pichora into the mix in early December. Bruveris most recently was at the World Junior Championship for Latvia and won silver in the Division 2A group where he was the top netminder in GAA and SV%. This was just before the Christmas break. Pichora appeared in 3 December games, twice as relief for Hasley for a little under 30:00. His only game of record was his only start and he gave up 2 goals in a 3-0 loss to Muskegon. He's given up 4 goals on 44 shots and has a 2.74 GAA and a .905 SV%. All three netminders are still on the roster and protected list. 

The Phantoms fought a hard road battle last weekend with several key players out of the lineup. Adam Ingram, Ryan Alexander, and Trey Taylor were among those out of the lineup, despite playing before the break. It would be easy to speculate that there might be issues involving travel or illness but all 3 players are Canadian, odd if coincidental. In any event, the addition of affiliates William Whitelaw and Reese Laubach helped shore up gaps in offense. Whitelaw played as expected, getting and assist, and Laubach seemed comfortable playing with him. Tomas Machu made his debut and was immediately an impact player. He still might need a little development to be at full speed but he got his first assist in the win in Plymouth against the NTDP. Kyle Chauvette got a win making 23 of 24 saves bosting him to a 9-5-1-2 record with a 2.91 GAA and a .904 SV%. Owen Bartoszkiewicz took the OT loss in Muskegon but played one of his best games stopping 40 of 43 shots. He's 1-6-1-1 with a 3.94 GAA and a .868 SV%.

This brings us to the Elephant in the room. The 'Riders postponed their 2 games last weekend, a Saturday and Sunday tilt and both on the road. The league gave us their familiar vague statement about standards not being met. All last season that was code for a Covid issue. This is the first time this season that the league has had to do this and hopefully it is an isolated case but considering the current rates of the omicron variant, I don't think this will be the only case. At this point it still doesn't look like it will be as bad as last season's stop and go start, but we all know things can change quickly. The current focus is this weekends games and if Cedar Rapids is capable of making the trip. 

Barring a postponement, I have a feeling the weekend might come down to who can make the most of what they have. The Phantoms did a good job last weekend so unless things are worse this weekend and considering the 'Riders situation, I think that'll favor us. The 'Riders take a lot of penalties, the most in the league by 93 minutes. If we can avoid being dragged into taking penalties with them, like we did in previous meetings, that'll also favor us. Hopefully being back in our barn will be a boost too. It's hard to make predictions with this much uncertainty. 

So this weekend is Sparky's Birthday with cheap ($8 tickets) for kids and a youth jersey giveaway. Saturday is Military Night, with special jerseys to auction off and $2 beer. It would be nice to get a decent crowd, but with holiday burnout and new pandemic concerns, we'll have to see. And hopefully I'll be able to write up some recaps of the games and show some highlights. I'm not sure I remember how.

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