After a rough trip on the road last weekend the Phantoms pack up the bus and head out again and this one doesn't get any easier. This week the Phantoms (7-6-1-0) roll into Lincoln to face the Stars (12-4-0-0), the leagues top ranked team.

The Stars have a lot of well fitting pieces in place to start the season. With ten returning players from last seasons Stars roster and a couple they acquired from other USHL teams, they have a lot of experience. Add in a good mix of size and skill at forward, defense, and goaltending. Leading the way is the USHL's second leading scorer in the Norwegian born forward, Ludvig Hoff. Hoff has 7g and 12a in his 3rd season. Grant Jozefek is another veteran player contributing to the scoring and not far behind Hoff with 5g, 11a on the season so far. Also worth watching are Biagio Lerario and Patrick Polino. I could name a bunch more but I don't have time to cover the whole roster, sorry if your a Adam Brady fan. Dyaln Woolf is the defensive leader, a stable defensive defenseman who anchors the blueline. Ryan Jones also looks good defensively and is a +11 on the season. Anthony Wyse is a monster 6'2", 217 lbs and can move the puck as well as get physical. Christian Evers is a former NTDP player, aged out and playing at least one more season in the USHL before moving to college. Evers isn't their biggest defenseman, 6'2" 206 lbs, but still has decent size and can contribute on offense with 3g, 7a. Again, I don't have time to list all the impact players I'd keep an eye on. They also have a very talented tandem in net. Incumbent goalie Peyton Jones is leading the way, 3rd in the league in both goals against average (2.00 GAA) and save percentage (.929). In 8 games played he's 6-2 with 3 shutouts. Splitting the duties is a Finish born '95 birth year player Patrick Vertanen. Virtanen has played 8 games as well and has an identical 6-2 record and a 2.76 GAA and .909 SV%.

The Phantoms, well we should know who to watch now. The Cam Morrison/Yushirō Hirano combination is one of the most dangerous on the ice in the USHL. Hirano is now second in the league in goals scored with 10, second only to the Stampede's Parker Tuomie who has 14. Cam Morrison has 8 on the season to lead all rookies in goals, and total points with 14. Between them is Chase Pearson. He's tied with several other players, including the Star's Ludvig Hoff, atop the leagues assist leaders with 12. Pearson only has one goal this season, in the second game of the campaign, and you can bet he's looking to break that streak. Of course, no one wants to break their drought more than captain Matt Alvaro. He's factored in with 7 assists but has not lit the lamp himself. He's skated well and has had several good chances of late. The defense has been good but needs to be better and cut down the shot totals, though I'm not sure really what the cure is there. After last weekend, Ryan Bednard is starting to look more like the number one goaltender at 5-1-1 on the season with a 2.45 GAA and a .917 SV%. Colin DeAugustine is 2-5-0 and 3.04 GAA and .910 SV%. My guess is Bednard will get the nod Friday and we'll see on Saturday. Coah Wroblewski hasn't started a goaltender in back-to-back situations yet this season but Bednard did play over a period in relief of DeAugustine last Friday and then started the Saturday after. If Bednard starts Friday and has a decent night and doesn't face a lot of shots, I'd like to see how he handles two games in two nights. And it's worth keeping an eye on Noah LaLonde. If you follow my Facebook or Twitter, you saw that the Phantoms quietly added LaLonde last week and he got quite a bit of ice time over the weekend. He didn't score but had a couple great chances and hit two posts. It'll be interesting to see how he figures into a long term plan for the Phantoms.

If there is one thing junior hockey is known for, it's brutal road schedules and long trips on the bus. This week the Phantoms (6-4-1-0) head out on their first 3 games in 3 nights road weekend of the season. Road trips can be a good way to solidify a team and this week we're on our way to a couple teams we owe some payback too. We start off Friday in Plymouth Michigan to take on the USA NTDP U18 (3-0-0-0) squad that handed up a 6-4 loss at the Covelli on opening night. From there we travel to Chicago (4-8-1-1) to take on the Steel in a rematch of Octobers 6-0 loss in Cranberry.

First up is the Phantoms first visit the the new USA Hockey Arena, formerly the Compuware Arena and home of the OHL Plymouth Whalers. After the Whalers moved to Flint, USA Hockey bought and refurbished the arena and moved the NTDP program from Ann Arbor for an increase in capacity and to be closer to Detroit and the airport for scouts. The U18 Squad is on fire at the moment. They haven't lost a game, USHL, NCAA, or international since a 10/3 loss to Norther Michigan University. The last time they lost to a USHL team was to the Phantoms in preseason. They recently went 4-0 and won gold at the Five Nations Tournament in Switzerland. The closest they've come to a loss in their new arena was a 2-2 tie against Notre Dame. As with the last meeting, Clayton Keller and Kiefer Bellows are the main scoring threat. Keller has 2g, 4a and Bellows has 4g, 1a in the 3 games each they've played in USHL action, the preponderance of those scored against the Phantoms. Adam Fox and Chad Krys are the top defensemen, Krys really looked impressive to me on opening night and in preseason. J.D. Greenway is another defensman to look out for, he's a large and physical player and can hold his own against the older players. Goaltender Jake Oettinger has had the majority of starts for the U18s. In 3 games he's started in USHL play he's posted a 2.42 GAA and a .908 SV%. Joseph Woll has only played about half of a USHL game, coming in as relief for Oettinger against Chicago. In half a game plus OT and a shootout, he posted a 1.57 GAA and a .941 SV% as well as stopping both Chicago shooters in the shootout and picking up the win for the NTDP.

Then the Phantoms travel to Chicago to take on the struggling Steel in their first visit to the their current arena, the Fox Valley Ice Arena. The Steel are in a major transition in respects to ownership and management and instead of continuing the struggles of the previous management with their old arena, they moved to a smaller arena a little further outside the Chicago metro area. They located new billets and sponsors and are in the process of rebuilding their fanbase. They've only won 1 of 5 games at their new arena and are averaging less than 700 in attendance per game. The Steel have not won consecutive games this season and just broke a 6 game losing streak last Saturday at Dubuque. The Steel have a lot of reason to want a pair of wins this weekend. As with their win against us in Cranberry, the Steel's top offensive player is Jake Jaremko, who scored a hattrick in that game and has 8g, 4a on the season. Marcel Godbout (6g, 1a) is another threat as a finisher and Tanner Laczynski (2g, 10a) is dangerous as a setup man. Added to the mix is Karch Bachman, a 5th roud draft pick of the Folirda Panthers, acquired from Green Bay for Ryan Blankemeier. The trade seems to have worked for both teams and Bachman, who had 1g and 1a in 5 games for the Gamblers, has 4g, 2a, in 9 games with Chicago. Also acquired from the Gamblers was Adam Parcells, a solid defenseman to bolster the Steel's blueline. Their biggest asset is in net and that is Daniel Vladar. The 3rd round Boston Bruins draft pick has posted a respectable 2.43 GAA and .907 SV%, plus 1 shutout - against us. Despite decent numbers, he's 1-4-1-1 on the season. Not far behind him is John Lethemon, 3-4-0-0 with 2.71 GAA and .904 SV%.I don't know how the goaltending rotation is handled in Chicago, I assume we'll see both goalies though. On paper, the Steel are certainly better than the leagues lowest win percentage (0.357) and are we do not want to help them break out of their slump.

The Phantoms (5-3-1-0) are back at the Covelli for a pair of games this weekend, the first two home game weekend since the home opening weekend Oct. 2nd and 3rd. On tap is a rare Friday-Sunday pair of games against the Green Bay Gamblers (5-4-0-1). Just a few weeks ago these two met in Green Bay for a closely contested tilt with the Phantoms skating away with a 2-1 victory on the road.

Since the loss at home to the Phantoms the Gamblers have gone 3-0, beating Chicago in Green Bay and Muskegon twice in their own barn. I can't say much has changed for the Gamblers. Their offensive leader is still Sam Saliba (4g, 5a), who lead the team on offense last season as well. Behind him is Brett Gruber (3g, 5a). Also contributing to their scoring in the way of puck distribution is Marc Michaelis, a German born winger who has 8 assists on the season. I'm not real sure about their defense. Rookie Andrew Peeke has played decent defense and has 2g and 5a on the season. Cameron Lee, who played for Lincoln last season, is a solid defensive defenseman. Goaltending, again, is the area of interest with the Gamblers. In the number one spot for Green Bay is Adam Huska, a '97 birth year Slovakian import and 7th round NHL draft pick of the NY Rangers. Huska, a 6'3 189lbs goalie, is 4-2 on the season posting a 2.18 GAA and a .926 SV%. Huska played a limited amount of games last season and, while he didn't win any, impressed both Green Bay and the NHL scouts. The Gamblers number two goalie is German born Kevin Reich. I think I've been pretty clear in my thoughts on Reich, now in his third and last ('95 birth year) season of USHL action. Reich has never impressed me, despite being a highly touted goalie at the beginning of his junior career. Lifetime he is 1-4-1 against the Phantoms including the loss to the Phantoms earlier this month. He's 1-2-1 this season with a 3.19 GAA and a .892 SV%.

The Phantoms, for their part, are a team on the upswing. Last weekends road trip saw a lot of improvement in a few key areas as we split a pair of games against the defending Clark Cup champions, the Sioux Falls Stampede. We got powerplay goals in back-to-back games and well as perfect penalty killing in back-to-back games. We also outshot our opponents for the first time in Saturday's win, including outshooting them in consecutive periods, another first on the season. I have been2emphasizing the shots on goal, a stat we're still in last place in and despite the improvements, we've still been outshot 21 of 27 regulation periods this season. At least we're out of the basement in special teams. Offensively, Cam Morrison is leading the way with 75, 5a and a league leading +/- at +11. In fact, 5 of the top 10 +/- players in the league wear a Phantoms jersey. Yushirō Hirano isn't far behind with 5g, 4a. Alex Esposito had a big weekend on the road, a goal in each game, and I'd like to see him continue that at home. On defense... take your pick. Kris Myllari has scored a few key goals but everyone has has a hand in protecting the blueline. We're good but could be better and the next step is to cut down on shots on goal, especially in the first period. The goaltending has been pretty solid so far and now both netminders are pretty close in stats. Ryan Bednard is 3-2 with a 2.99 GAA and a .904 SV%. Colin DeAugustine is 2-2 with a 3.02 GAA and .915 SV%. I'm suspecting we'll see both this weekend, perhaps this is a good time for someone to step up and try to grab a chance to be the number one guy.