The third week of the season is already upon us and this week is a first of sorts for the Phantoms. This weeks home game isn't at the Covelli. While Hootie Darius Rucker rocks the Covelli the Phantoms will be in Cranberry, PA playing at the new UPMC/Lemieux Sports Complex, which is also the practice facility for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Phantoms have played home games at the Ice Zone before, when unable to reschedule around other events, but this is the first time they've played a 'Special Site' game. And after seeing the two preseason games played there, I can tell you that you won't be disappointed if you make the short hop to Cranberry to see it. On tap this weekend is just the one game and it's against a team going through a huge transition. The Chicago Steel are in a major rebuild with completely new ownership and having been moved to a different arena. While the new ownership group comes with a lot of promise (and money) and after a successful Junior Club World Cup tournament, bringing home the bronze, the transition of management and move have not been exactly smooth. Starting out the season their average attendance through three games is only 633, almost half of the Phantoms and in 3 games this season, all at home, they're 1-2-0-0. This is the Steels first road trip weekend and they'll take on the NTDP U18s Friday night before heading to Cranberry. Sometimes the road trips are where your team builds unity and identity and I'm sure that's how the Chicago coaching staff is presenting it to the players.

For the Steel this season so far the only multiple goal scorer is Jake Jaremko with 3g, 1a on the season. Over half of the total offense has filtered through Tanner Laczynski (1g, 4a) and together with Jaremko, make a fairly dangerous top line. If I were coaching against them and had the last line change, I would have at least one of those guys wearing a Phantom jersey, with the Phantom still in it, every time they hit the ice. If you can shadow those guys you can probably shut down most of the Steel offense. The real question for Chicago who is in goal. John Lethemon saw limited action last season before an injury cut his season short. He was traded briefly to Waterloo for a 'player to be named later' but never saw action and the player eventually sent to Chicago for Lethemon was Lethemon. In the 2 games he's played this year he's looked solid, with a 1.01GAA and a .959SV% and earned Chicago's only win on the season stopping 23 of 24 shots against the NDTP U17 squad. Sharing the duties with him to start the season is the dark horse for Chicago, Danial Vladar. The young prospect from Prague, CZE was a 3rd Round NHL draft pick of the Boston Bruins, 75th overall. That a fairly high round for a goalie in the USHL, doubly so for a non-NTDP goalie. His debut did not well though, and the Tri-City Storm lit him up for 6 goals on 36 shots (.833SV%).

It's the second week of the USHL hockey season. All the opening night jitters should be done with and it's time to get down to business. After playing two preseason games against NAHL teams and three games (2 preseason and 1 regular) against the NTDP, the Phantoms (0-1-0-0) finally take on a regular USHL team, the Bloomington Thunder (1-1-0-0). The Thunder are in their sophomore season after a decent first season in the USHL, finishing with a winning record. The Phantoms gained a lot of confidence and points in the standing last season playing the Thunder with a 7-1 record, including an overtime and a shootout win. We outscored them 33 (plus 1 shootout point) to 19 during last years series. Once again, these two teams fill face each other eight times in the regular season with the first two this weekend.

This seasons Bloomington Thunder are going to look a lot different than last season. And by that I mean they're going to be mostly the same. The Thunder are returning a whopping fifteen, yes 15, players from last season. If you don't follow the league at all, that's a lot. What that means is most of these guys don't need to work on team chemistry and they can work on building off of what worked well last year. Both Thunder goaltenders played a significant amount of games last season and Hayden Lavigne, who come to Bloomington in a trade, is in his third USHL season with his third team. Both he and Logan Halladay are large goalies, taking up quite a bit of the net. With an improved defense in front of them it could be a lot tougher to get pucks in the net. Of the three returning defensemen, Jeremy Davis was the standout last season adding both good defense and contributing on offense. Davis already has 1 goal and 2 assists in 2 games this season. They also added former Lincoln Stars blueliner Wyatt Kalynuk for some added experience. Out of the ten returning forwards, it's hard to pick a standout. One name to keep an eye on is Vladislav Dzhioshvili. The young center looked good playing as an affiliate for them last season and was a 1st round KHL draft pick, 23rd overall, for the Sochi Leopards.

Hockey is back in Youngstown! After a quick exit to the playoffs, the Phantoms have a new look, new coach, many new players, and a lot of potential. After starting the last two season on the road in Ann Arbor against the U18 NTDP we're kicking off things at home. The opponent us the same though and after the hoopla of opening night and an Anderson Cup banner raising, we'll have to get down to business and play some hockey. And if you haven't read my season preview articles, you will notice a lot of changes in style. Welcome to the new, defensive, Youngstown Phantoms.

Things looked pretty good in preseason, but with room to improve. The Phantoms beat both NTDP squads including a Ryan Bednard shut out of the U18 squad, making 35 saves. The UPMC/Lemieux Sports Complex definitely had a Youngstown bias for the games but this will be many players first game at the Covelli in front of a full crowd. It will also be the first time all the (healthy) roster has played together, after several players sat out each preseason game. Now that final cuts have been made, we can put the whole gang on the bench. One area that needed to improve from preseason is passing, especially when exiting our zone. This will come with time but I expect to see some progress now that the roster is set.

Among the players making their debut this weekend is Yoshirō Hirano. Hirano could be the X-factor for the Phantoms this season. The smooth skating, '95 birth year forward from Japan has the offensive capabilities to make a serious impact for us if he can transition to the more physical North American game. Another player poised to make a mark is defenseman Luke McInnis. McInnis's mobility and shooting made him stand out among the defense during preseason. At last nights All American Prospects Game in Buffalo, not only did he score the game winning goal but he also took home the games MVP honors. With veteran defenseman Vas Kolias and a highly touted rookie defenseman in Ryan Shae possibly not skating due to injury, McInnis might get an early chance to make a name for himself in Youngstown. Two other player to keep an eye on for an early breakout are Eric Esposito and Patrick Kramer.