It's the last week of the regular season. Despite having clinched a playoff spot and home ice advantage through the conference finals, the Phantoms still have 3 games left and a lot of work to do still. they still need a win or two overtime/shootout losses to wrap up sole possession of the Anderson Cup, and more importantly home ice in the through the finals. Somewhere along the way the coaching staff may want to rest players but even that might not be easy despite playing a pair of weaker teams. With scouting opportunities and the last chances to move up the list of scoring leaders, a lot of players will want the ice time. All things considered, this is probably a problem every coach would love to have.

First off is a Wednesday morning game in Chicago. If anything, this will be the game to rest players. The Steel are just playing to stay above .500 on the season. There isn't much to add on the Steel, we've seen them enough and after unloading a few of the better players for draft picks, The early bus ride is probably the biggest obstacle here. Players might have a hard time getting rid of the bus legs. This would be a good chance to let an affiliate player or two get a little more ice time. Considering the impressive debut of Kole Sherwood last Saturday, I'd love to see how much more firepower we have waiting in the wings. Then it's off to Ann Arbor on Friday to start a home-and-home series against the NTDP U17 team. The U17 squad has just 6 wins in 33 USHL games this season. We've only played this squad once this season, the second game of the season, and we won 5-2. Considering it was only the 2nd game almost all of these U17 players had played together, it wouldn't surprise me if they were a lot tougher of a team now they've a little experience. Clayton Keller has been their scoring leader and he's one of the players you want to keep an eye on in terms of future NHL draft picks. Then again, eventually you'll see quite a few of these players on the CSS list. It won't be easy for the Phantoms coaches to rest the star players due to the number of scouts in attendance. With the NHL CSS final report due out soon, this is a golden opportunity for players to show off their skills. I doubt it gets any easier at home on Saturday. I'm sure there will be plenty of scouts at the Covelli and the added incentive of the last regular season home crowd might make it hard to rest players on Saturday as well.

The Phantoms 17 game winning streak came to an end last weekend but the race for the Anderson Cup is still very much alive. The Phantoms will go into action this weekend just a game and a half, 3 points, ahead of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the East and only a game ahead of the Sioux City Musketeers in the West, though the Musketeers only have 3 games left instead of 4 to play. To win the Anderson Cup and a guarantee of home ice advantage throughout the playoffs the Phantoms still need to win 3 out of the last 4 games at this point. With 3 of those last games next week this weekends focus is pretty obvious, bring on the Muskegon Lumberjacks. The 'Jacks are fighting for 3rd place in the East and at this point the reward for that is not playing the Phantoms in the opening round. They have a half game over the Dubugue Fighting Saints and are riding a 5 game win streak, currently the longest in the league. They'll play a game in Ann Arbor tonight against the NTDP U17 team before heading to Youngstown. In the overall series between these two teams this year, the Phantoms have a 3-2 edge. Home ice has not been an advantage because in every meeting, the visitor has won. Each team has managed an extra point in the shootout.

The 'Jacks are a familiar team. I shouldn't have to break down things much. Tom Marchin and Matheson Iacopelli lead the goal scoring. Iacopelli, a 3rd round Chicago Blackhawks pick in last years NHL draft, hasn't performed as well as many have hoped in the goal scoring department but we all know that he's a huge force on the ice and when he's given room to get going that he can be very hard to stop. One of the keys, as always, is containing him. Griffin Molino is tied with Josh Melnick for the leagues lead in assists, he's also someone to watch for. Defensively, as usual, Christian Wolanin is the keystone on the blueline and an able offensive contributor with 13 goals and 25 assists on the season. To compliment him the 'Jacks added Corey Schueneman from the Des Moines Bucaneers at the trade deadline. Schueneman is solid defensively has 15 goals and 29 assists on the season. This gives the 'Jacks one of the most solid groups of defensemen in the league. Also among the best in the league collectively is the goaltending tandem of Eric Schierhorn and Michael Latorella. Schierhorn, 25-12-4, 2 shutouts, leads the league in save percentage, posting a .929 as well as a 2.41 GAA. Latoerella, 9-5-0 with 1 shutout, has been fair with a 3.18 GAA and a .910 SV%.  The 'Jacks are good on defense usually, though they've been known to give up a few blowout games this season. Over the last 5 games they've allowed less than 1.5 goals per game so they're defiantly getting into playoff mode on defense.

The Phantoms come into this weeks action #1 overall in the USHL standings, already punched their ticket to  the playoffs and riding a league record of the Tier 1 era for consecutive wins. Since my work schedule got weird again and the broadcast quality on Fasthockey was loathsome I gave up on anything meaningful for a recap of last weekend. I'm pretty sure the official recaps did better than I could. Late game heroics on both ends of the ice, including a ten-bell save from Colin DeAugustine that has gone viral and a 24 save shutout for Chris Birdsall. Three wins in less than three days and we've even got a little bit of a cushion in terms of the top spot in the standings. You couldn't script it any better and it couldn't come at a better time. The Phantoms look like they're finally getting a little of the respect they deserve, at home, with the league and even at higher levels. Respect and $0.99 will get you a cup of coffee at the gas station on your way to work. Enough said, the Phantoms are back to work this weekend, this time with a pair of games in Omaha against the Lancers.

This trip to Omaha is the final Western Conference road trip, at least in the regular season. I've seen them described as a runaway freight train and every win seems to build momentum. Max Letunov was back last weekend after missing the previous week and with no suspensions from last weekend and Kevin Conley only having one game left on his from the weekend before, we're as close to a full and healthy roster as any team can hope for at this time of the year. That really helps keeping the legs fresh, especially on the road. The players we acquired at the trade deadline are meshing quite well and all of the little things just seem to be clicking into place. At this point it would be easy to overlook a team like the Lancers. Omaha hasn't clinched their playoff spot yet but they're close enough not to have to worry. I'm sure they would like to wrap that up at home and even more, I'd bet they would love to be the team that ends the Phantoms streak.

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