The Phantoms are officially the top team in the USHL, at least to begin the week. The past 25 weeks of hard work have lead up to this but there are still four weeks to go including this one before the playoff start. The past weekend we saw another Western Conference team come into the Covelli, and like the weekend before it we saw the Phantoms bring them to the point of a meltdown. This time it was the Sioux City Musketeers who started last week atop the leagues standings. This week we get Matt Miller back but lose Kevin Conley for 4 games, 2 for removing an opponents helmet and 2 for fighting in the last 5 minutes of the game. The Musketeers got 5 games split between 3 players (2,2,1) for the night. This weekend the Phantoms go on the road for their last 3 games in (less than) 3 days weekend. The Phantoms will also be taking an impressive win streak with them. Currently at 14 games this is the longest such streak in the league this season. I've gone back the past 12 years on Pointstreak and found 2 times where a team has posted a 16 game win streak and both times the team won the Anderson Cup. In 05-06 Sioux Falls did it and most recently, last season, the Waterloo Blackhawks did it. Ironic, since the next opponent we play and will have to beat both nights to get to 16 wins is the Waterloo Blackhawks.

This weekend will also be a reunion tour of sorts. Starting with a pair Waterloo where we'll get to see an old friend, Bryan Lemos, and Tyler Sheehy will get to see his old mates from the past couple seasons. Since the trade, Lemos has 1 goal and 3 assists in 5 games. Sheehy has 1 goal, 4 assists in 4 games. The Blackhawks are 3 1/2 (7 points) games out of the last playoff spot with just 8 games left, 1 less than most of the rest of the Western Conference race. It's starting to look grim for them and a pair of losses to the Phantoms would be devastating. Desperation hockey is hockey at it's finest and the Blackhawks better be desperate. For the Blackhawks, look for Brock Boeser for the offensive lead. Boeser is tied for 4th in the league in scoring with 2 other players, including Josh Melnick. I can't comment much on defense, I'm not familiar with the blueliners. I can comment on their starting goalie. Cale Morris started out the year in Chicago. He was instrumental in the Steel winning their only 2 games in the Covelli this season before he was traded to Waterloo. In my opinion, he's been the best goalie in the USHL this year.  He's 3rd in both GAA at 2.35 and SV% at 9.24 and has done it on two teams that don't have the defense the other top goalies have benefited from. His combined record is 22-12-4 with 4 shutouts, all 4 coming with Waterloo. Getting plenty of pucks on him will be a key factor. The Phantoms probably won't be able to generate the desperation of Waterloo but they'll need to fire themselves up somehow to match.

It's been another one of those weeks. Coming off the trade deadline and a couple big wins at the Covelli, I couldn't have a boring week to preview now could I? Of course I knew it wasn't going to be a 'no news, good news' week. After the fracus of Saturdays game I knew there would be some repercussions. The USHL Hockey Operations just doesn't work like that. What I didn't catch was during the melee after the Joey Raats knee to Vas Kolias, Matt Miller left the bench and joined in the scrum. End result, he's suspended 2 games and coach Anthony Noreen is suspended a game. Joey Raats got 2 games himself. I think it's pretty weak, Miller gets the same as the guy who laid a dirty hit on Kolias and our coach sits a game. I think the Raats hit should have been 3 games minimum. It says a lot about the ref, Andy Howard, since neither player got called for a penalty during the game. But the rules are the rules and the league did what they saw fit. The bottom line, after 12 straight wins our luck may have run out on number 13. The irony is pretty obvious, especially since that game will be played on Friday the 13th. If you want to up the ante a bit, these aren't meaningless games. Not that there are meaningless games, doubly so this time of the season. This week we play the Western Conference and overall USHL point standings leaders, the Sioux City Musketeers. If we want to win the Anderson Cup for the league leaders in the regular season point standings, wins here will go a long way. Friday's game is also our game in hand against the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, who only play once this weekend.

Offensively, the Musketeers are the second best in the league, next only to us. We have the 1st, 3rd and 5th leading scorers in the league with Kyle Conner, Max Letunov and Josh Melnick respectively. They have the 2nd, 4th and 8th in Adam Johnson, Robert Carpenter and Joe Snively. It's a safe assumption that we'll see some high tempo offense. Defensively, Niel Pionk is their leader. He's a gritty veteran blueliner, defensively responsible and also a capable play-maker who can move the puck well. Additionally they have a pair of young, 17 year old, defensemen who have posted good numbers on both sides of the ice in Ryan Zuhlsdorf and Jacob Wilson. Anchoring everything, in net they have Collin Olson. The 20 year old netminder is in his second year as a goalie for the Musketeers after playing two years for the USA NTDP before heading to Ohio State University. Things didn't work out at OSU and he left and landed in Sioux City, but not before he was drafted in the 6th round of the 2012 NHL draft by the Carolina Hurricanes. This season he's posted 24-7-4, a 2.73 GAA, .914 SV% and 3 shutouts in 38 games, all of those as the starting goalie. Backing him up is Cameron Gornet. Gornet, 8-7-1, has a 2.44 GAA, .914 SV% and 1 shutout in 17 games, 13 starts. I'd expect to see Olson both games unless something goes wrong for the Musketeers.

Well, it's been an interesting start to the USHL week already, especially for the Phantoms. That whooshing sound you heard the other day was the trade deadline flying by. The Phantoms made a few move, sending Carson Vance to Chicago for defenseman Connor McDonald. McDonald, a Westerville Ohio native, will add a little leadership and experience and will also give us a more even distribution of right and left handed defensemen. He also played a few years of AAA minor hockey with Kiefer Sherwood in the Ohio Blue Jackets organization. He seems like a good fit for the Phantoms but only time will tell that. Vanko is another tough, defensive defenseman and both he and McDonald were captains of their respective teams prior to the trade. There is a saying in hockey, and most other sports, about defense winning championships. There is a lot of truth to that and the Phantoms made the defensive commitment needed for the playoffs. Additionally, we traded Bryan Lemos to Waterloo for Tyler Sheehy. I don't have much on him since I've never seen him play but I'm told he's strong, competitive and fearless. Sheehy is a little more of an offensive threat but other than that I don't know how he'll fit into the mix. It's always a little scary moving players and changing the mix so late in the season, especially on a long win streak, but the Phantoms front office has certainly set the table for the playoffs. There were a few draft picks given up to get these players too so the long term cost will need to be weighed later too. In addition to the USHL trade deadline, the NHL trade deadline came and passed and Max Letunov had his rights traded to the Arizona Coyotes for a veteran defenseman Zbynek Michalek. Letunov was originally a 2nd round pick of the St Louis Blues who will also get a conditional 3rd round pick. The Coyotes aren't making the playoffs and it's cool to see Max as part of their long term plans for rebuilding.

So to focus on the task at hand, the Phantoms play the Sioux Falls Stampede this weekend. The Phantoms and the Stampede already made a trade early last month with the Phantoms sending them forward Trey Bradley to Sioux Falls for a couple for draft picks. Sometimes it's hard to say if a trade was good for either team but in this case both teams have been unbeaten since. The Phantoms are on a 10 game win streak since the February 6th deal was made and the Stampede have won all 7 of their matches as well. It's an obvious statement to make but someone's streak will end this Friday. The Phantoms will have to work hard to make sure it's not theirs.

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