Well, we're already 2/3 of the way through the Phantoms schedule. If your not worried about the playoff picture yet you should be. Last weekend the Phantoms took 6 of 6 points on the road to move themselves into a position to start moving up in the playoff brackets and distancing themselves a little from the teams trailing them for the last playoff spot. With a couple wins at home, a little luck and help, the Phantoms could be in 2nd place in the East by the start of next week. This weekend we get to see one of my favorite opponents, the Dubuque Fighting Saints. The Phantoms and Saints have played some epic games at the Covelli in the past, especially the 12-13 playoffs which some USHL fans still consider one of the best series in the leagues Tier 1 era. The fact we're just a game and a half behind them in the race this year makes this weekends pair of games that much more dramatic.

The last time these teams met was in October in Dubuque where we split a pair of games. The first game the Saints edged us out in OT 5-4 with Jacob Nehama and Chris Birdsall in net. The next night Collin DeAugustine posted a shutout as the Phantoms put up 6 on Kevin Reich, his last game in Dubuque before a brief stint in the NAHL and getting picked up by Green Bay. This weekend the Saints will be coming in with Nehama the clear starter and Gavin Nieto backing him up. Nehama comes in with a 18-6-4 record, 2.30 GAA and a .913 SV%. Nieto has a 6-1-0 record, 3.06 GAA and .894 SV%. I can't speak for Nieto but Nehama is a solid goalie. I don't think the Saints have any problems riding him for the weekend if he's playing hot and I assume he'll be in net to start on Friday and am basing everything off him playing the full weekend.

As far as skaters go, I won't go into details. Seamus Malone, Brett Boeing and Dylan Gambrell are names to watch out for on offense. The big story here is the mid-week acquisition of Adam Morrison from the NAHL Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees. Morrison is a '94 birth year and comes in at 6'2", 210lbs. In 16 games for RGV he's posted 1 assist and 66 PIMS. Last season in 38 games he had 1 goal, 1 assist and 142 PIMS. Of his 66 PIMS this season, 60 came from 4 fighting majors/misconducts, 1 instigating minor, one crosschecking minor and one roughing minor. To facilitate this they moved Try Dodd, who played 21 games scoring 5 goals , 8 assists and racked up 6 PIMS, to the affiliate list where he'll still be eligible to play.  It's too early to throw around the word 'thug' but you can safely assume he's not on the ice for his scoring touch. I don't know if the Saints felt they were getting pushed around, their record certainly doesn't indicate it. Whatever precipitated their going out and getting an overage enforcer, it's still to be seen if this move will pay off. There are plenty of people questioning if Morrison can skate well enough to compete in the USHL. At this level, it's a good thing to have a few players who can fight on your roster but they have to be able to contribute in other areas, Morrison is a huge unknown there.

Welcome to the heat of the second half of the season. Teams are making trades and getting ready to make their push up the standings towards the playoff race. Today the Phantoms dealt Trey Bradley to Sioux Falls for a fourth round USHL Phase 2 (Entry) draft and a second round Phase 1 (Futures) draft. Bradley had been showing a lot of improvement as a player but the Phantoms are stacked at the forward position and we gave up a few picks to get Ryan Lomberg. So we reloaded some draft picks and have an open roster spot. I could see an affiliate like BC High's Ryan Shae moving up to fill it. We could also see a player moving from NCAA, another junior league or a European import. The Phantoms have made moves like this in previous seasons and I doubt they moved Bradley just to get some picks.

Despite having a formidable offense, the Phantoms have had issues scoring at home lately. It may be a good thing to be on the road this weekend but three games in (less than) as many nights could prove rough. The first night is against the Muskegon LumberJacks. We've split the season series so far, both teams winning two, one of those in a shootout at home. The 'Jacks are 6-3-1 to start 2015. Last weekend the 'Jacks split a pair of games hosting the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Other than that there isn't much to say about Muskegon. It's the same squad as usual. Keep you eye on Ian Iacopelli, he might not be tallying the numbers some people though but he is a major catalyst for the team. Another guy who may not get as much mention as an offensive threat is Griffin Molino. Molino leads the team in assists with 29 and total points with 41. Eric Shierhorn has been solid in net and has a 2.54 GAA and .925 SV%. Michael Latorella is a decent backup, 3.39 GAA and an .899 SV%, but we probably won't see him unless Shierhorn is chased or injured.

Another week and another weekend set of games, and this weekend is big. If you can't watch the Fasthockey games and didn't see last weekends two games against the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders you missed out on some great hockey. The good news is, this weekend the 'Riders coming to the Covelli for a rematch. The Phantoms can sweep the regular season series but you can bet the USHL's first place team isn't going to take being beat twice in their own house lying down. They'll be looking to make it a true grudge match.

These teams feature the two best offenses in the league, the 'Riders also boast the best defense. Last weekends games were fairly evenly matched, with a two goals being the highest margin either team managed to build. Chris Birdsall carried the full load in net for the Phantoms while Ben Blacker and Ryan Larkin split games in goal for the 'Riders. It will be interesting to see which goalies the coaches tap this weekend. I didn't see any real performance difference between the two 'Riders netminders, both are young but talented. If I had to chose I thought Larkin was the better of the two. Birdsall will probably be called to duty for the first night at least but I've been unable to second guess coach Noreen's goalie rotation this year. Defensively the Phantoms tightened their defense up a lot on the trip to Iowa and matched, if not out preformed, the top ranked 'Riders defense, especially last Friday. The 'Riders adjusted well for Saturdays game so it'll be interesting to see if either team makes and changes for this weekend.

The biggest difference this weekend is going to be with the Cedar Rapids offense. You would have to figure they would want to make some sort of adjustment there after the Phantoms held them to just 5 goals in the pair of games. We won't have to wait to see the line charts, it's obvious already. Mid-week the 'Riders dealt Joey Marooney and three draft picks to Green Bay for Joe Wegsworth. Marooney is now on his third USHL team this year, starting the season with Sioux Falls where he had 4 goals and 2 assists in 18 games before being traded to the 'Riders where he had 2 assists in 12 games. Wegsworth spent the past two years playing with the USA NTDP where he was a more physical presence than a scoring threat before joining the Green Bay Gamblers this season. He's found a little bit of a playmaking touch this season, posting 5 goals and 16 assists in 35 games. Earlier this month when the Gamblers visited the Covelli, he set up a Brian Bowen goal with a nifhty spin pass. Wegsworth should be a solid addition to the 'Riders though the Cedar Rapids squad isn't known for good mid-to-late season runs.

There isn't a whole lot to say. It's two top teams going head-to-head in what could be a first round playoff match. For that matter, Dubuque is in Muskeon for a pair of games. These two teams are in between the Phantoms and the 'Riders in the Eastern Conference race. There are big points in the standings this weekend all around. If you like good hockey, you need to get down the the Covelli this weekend.


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