Welcome to week 17 and the first weekend the Phantoms are looking at the playoff race from the outside. I guess that just makes this weekends road trip more dramatic. This weekend features the first two of four straight against the USHL leading Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. The 'Riders are the only team right now with an offense that scores more than the Phantoms and they have a solid defense to boot, leading the league in lowest goals against. It's hard to find any chinks in the armor but Cedar Rapids has been in similar territory in past seasons and are not known for finishing the season strong.

Lets start with the forwards and the first name you need to know about the 'Riders front-men is Andrew Oglevie. Oglevie is in his fourth season with Cedar Rapids and has played just shy of 200 USHL games. He's third on the team in scoring (11g, 24A) and a huge presence with his experience and leadership. Leading the scoring onslaught for the 'Riders is Czech import Juri Fronk. Fronks 22 goals leads the team and his 17 assists put him atop the total scoring chart for the 'Riders. Another main contributor is Erik Foley with 16 goals and and 14 assists. Defensively they're lead by veterans Charlie Curti and Clark Custer. Both have held down the backend well and also have contributed somewhat to the offense. Also worth keeping an eye on is Mitch Reinke. Reinke, a product of the Minnesota high school hockey system, is putting up similar numbers to the veteran leaders in his rookie season.

Before the start of the season, goaltending looked like it would hamstring the 'Riders but that doesn't seem to have happened. Danny Tirone looked like the #1 guy and with a good draft pick in Tyler Parson's, Chris Birdsall was the odd man out and traded to the Phantoms. First Parsons decided to play in the OHL where the 17 year old has 3.31 GAA and .904 SV% in 20 games. Next Tirone was told he would get an early start at the University of New Hampshire, where he was a commit, after their goalie had some serious off ice charges. He was traded to an USPHL team closer to UNH to easier facilitate the mid-season start. Fortunately for the 'Riders and unfortunately for the rest of the league, they added a pair of young prospects, both 17 years old, that have developed into a good tandem in net. First they acquired Ben Blacker in the Indiana Ice dispersal draft. Blacker has posted a 16-5 record with 1 shutout and has a 2.46 GAA and a .924 SV%. Later they traded Muskegon for the rights to Ryan Larkin, an NHL CSS "C" ranked goalie, who has 10-3 record, also with 1 shutout, and a 2.13 GAA with a .924 SV% as well. The 'Riders good defense has let these young guys develop early and now they look like a brick wall in front of the net.

Welcome to week 16, we're over the halfway mark of the season and the Phantoms are cruising. We've won 4 straight at home and have gotten at least a point in the standings the last 9 home games. We have another pair of home games this weekend before heading to Cedar Rapids for two of the biggest road games of the year so far. This weekends match-up features the first ever meeting between the Phantoms and the expansion Madison Capitols. The Capitols started out the their inaugural season pretty roughly, it took them 7 games to earn their first win. They've since turned things around some and are now 2 1/2 games behind the Phantoms and having played one less game. Since I don't have much else here for news and not much info on the expansion franchise, I'll keep this basic.

A few of the Caps have a little USHL experience before the start of the season but there are no real standout players here, at least not in how they would like to standout. Offensively, their point leader and primary catalyst is Will Johnson. The USHL rookie has 9 goals and 27 assists for 36 points, 15 points more than the next highest in points, Freddy Gerard. F. Gerard has 10 goals, the most on the team and 11 assists. Both He and his brother Charlie are from the Cleveland suburb Rocky River, Ohio so this will be somewhat of a homecoming. Both played some AAA minor with Tommy Parran with the Cleveland Barons U18. Daniel Willett and Alec Vanko are two solid defensemen that have previous USHL experience. By my data, both goalies are USHL rookies but have decent numbers. Darren Smith is 9-5-3 on the year with a 3.13 GAA and a .909 SV% with 1 shutout. Garrett Metcalf is 6-5-2 with a 2.94 GAA and a 0.917 SV%. On paper, the tandem looks like they can at least give the Caps a fighting chance. The onle player who does standout for the Caps is Chad Pietroniero. Pietroniero leads the league in penalty minutes with 148, 127 of which came after he was traded to Madison after playing 2 games with the Sioux City Musketeers. This includes 6 fights, including one in each of his last two games, numerous other misconducts and being suspended for a game 3 separate times. Otherwise he has 3 goals and 2 assists on the season, so you know what his job is on the ice.

Happy New Year Phantoms fans. 2014 has been an uphill climb for the Phantoms, the second half of last season and the first half of this season, and we've seen a lot of changes both on the ice and in the front office. The uphill climb seems to be paying off and this year we've witnessed some really outstanding hockey. The past couple games the fans have responded as well and that's something we've needed to improve on. We finished 14-7-5 (.635 win %), averaging the most goals for per game in the league (4.08), third in the league in power plays and second in penalty kills. We closed out '14 in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the potential last playoff spot, but only by a thread and some luck with Green Bay beating Madison earlier in the week. Muskegon and Cedar Rapids top the conference but are starting to cside back to within reach. Dubuque just leapfrogged us with a win in Bloomington to close out the year. 

Now it's 2015, nearly half the seasons schedule has been played and we need to keep moving forward and the first week of the new year is going to be a real test. It's three games in three nights, actually a little less than that, and on the road. This is the first of four times we play a set like this. Neither team we face this weekend is too hot at the moment but everyone's New Years resolution is to win and both teams have shown promise. Tonight we play the Chicago Steel at 8:30 EST. The Steel are pretty simple to break down. Mason Bergh is almost unstoppable on offense and Cale Morris specializes in shutting down offenses. Despite having the top scoring forward in the league so far this year and one of the leagues best goalies, as well as a well rounded team to fill in, the Steel have a losing record (12-13-2) and just haven't gotten it going consistently lately. Their last game of the season, however, they did beat the slumping Muskegon Lumberjacks.

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