Its week eight already? Actually for this beleaguered blogger it seems like week 28. With both of these weekends games on the road and against a familiar foe, I'll keep this brief. Last weekend, the Phantoms played a pair of home games against the Lincoln Stars with mixed results. Sure we got 3 out of 4 possible points, we certainly showed a lot of holes in our game and left that last point on the table against a team that we should have taken it. Playing the Bloomington Thunder might be the best medicine for what ails them though.

The Thunder are a team that's back on the slow uphill climb rather than the quick slide down. They haven't won a game in over a month, 10/18 in a shootout with Omaha to be specific. They're in last place in the league for good reason. However, they have put forth much better performances lately. Their best game of late, and possibly of the season, was a 4-3 shootout loss to the NDTP U18 squad that went eight skaters deep into the shootout. They've made some roster moves since their last visit to the Covelli. Tyler Gernhoffer was traded to Ceder Rapids in exchange for Jason Kalinowski, both forwards, and Ethan Spaxman was traded to Waterloo for Jeremy Davies, both defensemen. Defenseman Andrew Roye is off the IR and Tanner Salsberry was sent to the NAHL to make room. Blake Gober is in the lineup after serving a single game suspension for a check from behind. You'll remember him for the incident where he ripped Josh Nenadal's helmet off and made a little bit of head contact with it when he returned it, or smacked him in the head tossing it at him depending on your point of view. That one earned him a three game suspension.

Anyway you slice it they're still bad. We don't need to help them any either. If we want to beat them we will and that is that. We can make them take all kinds of bad penalties, we've proven that. It doesn't matter which goalie is in net, Colin DeAugustine or Chris Birdsall, or if they start David Jacobsen or Logan Halladay. The plan should be simple, don't let them have and stupidly easy chances like tons of breakaways, odd man rushes, 5-on3 powerplays, major powerplays, etc. Keep it simple, shoot the puck lots at their net and get under their skin and make them sit in the box. Being on the road, hit them early and hard. No one wants to get out-hit in front of the home crowd and good, hard checking to start the game can elicit some early retaliatory penalties. 

I'm probably not going out on a limb here in saying I expect Ryan Lomberg to continue to be a key factor with his hard work in front of the net. Kyle Connor and Max Letunov will probably be the offensive forces as we all expect. We'll probably split the goaltending duties, unless something extenuating happens tonight. We need to get some momentum rolling because next weekend is a home and home against Muskegon and that's much more critical opponent. I don't know if I'll have a recap for both games or just lump them into one on Monday. How Fasthockey performs and how much free time I can get are the deciding factors. I'm also working on a first quarter of the season report since we hit that mark last weekend, but that might not make it today.

OK, here is a rush preview. We have a rare Monday night game against Chicago and I have an optometrist appointment later today. Then this weekend we play a Friday and Sunday game against the bottom-most team in the west, the Lincoln Stars. I don't have a lot to say about the latter and last night we saw all we needed to see of the former. 

Chicago handed us our second home loss of the season last night 5-2. The Steel played a good team game and got outstanding goaltending from Cale Morris. The Phantoms were depleted on defense and DeAugustine was chased on 4 goals in 10 shots. Truth be told, however, I blamed the lack of attendance, 602, as the biggest problem the team faced. Two questions linger after the loss. Can the Phantoms quickly forget last nights loss and focus on tonight? Will we have 6 defensman dressed and on the bench? I like the odds of Chris Birdsall getting the nod in net after replacing DeAugustine last night. I don't know how Chicago handles back-to-back road games in net but if Morris feels up to it I'd reckon he'll get the nod again for Chicago after last nights excellent performance. 

Well, to start I'd like to apologize for the lack of a recap of the last game. MY job is eating all my time and it's either a recap or a preview and the preview won. I still have to make this short and I think something of a recap is in order. We lost 3-1 to Muskegon, Max Letunov split the defense to score our only goal. We coughed up the puck to their best player to tie it 1-1 after two periods. Then we gave up a shorthanded goal and an insurance goal in the third. We could have been in second place in the Eastern Conference but we landed in fourth. Later in the season this would be a bigger deal but it's still way too early to get upset. So our first home loss is out of the way. The more disturbing fact is that we're 0-3 when tied after two periods. We need to be able to finish games strong and win close fights. But let's move on.

This week we see a pair of odd games. The first is a Wednesday morining tilt against Bloomington. I guess I don't need to break down the Thunder, we've seen enough of them to know their game. The Thunder are on a three game losing streak that started with a pair of losses at the Covelli. They'll also be missing Blake Gober who'll be serving a suspension for removing Josh Nenedal's helmet. To replace him they've inserted Maxim Dzhioshvili, a 6'5", 220lbs 18 year old from Moscow Russia. Bloomington may be a wounded beast and should be treated accordingly, be cautious you don't let them bite you and put them down quickly. Expect the Phantoms to not sit around after losing for the first time at the home. I think the 10:15 am is a 'kids day game' so hopefully we'll pack the stands with screaming school kids for an energetic crowd to give the home squad a little extra push.

Then on Sunday we get our first look at this seasons Chicago Steel team. Winners of the past two games, the Steel have a good team and are right behind the Phantoms in the standings. They have a wealth of returning players on both offense and defense. They have a goaltending duo that includes last years backup Cale Morris and rookie John Lethemon, both 18 years old. Both have posted decent numbers 2.83GAA, .908SV% and 2.60, .917SV% respectively. The Steel have a very solid group of defenseman with four guys that have real USHL experience as well as some rookies and players who served as affiliate call-ups. I don't see anyone as a real standout on the blueline, they don't need it. At least on paper, this is a group effort. Ofensively, they have a dangerous group of forwards capable of putting up big numbers if you let them. Fredrick Olofsson leads the pack and the NHL Chicago Blackhawks 4th round pick (98th overall, 5 places in front of ex-Phantom JJ Piccinich) has 7 goals and 5 assists on the season. At 6'2", 204lbs he's not huge but has enough size to push the defense a little and a complete set of offensive skills. Also able to contribute are Mason Bergh, Robby Jackson (last years USHL Rookie of the Year) and Connor Murphy, who lead the GOJHL in scoring as well as picking up several awards in that league. 

On paper, this is a good team. The Phantoms will need to be ready to go for the early Sunday evening game (5:05pm). I'm not going to call out any players to step up, I'd like to see the whole team raise the bar a little. Our top scorers need to be our top scorers, secondary scorers need to add some points and role players need to find their role. It's still early in the season but every game counts. We can't overlook Bloomington because we've beat them a few times either. It'll be interesting to see if Chris Birdsall gets a start this week too. The biggest question for the Phantoms this week is "will you be there?"! Seriously, a big crowd to support the team would go a long way to helping them win. It's getting a little ridiculous to see so many empty seats when they're playing so well.

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