Hey, hey, hey, we're four weeks into the season and things are shaping up well for the Phantoms. Things are really starting to click in most aspects of the game and we're starting to see the progress we didn't see last year at this time. Over last weekend we saw the Phantoms bounce back from a tough OT loss to Dubugue, in what was probably their poorest performance of the young season, to record a 6-0 shutout the next night. Two streaks ended over the weekend, the first being Kyle Connor's 5-game scoring streak, started in game 1, ended Friday when he was held off the scoresheet. No matter, he scored twice in less than 0:20 and added a pair of assists later on Saturday. On Saturday, the Phantoms 6 game PP goal scoring streak ended. The Phantoms had also had this streak going since the first game but didn't seem to need the PP since they tallied 6 even-strength goals, showing they aren't just a special teams club. Speaking of special teams, they're still firing on all cylinders, with Youngstown ranked 3rd in powerplay percentage (24.14%) and 2nd in penalty kill percentage (90.91%).

Taking 3 out of 4 points on the road is a good weekend and that should give the team a little momentum coming into a long home stand, 8 games over 4 weeks. We have a good chance to make an early run up the Eastern Conference standings. We can cement ourselves as a real contender in the conference. The first point of order in that is this weekend with a pair of games with the Bloomington Thunder. The Thunder our are big rival this year and we have 6 more games to play against them, three over this home stand. Both teams have identical 4-2-1 records. The Phantoms have won both previous meetings but the second one, our home opener, was the Thunder's lone OT/SO loss. The Phantoms had a 2-0 lead at one point in the game and could be a half game ahead of them if they had closed them out in regulation. These little things add up. For their part, the Thunder are doing well for an expansion team. They play a gritty brand of hockey that should be familiar to Phantoms fans. 5 out of their 7, 3 out of 4 wins, games have been decided by 1 goal. # games, 2 wins and 1 loss (to the Phantoms) have been decided in shootouts. So fans can expect a couple close games. The last meeting the Phantoms won in a SO but it took 7 shooters and some heroics from Josh Melnick to keep us in it and Kiefer Sherwood to win it.

Three weeks are in the books for the Phantoms. Week four is upon us an looking back at last year, week four was the week that Colin DeAugustine made his debut as a Phantom. This year things are much different as DeAugustine isn't just a call-up affiliate or a backup, he's a bona fide starter. The backup and affiliate are both on the early NHL CSS too. No one is on the IR list, suspended, etc., or at least that we know of. That takes us to this weekends pair of games in Dubuque against another divisional rival in the Fighting Saints (2-2-0).

So let's measure up the Saints. Defensively they have one returning defenseman with real USHL experience, Blake Hillman. However, to bolster their blueline they've brought in William Lagesson. The Swedish born Lagesson brings with him several years and a wealth of experience in the Swedish junior leagues as well as international competitions, putting up impressive numbers wherever he plays. He's a big, physical defensman who can hold down his own end and chip in occasionally on the offensive side of things. He was also a fourth round (#91 overall) pick of the Detroit Redwings in the 2014 NHL Draft. Offensively, there are a couple familiar names for the Saints and one you need to keep an eye on is Seamus Malone. Malone lead the team in points last year and is a constant threat. Another returning forward to look out for is Brett Boeing. Boeing if off to a hot start and currently has 5 goals and 2 assists in four games. In net for the Saints, this years story has been Jacob Nehama. Nehama got somce decent action last season with the Lincoln Stars backing up Michael Bitzer. This year he's on the the Dubuque roster and seems to have taken the starting position from last years Saints starter, Kevin Reich. Nehama has put up outstanding numbers so far, winning both his starts and posting a 1.78GAA and .933 S%. The German born Reich put up passable numbers last season though I can say I was fairly unimpressed with what I saw during the two games he played last season in Youngstown. He's credited with both Dubuque losses this season and is wallowing with a 6.03 GAA and a .833 S%. Suffice it to say, who's in net for the Saints will play a huge role in the Phantoms strategy and outcome. If Nehama is in goal you'll see a much more defensive game on both sides, the Phantoms not wanting to trade chances against a guy putting up those kind of numbers. If Reich starts, I think the Phantoms will be more inclined to take the extra chances.  There are rumors that Gavin Nieto (Janesville Jets NAHL) will be taking over the backup duties from Reich, which will also fee up an import spot with Evan Smith coming off the 25 day IR list.

Well, one game under our belts and despite losing that game things look very promising. This week we have two games to play, back-to-back and on the road, against the USA NTDP's U17 squad and one of the new expansion teams, the Bloomington Thunder.  I don't have a lot of data on either team and we've only played one game ourselves so this isn't going to be the most informative article. 

Friday, we head back to Ann Arbor. where we held our own against a very talented and well prepared U18 squad last week. We were a couple minor mistakes from at least grabbing a point from the game. With that in mind, we should be able to pull off a win on the road at the Ice Cube. I think the biggest issue here is just not underestimating our opponents. We can't think of this as an easy win and we can't look ahead to the next game. This is an ideal opportunity to work on areas like teamwork where game experience is critical to the newer players. That's hard to do when facing down a team like the U18s where any little mistake will be taken advantage of by the other team.

Then we travel down to Bloomington Indiana to face the Thunder for the first time ever. They're a new team with one game and one win under their belts, beating the Sioux Falls Stampede in a shootout for their first ever USHL game. The Phantoms play the Thunder four times in October and eight times total during the regular season. In fact, we play them the more than any other team in the league so getting off to a good start is important. Despite being an expansion franchise, they have traded up to get several players with USHL experience. However, these players are still adjusting to a new system and new teammates. They play the night before in Chicago too so there won't be much of an advantage on rest for the home team. I think the big factor for the Thunder is goalie David Jacobson. The 6'0", 206 lbs netminder played 32 games for Sioux Falls last season and had 19-6 record, 2.60 GAA and a 0.878 S%. He stopped 29 of 30 shots in regulation and overtime against his old club and only allowed 1 of 3 shooters to score in the shootout. Getting pucks past him and taking the home crowd out of the game will be the key for the Phantoms. If we can get a few goals, especially early, I think we can easily control the tempo and win. And dominating these guys will be a big part of a successful season.

I guess, for the Phantoms part, the biggest question is who will start in goal either night. Colin DeAugustine got the nod last week in Ann Arbor. Chris Birdsall only had one start in preseason and that was against the NTDP U18 team which ended in a 6-3 loss. I didn't see much difference between the two goalies performance. I suspect the goalies will split duties this weekend. Other than that I don't see much that either the forwards or defense needs to change. We may see defensman Ty Farmer see some action either or both nights as well. Farmer was not in the lineup last Saturday. I think this weekend we see the Line of Sherwood, Lomberg and Pearson start to produce on the scoreboard. To have a successful season we'll need to see our third and fourth lines produce points and this line promises just that.

 I should be making the trip to Ann Arbor so I hope to see some of you there. Look forward to some highlight videos and a recap next week. 


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