Still treading water - that's how I would describe last weekend's performance with the Phantoms (14-15-4-1) splitting the weekend against Tri-City to start the second half of the season. The Phantoms remain a game below .500 and have slipped into 6th place in the Eastern Conference, the last playoff slot. There is still a lot of hockey to be played, but this is the time of the season that if you slip against the teams that you're fighting for those spots with, you might not make it back up by the time you right yourself. That's why this is a big week, we're facing the Green Bay Gamblers (15-13-1-3) who are a single point ahead of us with 2 games in hand. And to add weight to the weekend, we're playing them 3 games in 3 days for 6 total points.

In terms of forwards, they will be missing their 2nd leading score and team captain, McKade Webster, who had 7g and 16a on the season. The Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick will miss the remainder of the season with an inury, something that has hampered his USHL career the past two seasons. That still leaves Jesse Tucker (15g, 17a), their leading scorer. Tucker, from my viewing, seems to find open areas and make himself available to finish a play as well as being just as capable at starting the play. Sneaking into this week's preview is Nicholas Zabaneh (8g, 14a). He's got great speed and skating and has used that to produce on offense, and they'll need that more now that Webster is out. Ryan O'Reilly (11g, 10a) is a capable forward and a Detroit Red Wings draft pick. I think O'Reilly is a player the Gamblers expect to produce more on offense and we'll see if he strives to pick up in the second half of the season.

On defense, the Gamblers have some interesting parts that add up to a decent defense. One player I did not mention the last time I covered the Gamblers was Mason Lohrei, who has elevated his game lately. Lohrei has 6g and 17a on the season, 23 total points. He's picked up 13 of those points in the last 10 games, including 4 of his 6 goals. Well traveled veteran Michael Ferrandino (1g, 8a) is holding the fort on the blueline. Ferrandino has played 200 USHL games and has a +/- of +10.

OK, well it was another glass half full weekend last week. After dropping a bad one in Plymouth, we managed to right the ship a little and grabbed an OT win at home, both against the NTDP U17s. So the last couple weekend pairs the Phantoms (13-14-4-1) have played .500 hockey and after breaking the losing skid we were on prior to that, we're just a game below .500 to start the week. This weekend we get to play a pair against a Western Conference opponent we've already seen one this season, the Tri-City Storm (16-13-3-2). It's a little odd for us to play a western team a third time in a season, we usually play just a pair of games both either home or away, but we already met the Storm at the Fall Classic. We won that game but both teams have changed a bit since.

The Storm had a slow start to the season but turned things around enough to currently be in second place in the Western Conference. They're lead in scoring by Colby Ambrosio (19g, 15a). Ambrosio probably won't dazzle you with his physical skill set but his IQ and decision making hasn't just made him their top scorer, it also landed him on the NHL's CSS report. Matthew Knies (8g, 21a) is an '02 born rookie who plays a very good north-south game and has decent play making ability. Benji Eckerle (13g, 12a) is a returning forward who, in addition to offense, is responsible defensively and a good utility player and an overall well balanced forward.

On defense, Mitchell Miller (3g, 10a) is a NHL CSS B-ranked skater. He's great at carrying the puck up ice and can go coast-to-coast if given the room. Kyle Aucoin (2g, 9a) is a C-ranked skater, very good on his skates and a good puck mover. He's probably not the biggest player on the blueline and maybe not the guy they want fighting for the puck along the boards.

If the scouting on the skaters sounds a little boring, here is where we get to the fun part - goaltending. A little over a week ago, it was Daniel Allin and Joe Sharib. Allin was the workhorse posting a 13-10-2-2 record in 28 games with a 2.71 GAA and a .885 SV%. Sharib played in 6 games with a 2-2-0-0 record, a 3.27 GAA and a .844 SV%. Neither of these goaltenders were lighting the world on fire but I don't think either one was particularly bad. Both could have had better save percentages but both, Allin in particular, were not what I would call bad.

The glass is half full. 3/4 to be more specific, I guess. After losing 7 consecutive games, only getting 1 point in OT during that stretch, the Phantoms are finally back in the win column to start 2020 with an OT win vs Madison then a SO loss for 3 of 4 points last weekend. This weekend the Phantoms (12-13-4-1) are having a home-and-home weekend against the NTDP's U17 squad (12-8-0-0*), first traveling up to Plymouth on Friday then back to Covelli for Saturday.

It's probably pointless for me to try to give a scouting report on these kids, I only have really seen them once and others probably have written a lot more than I can at this point. But I'll give it a shot. Jack Devine is their leader in points with 5g, 14a. Devine has a wicked shot and plays a lot stronger than his listed 5'10", 158lbs would normally indicate. Not far behind him is Sasha Pastujov (4g, 13a), a play-making forward with exceptional hockey IQ and great vision. Dylan Duke (9g, 7a) is another player with good vision and IQ, a very good skater who can score goals.

On defense is probably the top prospect of the team, Luke Hughes. The younger brother of Quinn and Jack (Last years #1 NHL Draft pick, not the Jack Hughes on the U17s roster this season) has 4g, 7a. He's the complete defensive package, he is a gifted skater, his vision and positional awareness is off the chart, he is an excellent passer, and his defensive ability is unrivaled in his age group. He might be better than either of his brothers, it's too early to tell but will be fun to watch and see how he stacks up as he develops. Sean Behrans (2g, 10a) is not getting the press of Hughes but is certainly worthy of some attention. Another excellent two-way defenseman who can make plays in all 3 zones.

It's really hard to qualify their goalies at this point. Gibson Homer seems to have a slight advantage in ice time for the top spot. In 10 games played he's posted a 3-5-0-0 record with a 4.72 GAA and a .872 SV%. Kaidan Mbereko has played 9 games with a 7-2-0-0 record, a 4.10 GAA and a .878 SV%. Again, it's still really hard to judge anything on these goalies at this time, so I'll refrain.