Well, it was a very interesting past week.

Just in case you have been under a rock, the Phantoms (33-20-1-4) played a Wednesday morning "Kid's Day" game, followed by a Friday and Saturday road game, then finished up at home Sunday evening, all against the USA NTDP. Only the Friday game was supposed to be against the U17 squad but after a brawl at the end of Satuday's game, USA Hockey decided to send the U17s for the Sunday game. This has riled up a lot of people in Youngstown and across the league, as well as a few people outside of the USHL. Suspensions to Josh DeLuca, Tristain Amonte, Christian Stoever aside, this might be something the Phantoms can turn into momentum with an "us against the world mentality". Any psychological lift at this point is a good thing as we will be fighting to the finish for the coveted 2nd place spot in the Eastern Conference, and this week we face a tough opponent in the Sioux Falls Stampede (36-15-5-2).

On paper, the Stampede aren't a team that's going to jump out at you as being a top contender. They aren't loaded with veterans or big name prospects, but they do have a lot of pieces in place that seem to work well, and if not this year, they could pose a big threat next season.

Their scoring leader is Artem Ivanyuzhenkov (25g, 23a), a big '98 Russian in his second year of USHL action. Ivanyuzhenkov is comparable to our Brett Murray in size and ability, he has a great shot and can use his frame to get positioning to use it. He also plays a little more physical than Murray and leads the team in PIMs, something to keep an eye on. Behind him are a pair of rookies - Anthony Romano (25g, 20a), a B ranked skater on the NHL draft report, and Jami Krannila (17g, 26a), a C ranked skater with great play making ability. The latter is more defensively responsible, but occasionally crosses the line when things get physical. Kranilla was a scratch in the Stampede's game earlier this week, I don't know if he's injured, and if he doesn't play that'll be a big loss for the Stampede.

On defense, rookie Ryan Johnson (6g, 18a) is another B ranked skater on the scouting report who has earned a WJAC gold medal and played in the USHL Top Prospects Game. Matt Kessel is a veteran who played in Fargo and Chicago last season and has proven to be a solid defensive asset on the blueline for the Stampede this season.

We're getting down to the final stretch of the regular season and the Phantoms (30-18-1-4) have clinched a spot in the post-season, and now are focused on moving up the standings in hopes of getting a bye in the opening round, a luxury for the two top teams, and home ice advantage.

Currently they're the 3rd seed, but only 2 points separate the 2nd spot, currently Chicago, and the 4th spot which is held by Cedar Rapids. Catching the top spot seems to be a long shot, that's held by Muskegon (36-14-3-1) but if we're going to make up the 5 1/2 games we're behind them in the standing in our remaining 9 games, we'll likely need a win over them this Friday.

The Lumberjacks are a team we're very familiar with. This kind of makes it hard for me to write because I don't want to sound too repetitive. The top threats are still Egor Afanasyev (23g, 32a), Booby Lynch (19g, 31a) and Mikael Hakkarainen (19g, 28a).

This time I'd like to focus on two of the rookie '02 players on the 'Jacks roster, Danil Guschin and Alex Gaffney. Both are small, fast forwards who may factor heavily into the 'Jacks success in the future if not sooner. Guschin (16g, 19a) shows a lot of offensive promise. He's not afraid to shoot the puck and also can put a soft pass to the tape of a teammate. Gaffney (13g, 6a) is a decent offensive forward but he also adds a level of defensive responsibility. He has great vision and a high hockey IQ and is not afraid to go to the corners with bigger players.

On defense, I don't think I've covered Alex Yakovenko this season and that needs to be corrected. The Kazakh blueliner has not garnered the attention he probably deserves outside the state of Michigan. Yakovenko had a decent season with the 'Jacks last year and this season he has dominated at the position when the 'Jacks have had a slew of talented defenseman. He has 17g, 32a and has set the 'Jacks single season record for defensemen points. He is second in the league in goals, assists, and total points for defensemen and his +/-  is +45, 5th best of all skaters in the league.

The Phantoms (27-18-1-4) hit the road for their last 3-in-3 road trip. There is still one more home stand with 3 games in 3 days, but this is the last time we'll have to do it on the road. The main focus of this weekend will be Friday's tilt against Chicago (30-18-2-0), a team we're just 3 points behind for second place in the East, which would get us a first round bye in the playoffs. Saturday and Sunday we get to face the last place team in the East, the Madison Capitols (12-32-4-2).

The Chicago Steel have had our number for the most part, we're 1-3-1-0 against them. With the leagues leading scorer in Nick Abuzzese (23g, 43a) and Robert Mastrosimone (24g, 24a), you would expect them to have a potent offense. We've managed to keep both of those players reasonably in check. Abruzzese had 1 multipoint game against us, and Mastrosimone has only played in 2 of those games.

However, a pair of Steel forwards have managed to pick up the slack - Gunnarwolfe Fontaine (18g, 19a) and Mattieu De St. Phaile (8g, 38a). Fontaine has 5g and 2a against us while De. St. Phaile has 2g and 5a. Also, they have added Josiah Slavin (17g, 22a) to their roster from Lincoln.

On defense, team captain Matteo Pietroniro (16g, 24a) has been one of the better two-way defensemen in his second season of USHL action. Not surprisingly, some of that success has come at our expense and he's added a piar of goals and a pair of assists against us this season. He's also their leader in PIMs and is not afraid to get rough or drop the gloves, like he did with Josh DeLuca in a game in Youngstown. John Spetz (8g, 22a) is another player who has played a good game on both offense and defense and could be a player to keep your eye on this weekend and maybe in the playoffs.

I've made my points on the goaltending situation with having the teams owners son as the top goalie on the team. That said, both goalies have had some success against us. Justin Robbins is 21-12-1-0 in 36gp. He's posted a 3.22GAA and a .878SV% with 2 shutouts. Goaltender Reilly Herbst has hit the ice 18 times with a 9-6-1-0 record, a 3.12GAA and a .878SV%. Both are pretty similar goalies, small and athletic, and their numbers are pretty similar. Niether is really what I would consider to be a good candidate for a starting netminder in this league but I would take either as a decent backup. Most of their success comes from the play of the skaters on the team.