Well, if you are reading this, we're back in full swing. With updates being a little hit or miss the past couple weeks, it's good to be back to normal operations. The (16-19-5-1) Phantoms need to get back to "normal" and by that I mean .500. That's not happening this weekend but we can get close. And to help we have the Muskegon Lumberjacks (18-19-4-0) rolling into town and we've had a lot of success against them this season.

First up is offense. The 'Jacks have had a few issues scoring, same as us. Danil Gushin (18g, 20a) and Alex Gaffney (12g, 16a) are the names that have been mentioned a lot this season, I've covered them enough. Rhett Pitlick (12g, 22a) will be the big focus of this preview. Rhett, a 5th round Montreal Canadians draft pick, isn't the power forward his older brother Rem, former 'Jacks forward and the USHL's 15-16 season goal-assist-points leader/Player of the Year. Rhett is a smooth, hard skating forward with soft hands. His speed and agility can throw defenders for a loop, good luck getting a solid hit on him when he's moving.

Christophe Fillion is a guy who's flown under the radar but is now third on the team in scoring with 11g, 18a. He notched a pair of goals against us on New Years Eve in the 'Jacks only win against the Phantoms this season. Cameron Berg, a fast skating forward, came to the 'Jacks in December in a trade from Omaha where he was originally tendered. He has 16g and 12a in 38 games, 14 of his goals and 10 of his assists came in 24 games in Muskegon.

Well, the Phantoms (16-17-5-1) are still struggling to break the .500 mark again. Last weeks 3 of 4 possible points against Cedar Rapids was offset by the previous 1 out of 6 points to Green Bay. That leaves us pretty much spinning our wheels in the 6th spot in the East. That's the good news for the week. The bad news is, this week we get our first taste of the Eastern Conference's 2nd place team, the Dubuque Fighting Saints (25-9-1-0). A lot has been said in the media about the Chicago Steel's loaded roster, overlooking the Saints and what might be one of the most exciting offenses we've seen in a while. Let me tell you why this squad is worth the price of admission.

The offense for the Saints is lead by the '01 born Jackson twins, Ty (13g, 32a) and Dylan (16g, 26a). They're not the biggest players in the league but they're fast, they're crafty, and they can give your defense fits trying to keep tabs on them on the ice. They have the vision, IQ, and the creativity to match their speed, and that makes them as dangerous as any linemates in the league. Riese Gaber isn't related by blood to the Jacksons but he is certainly cut from the same cloth (24g,12a). You can just go back and reread the description of the twins and you know what Gaber is about. Mark Chermeta, (15g, 22a) is a good east-west player who can pull the trigger on a shot or set up for a pass. Former Central Illinois Flying Ace Stephen Halliday (8g, 17a) is the only Saint currently on the NHL's scouting report. Halliday is a bigger forward who can use his size and passing ability to make plays. He's fairly cool-headed and able to think on his skates.

On the blueline, they have a good core group. Aiden Fulp (1g, 9a) is a seasoned USHL defensemen with a good head on his shoulders. Braden Doyle (7g, 19a), a 6th round L.A. Kings draft pick,  is a good offensive defenseman who has good poise, skating and play making ability. If he manages to get a little better at defensive positioning, he might be a force to reckon with. Kaelan Taylor and Luke Robinson are both very good at keeping the puck out of their own net and have a +/- of +20 and +19, respectively.

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.