More time together - that is on the line when the Youngstown Phantoms take on the Dubuque Fighting Saints in a series-deciding game tonight.
The winner of Game 5 in the United States Hockey League Eastern Conference final will stretch its season out at least two more weeks, and for a team as close-knit as the Phantoms are this season, that means as much as clinching the franchise's first Clark Cup final appearance in its history.
"Everyone gets along," Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen said. "When you have an environment like that, not only does it breed success, but it breeds a 'want for more.' What I mean by that is our days are limited here. Bottom line is if we can find a way to win on Saturday, we buy ourselves at least two more weeks together. To this group, that's more important than anything."
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
Jeff Taylor (2) of Dubuque plays the puck in front of the Phantoms’ Markus McCrea (22) and Alfred Larsson (39). Their semifinal series finale is tonight.
Even for a player like forward John Padulo, who's been playing in the junior hockey circuit for five years, the camaraderie between the players has been one of the strongest he's seen.
"I don't think anybody wants to go home right now," Padulo said. "We're having so much fun. We're the tightest group of guys I've ever been around in my five-year career in juniors. We're like a family. Nobody wants to go home yet."
Despite the win-or-go home nature of a Game 5 on the road, Youngstown goes into Dubuque, Iowa with a relaxed nature, as the team has all season long.
Players and coaches alike discussed how even keeled the team is no matter the situation, and that won't change against the first seed on the road in what will be to this point the franchise's and the players' biggest game.
"We're always laid back," Padulo said. "We don't try to put too much pressure on ourselves. It comes down to having fun. If you're not having fun, then you're probably not going to get the result you want. It's a huge game, but we're approaching it like it's any other game."
Although the team is relaxed, the Phantoms know that in order to beat the Saints, they cannot afford to rely on keeping the game close so that a strong third period will be enough to win.
In three of the previous four games during this series, the Phantoms trailed going into the third period and outscored the Saints 7-1 in the final 20 minutes during those games. The only one Youngstown lost was Game 1, in which the Saints took a 3-0 lead before the Phantoms came charging back.
Padulo said if Youngstown doesn't match Dubuque's energy from the start, the game could get ugly fast.
"We need to bring that intensity from the third period in the last two games and bring it in the first," Padulo said. "On Saturday night in the first period, they're going to bring everything they've got. They're going to through the house at us, so we have to be prepared to match their intensity."
While the stars of both teams will be a huge factor, forward Sam Anas said one of the players less known for their scoring prowess might be the difference. In this series alone, Markus McCrea, Alfred Larsson and Eric Sweetman have tallied goals at crucial moments for Youngstown, which helped send the series back to Iowa.
Anas pointed to the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup win over the Detroit Red Wings in 2009 as an example of how the player of third-and fourth-liners are extremely important.
"Game 5's like this and Game 7's in the NHL, you always see an unsung hero who steps up," Anas said. "For the Penguins when they were in the finals, Max Talbot was a no-name guy, and he scored two goals and won the game. It's kind of interesting to see who will step up, but obviously, the top lines still need to do their jobs."
Still, the Phantoms knows this might be the last game they play together this season, and for players like Sam Anas who are moving onto to college hockey at the end of this season, they don't want to want to stop short of at least a berth in the Clark Cup finals.
"The friendships and bonds that I have with these guys and the coaches... I don't want to leave this place," Anas said. "Especially with me not coming back next year, I really want to get this win to stay here for a little bit longer."