Phantoms begin their playoff run

YOUNGSTOWN — It’s playoff season in Youngstown as the Phantoms look to make their second Clark Cup Finals appearance. But before they can do that, they have a gauntlet in the Eastern Conference semifinals to take care of first, starting tonight at the Covelli Centre against the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

“At the end of the season you want to be in top gear,” Phantoms coach Brad Patterson said. “I really like the past couple of months that we’ve had, but the playoffs start and everyone starts with the same record and the same goal. It’s about having the guys ready for Friday night.”

The series against Dubuque is best-of-five with the first two games (tonight and Saturday) in Youngstown, games 3 and 4 (if necessary) in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the decisive game 5 (if necessary) back at the Covelli Centre.

The Phantoms are led on the scoresheet by Matthew Berry (17 goals, 37 assists), Michael Regush (19 goals, 29 assists) and Ohio native Chase Gresock (26 goals, 20 assists). Each of the three have over 40 points on the season. The trio lead a high paced scoring attack that has collected quite a few wins for the team.

The team faced some adversity during the middle of the season, with a rough patch closing off the 2017 portion of their schedule and the beginning of the 2018 portion. The Phantoms are coming into the playoffs on a hot streak, however, only losing four games throughout March and April.

It’s not just the team who is heating up at the right time. Phantoms captain Eric Esposito has lit up the scoresheet with five goals in two games capping off the season.

“I definitely feel good out there, ending the season off with two multi-goal games,” Esposito said. “Those don’t come often so I’m definitely feeling confident going into the playoffs. Which is what you want.”

Dubuque swept its way past the Green Bay Gamblers in the first round to make it to the conference semifinals. The Fighting Saints dominated Green Bay, posting an 8-2 goal differential in the two games. Alex Steeves and Quinn Preston each had four points in the two-game series.

“Dubuque is a team we saw four times back in January,” Patterson said. “They’re very composed as a group. Three great lines up front that can play a whole 200 feet. Every line can score.”

Youngstown won three of the four meetings against the Fighting Saints during the season.

“We’ve seen Dubuque all season, they’re a good team,” Esposito said. “Just like most of the teams in the league. I’m confident in our group. All the teams in the East, I think we have their number.”

The Phantoms return only six players from last year’s playoff team. That hasn’t impacted the chemistry of the group, however. One of the new faces to the team, Joey Abate, is one of the many players to mention the closeness of this year’s team.

“We’ve got a great group of guys,” he said. “It’s 40 minutes after practice and I don’t think anyone has gotten off the ice yet. We just love to be out here, be together, we’re excited for the playoffs. There’s some good teams along the way, but we’re ready for them.”

Dalton Messina is another new face who mentioned the team’s closeness.

“I came over from Cedar Rapids where there’s a good group of guys, but this is just such a tight-knit group,” Messina said. “All the boys love each other, we’re just trying to have fun. We have a saying here ‘our time here is special’ and we’re just trying to make the most of it.”

The closeness of the team isn’t just at the player level. It’s actually been a goal that the coaching staff has hoped to achieve, and Patterson said he thinks that this has happened.

“One of our goals is being the closest-knit team in the USHL,” Patterson said. “That’s something that we pride ourselves on. We have four goals that are attainable, and if we reach those we have a good shot at the championship.

“We feel we’re right there with those goals, if we haven’t reached them already we’re very close. To be able to say that going into the playoffs, I know the guys are energized about that and we also are as a staff.”

Goaltending is an area in which the Phantoms held a clear advantage over the Fighting Saints during the season. Neither goalie for Dubuque posted a save percentage over .900 on the year. Both Ivan Prosvetov and Wouter Peeters surpass that mark with 913 and .902, respectively.

A strength for the Phantoms is their penalty kill which is ranked second in the Eastern Conference, and eighth in the league. That can be credited to the skill of Prosvetov and Peeters in the crease, in addition to a more aggressive penalty kill that pushes the puck into the offensive zone just as well as it suppresses shots.

One standout performer on the penalty kill is Curtis Hall, projected to be selected in the third round of the NHL Draft this year. But the only thing on his mind right now is the playoffs.

“I think we have a great team this year,” Hall said. “Last year we had a lot of hard workers, this year we have the same thing going on, but we have some more guys who can score too. I think this year we have a lot of skill. I’m really looking forward to playoffs, I think we have a real good chance to make a run here. Everyone’s at their best right now.”

If the Phantoms move on to the Eastern Conference Finals, they’ll face the winner of the series between the Chicago Steel and the US National Team Development Program. Chicago was the team that eliminated the Phantoms last season en route to becoming the USHL Clark Cup champions.

“Every year is different,” Patterson said. “This year something that we really like is that we can roll four lines consistently. Everyone’s prone to stepping up in different situations.

“We obviously have guys who lead our team in scoring but some of the most valuable goals you get in the playoffs are from guys you don’t rely on to do that. We’ve seen that all year that we’ve got consistency out of our group.”

“We’re just gonna keep coming hard like we have,” Messina said. “We have the best group of guys, we’re just gonna keep working teams. We’ve been near unstoppable and we want it to stay that way.”