Phantoms delivering just in the nick of time

Most players wilt in high-pressure situations, which is why sports writers hail such players as John Elway, Joe Montana, Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

Imagine a team seemingly chalk full of players from that mold, and that’s what you get with this season’s Youngstown Phantoms hockey team.

With their backs against the wall on so many occasions during the 2012-2013 season, the Phantoms have managed to climb out of every hole and are now one game away from qualifying for their first Clark Cup final appearance in franchise history.

Just in this past week, the Phantoms have proven their “clutch” status, coming back from a 2-0 series deficit to the best team in the United States Hockey League during the regular season and forcing a Game 5 on the road.

How did the team prolong their season by another six days? Youngstown knows how to win during crunch time.

The Phantoms outscored the Fighting Saints 5-0 in the final 20 minutes of the past two games, and in Game 3, they became the first team all season to erase a two-goal deficit against Dubuque and win.

Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen commented about how jacked up his players become when there’s one period left.

“It’s almost eerily electric between the second and third periods,” Noreen said. “There’s just a feel in our room about the comfort level of going into a third period.”

The change for both teams between the play in the first 40 minutes and the last 20 minutes was uncanny to witness.

It’s like Phantoms were the best team in the league during the regular season. They had the swagger, they dictated the pace and they brought a physicality that makes their normal play look harmless. The Saints have had no answer for it.

Youngstown did all of this with their season on the line, a loss meaning the end of the year. Instead of falling apart, especially in Game 3 when the team was down two goals, the Phantoms reveled in that pressure.

“To be honest, I feel like we’ve been playing like this since February,” goalie Sean Romeo said. “It really feels normal to us. We’ve had to battle through adversity this year, and I think coach (Noreen) has done a good job preparing us for times us this.”

One of the many reasons for the team’s confidence is they have to be one of the best conditioned teams in the league.

In both playoff series, the Phantoms played four games in a five-day stretch, and they won both Game 3’s and Game’s 4 against higher-seeded opponents. The team was so successful in not feeling too fatigued for that many games in a short span that the players wanted to play with a similar schedule in this series.

“We knew we are more in shape than they are,” captain Austin Cangelosi said. “With the quick turnaround, we knew that we’d have the advantage with stamina, and it showed these past two games.”

While the Phantoms won’t have that advantage on Saturday as both teams will have some rest, they still feel confident about their chances.

Considering they once lost 11 of 12 games earlier this season and still made the playoffs, there’s plenty reason to believe in themselves.

“What more fitting situation for this group and the story of this team for this year than to be on the road, against the best team in the league on a Saturday night in a full house with your season on the line?” Noreen said. “It’s the story of our season summed up in a game like that.”