Phantoms start playoffs tonight

YOUNGSTOWN — With the regular season over for the Youngstown Phantoms, their journey for the Clark Cup begins tonight at 7 at the Covelli Centre against the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

The first-round series is best-of-three and all three games would be played in Youngstown, tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday, if necessary.

The Phantoms almost had an extra week to prepare but finished one point away from getting the second seed in the playoffs, which would have given them a bye in the first round. Youngstown rebounded from a 2-6-0-2 start and went 12-3 in their final 15 games to end the season with a 36-21-1-4 record and 77 points.

Despite the rough start, Phantoms coach Brad Patterson stuck to his message and it paid off well for the team.

“Our message at the start of the year was to get better every day,” Patterson said. “It wasn’t to come out and sweep through the first two months of the season. We knew it was going to take time and it would be a process. The guys all bought in. We started off 0-6 but we finished strong and that’s how you want to do it.”

Connor MacEachern summed up the Phantoms’ season after the final regular season game Saturday against the US National Team Development Program. Even with the lumps early on, the team continues to finish strong.

“If we have a slow start we always find a way to come back, and we’re always dominant by the end of the game for sure,” MacEachern said.

The Phantoms finished as the third seed in the Eastern Conference of the United States Hockey League and Dubuque is the sixth seed. Last season the Phantoms swept Dubuque in the second round of the playoffs, but they’re a much different team from last season, according to Patterson.

“Everyone’s different,” Patterson said. “But they still have the same staff, they play a lot of the same way, they have some guys that we’ll have to key in on. It’s going to be a huge test.

Phantoms forward Joey Abate, who was on the roster last season, sees the differences as well.

“They’re a way different team,” Abate said. “They were a younger team last year and now this year they’re a little bit older with some veteran guys who played college. Three guys came back, like Brett Murray, so they’re a little more experienced. We know what we have ahead of us. We just have to go in with a game plan that coach is going to lay out for us and just execute.”

Murray finished second in the league in scoring, ending the regular season with 41 goals and 35 assists, good for 76 points. He finished four points behind the USHL’s leading scorer, Nick Abruzzese from Chicago.

Dubuque has the USHL’s third-leading scorer in Matias Maccelli. Maccelli ended his regular season with 31 goals and 41 assists for 72 points and tied the USHL record for most points scored by a Finnish player.

If the Phantoms win the series, they’ll advance to take on the second-seeded Chicago Steel in the second round. Chicago claimed the second seed with a 37-21-4-0 record, ending with 78 points in the standings, just one ahead of the Phantoms.

The other Eastern Conference first-round series pits No. 4 Cedar Rapids against No. 5 Team USA. Top-seeded Muskegon awaits that winner.

In the Western Conference, top-seeded Tri-City and second-seeded Waterloo have first-round byes. The opening series pit No. 3 Sioux Falls against No. 6 Sioux City, and No. 4. Des Moines against No. 5 Fargo.