Williams: Phantoms gave Force plenty to handle

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Tom Williams

The Youngstown Phantoms’ most successful postseason did not end the way Mahoning Valley hockey fans wanted. But it was a wild weekend of mid-May hockey, a Covelli Centre first. The final two games of the Clark Cup Final had hard hits, extremely competitive games and fog. No one there will forget them anytime soon.

Saturday, the Fargo Force clinched their first USHL championship by defeating the Phantoms, 4-2. Fargo won the best-of-five series 3-1, but the Phantoms have no reason to hang their heads.

Both games here were decided late in the third period. In both games, the Phantoms started slow, then came on strong.

With the series tied 1-1, Friday’s Game 3 was pivotal. Late in the second period, the Phantoms had about 3,000 fans roaring when Nicholas Cardelli scored on Force goaltender Strauss Mann for a 2-1 lead.

Then came the play that turned the series. Just six seconds later, the game was tied because of an incredible ricochet. After Fargo’s Grant Hebert won the faceoff at center ice, defenseman Evan Bell shot the puck off the plexiglass to the left. His intention was to get the puck rolling around behind the Phantoms goal where the Force would race to retrieve it.

Instead, the puck hit one of the stanchions that supports the plexiglass. The puck bounced off the metal support and into the Phantoms net behind goaltender Ivan Prosvetov who had moved out to play a normal deflection.

Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson did not fault his goaltender who finished the postseason 7-4. Patterson said you could shoot 1,000 shots into the glass the way Bell did and 999 times it would continue normally around the rink.

Fargo coach Cary Eades said the shocking goal was “really a big play — momentum changer. It was a good bounce for us. It’s not seamless glass like some rinks so you’re going to get some funny bounces.”

Both games ended with the Force scoring late to earn victory. On Friday, Bartek Bison (he’s from Amsterdam but what a great name for a player from the Great Plains) scored with 6:57 remaining. Hebert and former Phantom Griffin Loughran assisted. Loughran also scored Fargo’s first goal.

Saturday, another former Phantom, Ty Farmer, was the Force hero, snapping a 2-2 tie with 3:54 remaining. Farmer played two full seasons in Youngstown and part of a third before being traded to the Muskegon Lumberjacks last season. He and Loughran, who was voted playoff MVP after scoring seven goals, joined Fargo last summer.

Saturday’s game included a foggy first period that created dangerous conditions that forced the officials to halt play three times so the players could skate until the fog dispersed.

Saturday’s power outage downtown place high humidity combined to create the fog. Press box observers also noticed that the smoke created by pregame fireworks in the rafters descended.

Play was choppy and neither team generated much of an offense in the opening 20 minutes.

“Pucks were bouncing,” Patterson said of playing through the mist. “We had a couple of good opportunities that bounced over our sticks. But both teams were playing [in the fog] and that’s not an excuse. The same thing happened to them.“

The fog cleared when the arena operators cranked the air conditioning up to 11. (Spinal Tap veterans will get it).

The other highlight both nights was the energy from the fans. Friday, the Austintown Fitch high School band and chorus entertained, a nice touch. One thing we do extremely well in Mahoning County is produce top-notch high school musicians. Saturday’s highlight was Matthew Barry tying the game 64 seconds into the third period. The Phantoms dominated the next 12 minutes but could not get the puck past Mann.

The Force’s grand finale was not what anyone was hoping to see. But it was a fun journey, one to savor.

Tom Williams is a sportswriter at The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @Williams_Vindy.