Tom Williams: Phantoms have chance to get some rest
In the first 10 games of the 2018-19 USHL season, the Youngstown Phantoms won just twice. They also earned a point in two shootout losses.
Six points out of a possible 20 is not a recipe for making the postseason. So for the ice hockey team to head into their final four games of the regular season contending for a first-round playoff bye is pretty remarkable.
The Phantoms (33-20-1-4, 71 points) are tied for third place in the Eastern Conference with Cedar Rapids, which has five games remaining. Both are one point behind Chicago (four games remaining) and three points ahead of Team USA (five). Muskegon (80 points) will clinch the top spot with one more point.
Here’s why second place is important. The USHL playoff format has the top six teams in each conference qualifying. The top two teams earn first-round byes. The third- and fourth-place teams get to host all games in the best-of-three first-round series.
The value of getting to rest and heal while the next opponent is fighting to stay alive can’t be overestimated.
A crazy weekend put the Phantoms in position where a bye is still possible. Last Friday in Plymouth, Mich., the Phantoms rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat Team USA’s 17-younger squad, 4-3, in a shootout.
Saturday, the Phantoms played Team USA’s vaunted 18-younger squad that has eight players who could be selected in June’s NHL Draft. The Phantoms lost, 8-1, in a game marred by 33 penalties and 159 minutes in penalties. Six players received game misconducts for a brawl after time expired.
The Phantoms and 18s were scheduled to play again on Sunday at Covelli Centre. But about four hours before puck drop, the Phantoms were informed that they would be playing the 17s because of a scheduling conflict. (Scheduling conflict must be code for common sense because the bad blood generated in Saturday’s game would have spilled over to the rematch.)
“I’d never seen [a switch like that] in my life,” Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson said of the league decision, adding that Saturday’s game was “emotional.
“For me, the guys really stuck up for one another [but] you don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”
Sunday, the 17s again led 3-1 before the Phantoms rallied for a 4-3 win, with Trevor Kuntar scoring the game-winner with 1.5 seconds remaining.
Those two points could be the difference between opening the playoffs on the road for four or five games or staying home for the first series.
Last season, the Phantoms advanced to their first Clark Cup Finals after a wild Eastern Conference tournament. In the regular season, Youngstown finished second to Team USA.
In the 2018 opening round, both lower seeds won (Dubuque over Green Bay and Chicago over Muskegon). The Phantoms then swept Dubuque in a best-of-five series and Team USA ousted Chicago.
In the conference final against the Team USA 17s, the Phantoms split two games at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., then won the next two games at the Covelli Centre.
Hard work and a little luck have put the Phantoms in position to finish strong. The final four games should be fun to watch
Tom Williams is a sportswriter at The Vindicator. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @Williams_Vindy.