Phantoms about to get good look at USHL star
Team USA’s Hughes projected to be
No. 1 pick in upcoming NHL draft
By Tom Williams
Many of America’s best hockey players will descend upon Covelli Centre twice this week. The red-hot Youngstown Phantoms are looking forward to matching up with the projected No. 1 pick in June’s NHL Draft.
“It’s something you’ve got to embrace,” Phantoms captain Craig Needham said of a very unusual scheduling quirk that has the Phantoms playing Team USA four times in five days. Three of those contests will be against Team USA’s 18-younger squad featuring forward Jack Hughes, who recently broke the program’s scoring record. In 99 games, he has 63 goals and 134 points for 197 points.
“He’s ahead of [the Penguins’ Phil] Kessel, [the Maple Leafs’] Auston Matthews, [the Sabres’] Jack Eichel,” Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson said after Monday’s practice at Deep Freeze.
Some hockey observers feel as many as eight players on the 18-younger team could be first-round picks. The others are: forwards Cole Caufield, Trevor Zegras, Alex Turcotte and Matt Boldy; and defenseman Cam York and Alex Vlasi; and goaltender Spencer Knight.
“Caufield has scored more goals than anyone in the history of that program,” Patterson said.
The Phantoms will play the 18-younger on Wednesday morning and Sunday at 5 p.m. at Covelli Centre.
Defenseman Gianfranco Cassaro said he won’t have any trouble waking up for Wednesday’s early puck drop.
“It’s always amazing waking up knowing you’re going to be playing some of the best players in the world,” Cassaro said. “You wake up with the mindset that [the competition] is going to make you better in the long run.”
On Friday, the Phantoms will travel to Plymouth, Mich., where they will play the 17-younger squad on Friday and the 18-younger team on Saturday.
“We’re going to be playing their top guys — they are going to be playing in the NHL, going to be superstars,” Needham said. “It’s cool, something [to remember].
“I like going against those top players to try and shut them down because it’s a challenge,” Needham said. “And that’s what you want — you want to be challenged, to be pushed.”
Forward Brett Murray is poised to set a new Phantoms record for regular-season goals. In Friday’s 5-1 win over the first-place Muskegon Lumberjacks, Murray scored his 37th, tying the record Sam Anas (Iowa Wild, American Hockey League) set in 2013.
“He’s tied it the right way, he hasn’t cheated the game,” Patterson said of Murray. “He’s been good for 200 feet, whether it’s our end or their end.
“And he’s been a tremendous leader.”
Of his roommate, Needham said, “It’s no surprise that he’s dominating. I see what he does every day, how he prepares.
“He’s been unbelievable, probably our best player.”
The Phantoms (31-18-1-4, 67 points) have won seven straight games and nine of the past 10 to climb into the thick of the chase for a first-round bye.
The Phantoms and Cedar Rapids RoughRiders are tied for third place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, three points behind the Chicago Steel. Fifth-place Team USA is three points behind.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Cassaro said.