September 26, 2013 - United States Hockey League (USHL) - Youngstown Phantoms
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - Anthony Noreen is keenly aware of how things played out the last time the Green Bay Gamblers took the Covelli Centre ice. It was April 21, Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and his Youngstown Phantoms scored twice in the third period to clinch the best-of-five series with a 3-1 comeback win and dispatch the 2012 Clark Cup Champions.
Last season the Phantoms set a franchise record with 19 home wins and were an undefeated 4-0 at the Covelli Centre during the Clark Cup Playoffs, including back-to-back victories over Green Bay in the opening round. Though much has changed for both teams since that Sunday afternoon in April, the third-year head coach said the impact of Youngstown's home-ice advantage hasn't diminished heading into Friday night's home opener.
"Dealing with adversity, it makes it a lot easier when you know you've got a building full of people who are on your side and pulling for you," Noreen said. "That was such an important thing, especially when you look at those playoff games. The energy in that building was the best I've seen since I've been in The League and it was something we definitely fed off.
"Hopefully we can pick up where we left off."
A repeat performance Friday night would be all the more welcome after a lackluster start to the 2013-14 campaign on the road last weekend in Ann Arbor, Mich. Despite seeing five of their top six scorers from last season move on, the Phantoms (0-2-0, 0 points) proved they had no problem putting the puck in the net, racking up a combined nine goals in games against the U.S. National Under-18 and Under-17 Teams.
But in the defensive end Youngstown struggled, a by product of an inexperienced team with more than a dozen new players still adjusting to the overall speed and physicality of the USHL game - and specifically Noreen's 'blue collar' brand of hockey. Newly-named captain Alfred Larsson said the team made a lot of progress in practice this week and it will be crucial to play the "Phantom Way" if they hope to have success against the Gamblers (1-0-1, 3 points).
"We've worked on a lot of stuff - neutral zone, transitions, 'D' zone, offensive zone - that we need to fix from last week," he said. "It's really important that we come out and try to play our game - bang some bodies, block shots and have high intensity."
Larsson along with Markus McCrea and then-rookie JJ Piccinich executed that game plan two a tee last postseason, wearing down Green Bay's flashy forwards and smaller, skilled defensemen with shift after shift of relentless physical play. Piccinich, who recorded just three goals in 63 games last season, may have swung the momentum of the entire series in favor of the Phantoms when he scored to ignite a third-period comeback in Game 2 and even it up returning to Youngstown.
The 6-foot, 185-pound winger already has two goals in as many games in 2013-14, and will be looked on to shoulder more of the load on offense in his second season with the Phantoms, especially with the scoring void left in the wake of Nathan Walker signing a professional deal with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. A goal-scorer at every previous level, Piccinich said welcomes being relied on for more offense this season, and credited teammates for his hot start.
"Obviously those weren't the stats I wanted last year, but it was about doing anything I could to help the team," he said. "This year we've got a great group of guys and they've really helped me put the puck in the back of the net."
When it comes making sure the Phantoms as a whole get off to a better start against the Gamblers this weekend at the Covelli Centre, Piccinich said they already know the winning formula.
"We try not to look at the past at all, but we do recognize what happened here last year," he said. "We're going to try to play the same game - hard-nosed and blue-collar. It's going to be good."
Game Schedule (All games EST)
Friday, Sept. 27: Phantoms vs. Gamblers at 7:05 p.m. - Sports Radio 1240 (tape-delayed)/FASTHockey.com
Saturday, Sept. 28: Phantoms vs. Gamblers at 2:05 p.m. - Sports Radio 1240/FASTHockey.com
Season tickets for the 2013-14 season are on sale now starting at the low price of just $8 a game. Benefits include invitations to exclusive season ticket holder events, discounts at the Phantoms Team Shop and much more. Call 330.747.PUCK (7825) for more information or to reserve seats today. For all the latest news, visit www.YoungstownPhantoms.com, follow the Phantoms on Twitter ( @YtownPhantoms ) and 'like' them on Facebook ( www.Facebook.com/YoungstownPhantoms ).