YOUNGSTOWN — Fresh off back-to-back wins against the Dubuque Fighting Saints, the Youngstown Phantoms were energized and ready for the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Steel.
Despite scoring first, the Phantoms weren’t able to hold on in a 4-2 loss.
“I thought, as the score would dictate, it was an extremely close game,” Phantoms coach Brad Patterson said. “I thought we maybe got the better of it in the first, and they did the second, and the third was back-and-forth. It stinks not walking away with points.”
The team’s pace early paid off as Georgii Merkulov scored just under 6 minutes into the first period. Merkulov is the team’s leading scorer with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists).
Chicago, which has the top offense in the league, responded with a goal from league-leading scorer Matt Coronato late in the first. Lukas Gustafsson was the lone goal-scorer in the second period. The Steel scored three consecutive goals as Erik Middendorf made it 3-1 in favor of Chicago midway through the third period.
As time ticked away and an empty net behind them, the Phantoms needed two quick goals to get the game to overtime. Vancouver Canucks draft selection Jack Malone closed the gap as his shot trickled past Chicago goaltender Jack Stark to close the game to a 3-2 Steel lead.
Unfortunately for the Phantoms, they couldn’t get another, and Middendorf scored his 15th of the year on an empty-netter to make the score 4-2 in the waning seconds in favor of Chicago.
Despite playing three games in as many days, the Phantoms weren’t as gassed as one may expect. Youngstown controlled pace in the first period, outshooting the Steel 12-9.
That energy may have stemmed from the Phantoms having the most available players they’ve had all season. The only starter out of the lineup was captain Reilly Funk, who was suspended
“They (the Steel) put you to the test,” Patterson said. “They’re obviously a very fast and skilled team. That being said, all weekend for us, having a full roster was obviously huge for us. Playing like that for the first time since probably the first week of November really motivated our group and energized us.
“Friday and Saturday were great, but at the end of the day, it stings not walking away with points, but we took some big steps this weekend and need to continue to do that.”
Mattias Sholl, who performed well in the team’s first two games, continued to perform, saving 24 of the 27 shots he faced, including multiple highlight-reel saves.
“We were in Chicago a couple weeks ago and he was very similar,” Patterson said. “Made some huge stops, some highlight-reel stuff and you become accustomed to seeing that. Those are the games you want to get done for a goalie. He was great all weekend.”
The Phantoms (4-10-0-0, 8 points) have a three-game road trip Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Michigan as the Phantoms take on Muskegon n Thursday and then have a back-to-back against the US National Team Development Program U17s.
“Both are very very good teams,” Patterson said. “You look throughout the league, and I can say that about every team in the league. They’re extremely talented, they’re extremely deep. We’re going to have to go there and build off what we did this weekend.”
Chicago returns to the Covelli Centre for a weekend series January 22-24.