Going into this year's United States Hockey League playoffs, the Youngstown Phantoms might experience a little deja vu.
At the end of the 2011-2012 season, the Phantoms qualified for the playoffs for the first time since joining the USHL, and awaiting them in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals were the Green Bay Gamblers, the first seed.
That series ended in a lopsided manner as Youngstown lost, 3-1. The Gamblers outscored the Phantoms 20-10 and outshot them by 54 shots.
This season, the Phantoms square off with the second-seeded Gamblers once again, starting tonight in Green Bay. Youngstown hopes this time around will end in a different way than one year ago.
"Last year was our first playoff experience in the USHL," goalie Sean Romeo said. "We didn't know what to expect, and Green Bay's one of the teams that's always in (the playoffs). This year, we'll be ready. We know what to expect, and I think the experience from last year will help us that much more."
As motivated as the Phantoms (37-27) are to get a little payback, they expected to run into the Gamblers (37-23-4) at some point in the playoffs if they Phantoms want to make a run for the Clark Cup.
Green Bay has won four Clark Cups in its history, including two in the past three seasons. The Gamblers also have won the Anderson Cup, given to the team with the best regular season record, three out of the past four seasons.
For Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen, all roads in the Eastern Conference flow through Green Bay.
"This is the team that's set the standard for the last four, five years," Noreen said. "They are the team to beat. We talked about from the beginning (of the season) if we were going to be there in the end, we knew they would be the team we were going to have to get through. We're excited to be able to play them right away."
In order for the Phantoms to be successful, they need to look out for Green Bay's Kyle Novak and Nicholas Schilkey.
This forward duo accounted for 59 goals in the regular season and ranked in the top seven in the league for total points. Novak has a plus-minus of 23.
"Every time they touch the puck, we got to keep an eye on them and track them," captain Austin Cangelosi said. "In the long run, we need to play our game, and I think we're good."
As important as slowing down Novak and Schilkey will be, so too will stopping the Gamblers' power play. Green Bay converted 25.42 percent of its power play chances, ranking second in the USHL.
Working in the Phantoms favor is that during the regular season, killing penalties was their specialty.
Youngstown led the league in killing penalties at 85.96 percent, and the team also scored the most short-handed goals in the league (13). Romeo said Youngstown needs to stay away from stupid penalties, but when the team's down a man, the penalty kill unit must be effective.
"I think it's just the discipline of my teammates, with forwards blocking shots and sacrificing their bodies," Romeo said. "I'd say we're pretty close to leading the league in blocked shots, especially on the penalty kill. It makes a big difference, and it really helps to talk away the point shots."
With the struggles that they had last season in the playoff series, Noreen said his players are looking to set the tone in the first game and take away Green Bay's home-ice advantage.
"The main focus right now is to go and try to win that first game," Noreen said. "If we win that first game, we feel like we have that home ice advantage for the rest of series. Also, to be able to set the tone for the rest of the series and come right out of the gates is going to be the key."