YOUNGSTOWN, OH – Youngstown Phantoms players and coaches are running out of words to describe their goaltender Ivan Kulbakov.
“He’s unbelievable,” said forward Chase Gresock. “Best goalie I’ve ever seen.”
“Ivan’s been our best player,” Alex Esposito remarked. “He keeps us in every game.”
“Ivan rocked back there,” said Phantoms Head Coach Brad Patterson. Kulbakov stopped all 29 shots he saw as the Phantoms (28-15-4-1, 61 points) shutout the Muskegon Lumberjacks 3-0 Friday night at the Covelli Centre. The win vaulted Youngstown over Muskegon and into third place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. The Phantoms sit one point ahead of the Lumberjacks and three points behind second-place Dubuque with 12 games remaining in the regular season.
Kulbakov did a lot of work in the first period to keep the game scoreless. After the Phantoms killed off 1:08 of a 5-on-3 advantage for Muskegon, Kulbakov made a highlight-reel save on Koby Bender, denying the Lumberjack forward what appeared to be an open net. Muskegon outshot Youngstown 12-4 in the opening frame, but Kulbakov held them off the board.
Youngstown finally broke the ice at 16:17 of the second period. Gresock entered the zone late and took a pass from Tommy Apap. Gresock skated past Muskegon netminder Adam Brizgala (18 saves) and threw the puck back through the crease. The puck caromed off Muskegon defender Jack McNeely and into the net to give the Phantoms a 1-0 lead. Gresock was credited with the goal, his 10th of the year.
Esposito doubled the lead 28 seconds later. Former Phantoms defenseman Ty Farmer attempted a clearing pass from his own end, but Esposito picked it off in the neutral zone. After entering the zone, Esposito snapped a wrist shot from the top of the circles that Brizgala got a piece of, but not all of it as the puck trickled across the goal line. It was Esposito’s 13th goal of the year, six of which have come in the eight games Youngstown has played against Muskegon. “They were the team I went to training camp with last year,” said Esposito. “They cut me and I came here. (I have a) Little fire every time I play them.” Austin Pooley’s empty net goal with 1:20 remaining in regulation sealed the victory for Youngstown.
Kulbakov continues his assault on the Youngstown record books, the win tonight giving him 24 for the season as well as his third shutout. Current Ohio State netminder Sean Romeo holds the Phantoms’ win record with 31 in 2012-13 and shutouts with five in the same season.
Youngstown and Muskegon conclude their nine-game season series tomorrow night at the Covelli Centre with a 7:05pm puck drop. Broadcasts of the game will be available on YPHR and HockeyTV.
By the Numbers
Shots – 21
Saves – 29
Power Play – 0/2
Penalty Kill – 5/5
Goals – Gresock, A. Esposito, Pooley
Assists – Apap, Dockery, E. Esposito, Norris
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Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 15th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2016-17. 30 players were chosen in the 2016 NHL Draft and more than 402 players on team rosters this season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.
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