Titans Playing Role In Phantoms Success

By Adam Kimelman
Staff Writer
The Times of Trenton

VOORHEES, N.J. – A team doesn’t win 11 straight games without getting contributions from every part of its lineup.

And for the Philadelphia Phantoms, that has meant major input from a few former Titans standouts.

The Phantoms, who take their club-record streak into Friday’s game against Binghamton, currently feature four players with Trenton roots, including second-leading scorer Mark Murphy and fellow forwards Ben Stafford and Jeff Smith.

In fact, it was Stafford’s overtime goal Sunday against Norfolk that extended the win streak to 10, breaking the record.

“It’s always good to score those goals,” he said. “Take them when you can get them, because they don’t come around too often.”

In Stafford’s only season with the Titans (2001-02), they came around 22 times. He was second on the team that season in goals and points (61), and was named to the ECHL All-Rookie team.

Now in his third year with the Phantoms, his season turned Nov. 5, when coach John Stevens shifted the 5-foot-11, 185-pound native of Edina, Minn., from center to right wing. In six games since the move, Stafford has scored his only two goals of the season, plus picked up two assists.

“We took him out of the middle and put him on wing in the Hershey game and it took off from there,” Stevens said from his Skate Zone office after Thursday’s practice.

“I don’t mind the wing,” Stafford said. “I haven’t played it in a really long time. I kind of like it. With the boards over there, you know nothing’s behind you, you can see the ice a little bit.”

Smith, who spent most of the past two seasons with the Titans, has shifted in the other direction, going from left wing to center for the first time in his career.

“It’s a whole different game playing center than wing,” Smith said. “You have to be more responsible down low. You always have to be the last forward out of the zone. It’s a lot tougher, a lot more skating.”

Now, he works diligently on faceoffs in practice, and once a week he has a film session with assistant coach Craig Berube to analyze the good and bad of his transition.

“I’m starting to come along nicely,” Smith said.

Stevens said he is looking for more consistency, but so far, he’s happy with what the 6-6, 224-pound native of Regina, Saskatchewan, has brought to the ice.

“He has good hockey sense,” he said. “He’s always been a good support guy in the middle. He’s a big guy, skates very well, gets around the ice pretty well. He’s getting better and better. If we’re on the road and (his line) gets stuck out there against a top-tier line, we don’t have a problem with it.”

A big center who skates and checks equally well. Playing in Philadelphia. Remind you of anyone?

“He’s not (Keith) Primeau, but it would be a good comparison,” Stevens said of the Flyers’ captain. “Primeau’s a big guy (6-5, 220) that skates well, he’s always in position. Smitty has a little similarity. Big man, can skate pretty well. And Primeau can score on you; Smitty, once he gets going, he’s got better hands then you’d think.”

While Smith may never score like Primeau – career totals: three seasons, 10 goals – he’s more concerned with trying to bring a high intensity level to the ice every night, much like Primeau does.

“Coach (Stevens) is always saying we have to bring energy to the team. Even if you’re not playing, you still have to be on the bench talking, helping guys out.”

And how about that comparison to Primeau?

“I’m a slow learner,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe in a couple years I can see the resemblance.”

Smith and Stafford haven’t been the only ex-Titans to help the Phantoms this year. Defenseman Joey Hope has been on the team all season, and goalie Chris Houle and forwards B.J. Abel and Nick Deschenes have impressed during short stays with the club.

“Clearly they have people down there that can come up here and be good players,” Stevens said.

And the former Titans stay in touch with their Trenton roots.

Smith said he talks to Titans defenseman Stephen Wood often, while Stafford said he follows the team’s progress daily.

“I have a lot of fond memories of Trenton,” he said. “As I think anybody who’s played down there would say.”