|Photo caption: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey|
Written by: Tony Androckitis - Twitter/Facebook
Last season, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms failed to ever get ahead and were a sub .500 team throughout the entire 2015-16 season. They entered the second half of the season in 7th place in the Atlantic Division with a record of 17-18-2-1 some 20 points off the division-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Fast forward to 2016-17 and the Phantoms enter the final game of the first half in second place in the Atlantic Division with an impressive 25-10-2 record, kicking off a three-game weekend Friday against rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (29-8-3) with a chance to close within seven points of the 1st place Penguins despite having played three less games.
What a difference a year makes for the Phantoms.
After the jump, three key reasons why Lehigh Valley has been able to turn it around and be one of the top teams in the league through the first half of 2016-17 as well as a look ahead to this weekend's games and the tough test that awaits the Phantoms.
Three Keys To Phantoms' Success in 2016-17
1. Phantoms are getting offense from the defense
Last season, the Phantoms got a total of 38 goals from their defensemen over the course of the season as the team saw 13 different blue liners suited up for at least one game.
This year, just one game shy of half a season, the Phantoms' blueliners have already combined for 28 goals among the eight different players who have suited up for at least one game.
Bringing in guys like T.J. Brennan and Will O'Neill in free agency, two of the top scoring defenseman from last season, has been a major part of this recent trend. The addition of Travis Sanheim full-time in 2016-17 also has increased the defense's ability to transition the puck up ice quickly - something head coach Scott Gordon had referred to wanting his team to be able to do many times in interviews each of the last two years.
There's no secret that the Phantoms' ability to have their defensemen both join the rush and lead the charge bringing more pucks out and being more adept on the breakout in general has had a significant effect on the team's increased offensive production and increased their overall ability to attack their opponent in a variety of ways.
This Phantoms' team is harder to defend against than they were a year prior as they have plenty of puck-moving defensemen that can pass, shoot and create instant offense.
2. Power play has been powerful
Not only are the Phantoms creating more power play opportunities for themselves in the first half of 2016-17 (4.9 power play attempts per game on average) than last year (4.1 attempts per game average) but the weapons on the power play this season have made opposing penalty kills pay.
The Phantoms power play is ranked 5th best in the league heading into Thursday's games with a conversion rate of 23.5%, better than their 16.7% conversion a year ago - which was good for tied for 15th in AHL. Lehigh Valley has tallied 43 power play goals so far this season in 37 games as compared to just 52 throughout all 76 games in 2015-16.
Greg Carey and his league-leading 13 power play tallies has certainly helped the power play's improvement. Having more weapons like Brennan, veteran center Andy Miele's vision and play-making forwards like Jordan Weal and Taylor Leier makes the new-look Phantoms power play in 2016-17 dangerous on both units. Opposing PK's can't focus on any one player to try to slow Lehigh Valley's power play down anymore.
3. Secondary scoring support (scoring depth)
The Phantoms in 2016-17 are no longer a "one-line team" in terms of offensive production. With Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier on one line, Jordan Weal and Danick Martel on another line and the trio of Greg Carey, Andy Miele and Chris Conner also on a third unique line the Phantoms are creating match up problems for their opponents.
During the Phantoms' last three-game weekend, forward Mark Zengerle found himself as a healthy scratch for one game despite his 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 36 games - a point total that would have him in the top-5 in scoring on almost every single team in the Eastern Conference as well as the leading scorer on a few Eastern Conference teams.
Another healthy scratch at one point or another, Corban Knight spent nearly half of last year in the NHL with Florida Panthers. The kind of depth the Phantoms have this season is second to none in the AHL.
Entering Thursday's games, the Phantoms have 9 different players with at least seven goals. No team in the conference has more than that. Here's the rest of the Eastern Conference in that same category:
Albany (6), Binghamton (5), Bridgeport (5), Hartford (4), Hershey (9), Providence (8), Rochester (5), Springfield (2), St. John's (7), Syracuse (8), Toronto (5), Utica (4) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (8)
Three-Game Weekend Provides A Benchmark
This weekend provides a proverbial midterm exam for the Phantoms to see where they stand up against the other top teams in the Atlantic Division. At the end of the season, the top four teams in the division will match up against each other in the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs in a best-of-five first round series.
Currently the top four teams in the division have separated themselves from the pack, with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Providence Bruins and Hershey Bears leading the way.
Here's a look at the Atlantic Division standings through January 19th's games:
1. W-B/Scranton: 40GP, 29-8-3 = 61 points (.763 PCT)
2. Phantoms: 37GP, 25-10-2, 52 points (.703 PCT)
3. Providence: 39GP, 22-10-4-3, 51 points (.654 PCT)
4. Hershey: 39GP, 19-11-7-2, 47 points (.603 PCT)
5. Bridgeport: 36GP, 19-15-1-1, 40 points (.556 PCT)
6. Springfield: 37GP, 15-15-5-2, 37 points (.500 PCT)
7. Hartford: 39GP, 14-21-3-1, 32 points (.410 PCT)Conveniently enough, the Phantoms will face the other top three teams in the division in back-to-back-to-back nights starting Friday when they host the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Lehigh Valley will also host Providence on Saturday before visiting the Giant Center for a second straight weekend for a Sunday evening game with Hershey.
We'll have full coverage of Phantoms hockey this weekend on Highland Park Hockey. Make sure you're following along on Twitter on Facebook.