|Phantoms came ready to play the Penguins Friday night. Photo: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey|
Written by: Tony Androckitis - Twitter/Facebook
ALLENTOWN - The Lehigh Valley Phantoms (26-10-2) wasted no time tightening up the Atlantic Division standings, scoring early and holding off a late third period surge from rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (29-9-3) to hold on for a 5-3 win to kick off their three-game weekend Friday night at the PPL Center.
The Phantoms took a 3-1 lead into the third period, but back-to-back goals 1:37 by the Penguins tied the game up before Taylor Leier answered back and put the Phantoms ahead for good.
It was a solid night for the Phantoms' top line of Scott Laughton, Colin McDonald and Leier as the trio combined for two goals and five assists. Goaltender Anthony Stolarz stopped 34 of the 37 shots he faced to improve to 9-3-0 on the season.
The win pulls the Phantoms within seven points of the division-leading Penguins with also three games in hand on their rival, who they still have 10 meetings with in the final 38 games of the season.
"You have the games in hand, you have to win them," head coach Scott Gordon said after tonight's win. "Now all of a sudden those three games in hand and tonight's two points make it a one-point differential if we win those three games."
After the jump, a full recap of the action complete with post-game reaction from head coach Scott Gordon and video interviews with Taylor Leier and Colin McDonald.
Head coach Scott Gordon
On the fast starts, goals on opening shifts in 1st & 2nd periods:
Yeah, it sets the tempo for the game. Our guys were ready to play tonight. We had a couple lulls there but overall, the second period we could have easily had another 2-3 goals with the quality chances.On the 4-min PK in the 3rd:
That was outstanding. We made a little adjustment on our kill. We were allowing them a little too easy an entry. We forced them to keep it to the outside and our guys did a really good job executing that.On the Leier-Laughton-McDonald line:
Usually the scoring with offensive players goes in stretches and streaks. You don't want everyone going at the same time because eventually they're going to dry up. Having four lines that can score, somebody picks up the slack every night. The last couple games it's been Laughton's line and before that it was Miele's line. We have gotten scoring from everybody and that makes it harder for the opposition defending us.On kicking off the three-game weekend with win:
It's been a long time since we played Wilkes-Barre and it's a good measure as to where we are at. They were obviously on a pretty good run since the Christmas break For us to be able to come ready to play tonight and beat them is obviously a good sign for our team. Unfortunately we have to put it in the past and get ready for another pretty good opponent tomorrow night.On facing Wilkes-Barre a lot down the stretch increasing importance of the head-to-head series:
There's obviously, it looks like there's a bigger climb because of the fact that we have three games in hand. I was trying to explain to my mother today that she didn't think we had a chance to catch them. I told her we had three games in hand and if we win them we're within three points from them. And she says they might win their games too and I said then we would win the three games. So that was an interesting conversation.
Before the Penguins were able to touch the puck tonight in Allentown, they were already trailing the Phantoms. An opening face-off win by Scott Laughton and instant offensive pressure resulted in the game's first goal coming just 39 seconds into the contest.
Laughton nearly set up Taylor Leier in front for a quick and easy tap in about 25 seconds into the game, but Leier pushed it just wide behind the net where Colin McDonald picked up the puck, circled around behind the net and found Laughton open between the top of the face-off circles.
Laughton made no mistake about it, whistling one past Penguins' goaltender Tristan Jarry to the top shelf for his seventh goal of the season. It also marked Laughton's fourth tally in his last six games.
The Phantoms were coming in waves at the start of the hockey game, putting the Penguins on their heels in the opening five minutes with relentless pressure both offensively and in the neutral zone not allowing the Penguins to muster up much of anything in the early going.Scott Laughton wrists one past Jarry just 39 seconds into the game 🔥#WBSvsLV pic.twitter.com/cuaQYhd3bp— AHL (@TheAHL) January 21, 2017
The Pens were able to respond late in the first period, but not before the Phantoms extended their lead to 2-0 on a T.J. Brennan power play goal. After several great chances on the power play, Andy Miele sent a pass from atop the left wing circle cross-ice to an open Brennan at the right-wing face-off dot. Brennan unleashed a laser of a shot that hit the back bar and popped out of the net as quickly as it went in past the Penguins goaltender.
Brennan's goal moved him into sole possession of 3rd all-time in goals scored by a defenseman in the AHL with 125. It also gave the Phantoms a 2-0 lead with 7:29 left in the opening frame, and Lehigh Valley seemed to be off and running.
But, the Penguins didn't enter tonight's game as the top team in the AHL by accident. They didn't pack it in down 2-0 early in a hostile environment. Instead, they got back to their game and eventually cut the deficit in half with 3:51 left before the first intermssion.
With an offensive-zone face off at the tail end of a Robert Hagg minor penalty, Teddy Blueger was able to win a draw in the left-wing circle where Josh Archibald nudged a puck over to Jean-Sebastien Dea in the slot, who used a Phantoms' defenseman as a screen and beat Anthony Stolarz with a well-placed shot just inside the post.
The Phantoms took the 2-1 lead into the middle frame, but it was the Penguins who seemed to have momentum on their side as the second stanza got underway.
That didn't last long, however, as the Phantoms extended their lead back to two goals on the opening shift - quicker than the 39 seconds it took to open the scoring in the first frame. This time, McDonald got a puck ahead to Leier in quick transition 2-on-1 with Robert Hagg. Leier sent a perfect pass across to Hagg, who converted the odd man rush for his 3rd goal of the season 25 seconds into the period to make it a 3-1 Phantoms lead.
In fact, Lehigh Valley went back to dominating hockey for the first half of the period - out shooting the Pens 9-2 before a mid-period penalty gave the Penguins some life on a power play.
The Phantoms took the 3-1 lead into the third period and appeared to be in trouble 3:14 into the final frame when Brennan was whistled for a double-minor for high-sticking Penguins' captain Tom Kostopoulos.
Instead, the Phantoms penalty kill dominated the four minutes and didn't allow much if any chances to the Pens on the ensuing man advantage - maintaining their 3-1 lead and looking like they were well on their way to the win.
The Penguins didn't quit. They continued to pressure and fire shots from the outside and unfortunately for the Phantoms, the shots started to find their way past Anthony Stolarz and make things very interesting.
First, Ethan Prow's fanned shot bounced around off some bodies before Ryan Haggerty got the final deflection of the puck that eluded Stolarz to make it a one-goal game with 10:46 left in regulation.
In fact, the Pens tallied a game-tying goal just over a minute and a half later on a goal that Stolarz probably wishes he had back. Blueger got a puck up top to David Warsofsky from the half-wall for a quick shot that beat Stolarz before he was in position to make a save - the puck just catching a piece of Stolarz as it trickled into the net to make it a 3-3 game.
Lehigh Valley didn't panick, despite having lost all momentum and facing a brand new game with 9:09 left in regulation. Just a minute later, Taylor Leier tallied his third point of the night on a great individual effort to give the Phantoms the lead back for good.
Leier caught a pass from McDonald in stride and entered the offensive zone with speed 1-against-2. Crossing the blue line, Leier made an expert toe-drag move to elude a defender's stick and rifled a wrist shot to the top right corner of the net - the quick release beating Jarry to the spot and re-establishing the Phantoms' lead at 4-3 with 8:09 left to play.
Chris Conner tallied an empty net tap in goal on a feed from Cole Bardreau with 49.1 left to play to cap the scoring at 5-3.
ROSTER NOTES - Phantoms
Anthony Stolarz (34 saves - 37 shots) got the start in net tonight for Lehigh Valley.
The Phantoms loaned defenseman Reece Willcox and forward Radel Fazleev to the Reading Royals today in advance of tonight's game. Since both were expected to sit as healthy scratches, better for the rookies to get ice time in nearby Reading versus not playing at all.
Reece Willcox had been a regular healthy scratch as the team's seventh defenseman of late, but it was Will O'Neill sitting as the odd man out in the Phantoms' most recent game on Monday afternoon in Springfield.
I expect it was just a game off for O'Neill after a physical weekend for him in back-to-back games against Hershey last weekend. Since his glove-on punch after the December 26th game against the Bears, O'Neill has had a target on his back and Hershey has been coming at him after the whistle just about every time he's on the ice.
Boyd Gordon made his Phantoms' debut tonight after clearing waivers and being reassigned to Lehigh Valley from Philadelphia last weekend. Nicolas Aube-Kubel was the lone healthy scratch for Lehigh Valley.
Scratches: Nicolas Aube-Kubel (healthy)
Lines (Starters in Bold/Italics)
Taylor Leier - Scott Laughton - Colin McDonald
Danick Martel - Jordan Weal - Corban Knight
Greg Carey - Andy Miele - Chris Conner
Cole Bardreau - Boyd Gordon - Mark Zengerle
T.J. Brennan - Mark Alt
Will O'Neill - Robert Hagg
Sam Morin - Travis Sanheim
Anthony Stolarz - Alex Lyon
0:39: LV - Laughton (7) - McDonald, Leier
9:42: LV - (PP) Morin, minor (interference)
11:20: WBS - (PP) Pouliot, minor (slashing)
12:31: LV - PPG Brennan (12) - Miele, Weal
14:08: LV - (PP) Hagg, minor (tripping)
16:09: WBS - Dea (10) - Archibald, Blueger
0:25: LV - Hagg (3) - Leier, McDonald
2:58: WBS - (PP) Percy, minor (holding)
10:24: LV - (PP) McDonald, minor ()
11:38: WBS - (PP) Percy, minor (hooking)
15:27: WBS - (PP) Warsofsky, minor (hooking)
3:14: LV - (PP) Brennan, double-minor (elbowing)
9:14: WBS - Haggerty (4) - Prow, Rowney
10:51: WBS - Warsofsky (8) - Blueger, Percy
11:51: LV - Leier (8) - McDonald
19:11: LV - ENG - Conner (10) - Bardreau