|Photo: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey|
ALLENTOWN - The Lehigh Valley Phantoms (34-17-3) have crept up to within eight points of first place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (38-15-3) with two games in hand on the Penguins and seven head-to-head meetings left - continuing March 8th at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
While they've tightened the gap in the Atlantic, third and fourth place are now closing in as well. In fact, the Phantoms are no longer in 2nd place in the division.
Providence, with the pair of regulation wins over Bridgeport and a shutout of Springfield Sunday, moved up to 2nd place in the division - four points behind first place Penguins and two points ahead of third place Lehigh Valley while also having played two more games than the Phantoms.
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers went on a seven-game win streak before a pair of one-goal losses to the Providence Bruins over the weekend. Despite a win Sunday against Hershey, the Sound Tigers are fighting for their playoff lives currently in the 4th and final playoff spot in the division - three points ahead of Hershey with two games in hand on the Bears.
The Philadelphia Flyers have seen their top minor league affiliate miss the postseason seven consecutive seasons and while qualifying for the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs is anything but a guarantee in an Atlantic Division that currently boasts the five best teams in the Eastern Conference, this year's Phantoms team has not only the confidence but the will and determination to make the 2016-17 campaign one to remember for hockey fans in the Lehigh Valley.
Atlantic Division Playoff Picture
Standings through 2/26's games
1. W-B/Scranton: 56GP, 38-15-3, 79 points (.705 PCT)
2. Providence: 56GP, 32-15-5-4, 75 points (.670 PCT)
3. Phantoms: 54GP, 34-17-3, 71 points (.657 PCT)
4. Bridgeport: 54GP, 34-18-1-1, 70 points (.648 PCT)
5. Hershey: 56GP, 28-17-8-3, 67 points (.598 PCT)
6. Springfield: 55GP, 23-23-7-2, 55 points (.482 PCT)
7. Hartford: 55GP, 20-30-3-2, 43 points (.409 PCT)
The final 22 games of the Phantoms' regular season commence Friday night in Springfield in the beginning of a three-game weekend on the road against the Thunderbirds, Saturday in Hartford against the WolfPack and Sunday in Providence against the Bruins. For most of the players in the locker room, it's a much different feeling this time of year than it was during the 2015-16 season.
"It hasn't happened since I came over," Robert Hagg, in his third full season in North America, said about playing meaningful hockey down the stretch. "I think it's the first year we are in a playoff spot at this time [of the year]. It's kind of awesome."
Sam Morin, in his second pro season, echoed some of Hagg's sentiments.
"It's really exciting. We need to keep going," Morin said, re-emphasizing the Phantoms have to remain focused down the stretch. "We have [many] big games - [more] against Wilkes-Barre again, but we need to think about Friday first, and be ready for Springfield. We need to play a full 60-minute game."
Phantoms' offense from defense a major factor in team's success in 2016-17
One key difference from last year's Phantoms team to this season's squad is their ability to create offense from their defenseman, albeit with them joining the rush or playing the role of the trailer. The Phantoms' ability to have their defensemen bring the puck up ice with confidence has aided their success to date.
"I think a lot of the offense comes from them playing sound defensively, and that's something we've stressed all year," assistant head coach Kerry Huffman said earlier this week at practice. "Take care of your own end, and the opportunities will come. It seems like when you start to push for goals, and push for offense, then other things seem to break down. The guys are getting it, and understanding that."
Entering the final days of February, Phantoms' defensemen have scored a combined 43 goals so far through 54 games - at least nine more goals than any team in the Eastern Conference has received from their blue liners. In 76 games last season, Phantoms' defenders combined for just 38 goals in the entire season.
"He wanted the [defense] to be more active, join the rush and stuff like that," Hagg recalled of a conversation with head coach Scott Gordon early on in the season. "I think it's a bit of that, and we have a lot of skilled guys on the team so we can join the rush and guys know when you can go and when you can't," he explained of the defense's increased production this season.
Flyers GM Ron Hextall was busy in the offseason adding pieces to the puzzle of building a playoff-caliber AHL squad. His off-season free agent signings on the back end were arguably the most important in establishing what the Phantoms' identity would be before they even stepped onto the ice.
"You could see when T.J. and Will came to this team, I think they bring another mentality," Morin explained, expanding on the defense core in Lehigh Valley. "I think when you get one year here in this league you feel way more confident. And we have Travis and he's unreal with the puck. I think our skills on the blue line is way better than last year for sure."
T.J. Brennan and Will O'Neill are elite-level offensive defensemen at the AHL level. They finished first and third in points among defensemen in the league last year, and Brennan has been named the AHL's best defenseman in two of the last three seasons - recently moving into second place all-time in league history for goals by a defensemen with 130 career AHL goals. O'Neill was a 50-point defenseman with the rival Penguins last season, and has been a great addition to the AHL roster for the Phantoms this year.
Last Sunday in Utica, the offensive production from the back end was on full display. Brennan tallied a hat trick to mark his place in the AHL record books while his defense partner Hagg tallied his first multi-goal game of his pro career.
"That was definitely something special," Brennan said of his milestone goal and the combined five goals between the same defense pairing. "It was a pretty crazy game, with Alt going down early in the game. We had two [defensemen] in the box at one point, and I think Swavely and I were next to go out as a pairing in the middle of the second period, so it was a crazy game."
Lehigh Valley's ability to have offensive contributions from a number of their defensemen has created a well-balanced offensive attack that is hard to stop as evidenced by their league-leading 197 goals scored on the season.
Weekly Wrap Up
Friday, February 24th: Lehigh Valley - 3 at Springfield - 5
The Phantoms began the weekend with their first of two consecutive Friday nights in Springfield taking on the Thunderbirds.
Springfield isn't going to catch the playoff teams in the Atlantic Division, but they're making it tough for contenders to gain any kind of an edge in the standings when facing them. The Phantoms return to Springfield next Friday night for a rematch.
Saturday, February 25th: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton - 4 at Lehigh Valley - 3 (OT)
The Phantoms-Penguins season series will feel like a seven-game playoff series before the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs begin in mid-April if Saturday night's game was any indication.
The intensity was at an all-time high as both teams knew what was at stake. Penguins' defenseman Barry Goers played the role of hero Saturday at PPL Center, but it will be interesting to see how the final seven meetings play out and how much of an impact the season series will have on the Atlantic Division's playoff picture.
Wednesday, March 1st: Trade Deadline Day
- Our annual trade deadline live blog will be linked here as soon as its online.
- New this year is our AHL Trade Tracker, helping AHL fans keep up with how all the trades affect the 30 AHL teams across North America.
- No matter the size of a trade, there are plenty of ways the deals leading up to Wednesday's trading deadline can help shape the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs picture.
Friday, March 3rd: Lehigh Valley at Springfield - 7:05 p.m. ET
Saturday, March 4th: Lehigh Valley at Hartford - 3:00 p.m. ET
Sunday, March 5th: Lehigh Valley at Providence - 3:05 p.m. ET
Steven Swavely blocked a shot during the third period last Sunday in Utica, and left the game. It's safe to say Swavely will likely miss several weeks as he was seen at Thursday's practice with his left hand/wrist in a cast.
Taylor Leier (concussion) missed his 11th straight game Saturday, having not played since the AHL All-Star challenge on January 30th. Leier skated briefly with the team at practice Thursday at PPL Center, but was the only skater wearing a green jersey and he exited the ice about 15-20 minutes after I arrived for the 10:30 practice. There are no updates being given on Leier's status or a timetable for his return from Phantoms' head coach Scott Gordon.
Boyd Gordon, who left in the Wednesday home game against Binghamton after a sliding BSens' forward crunched into his legs in the corner boards, is expected to miss a few weeks with a knee injury.
Injured list: Steven Swavely (upper body since 2/19), Taylor Leier (concussion symptoms since 2/3) and Boyd Gordon (lower body since 2/8)
Lines from Saturday's game:
Cole Bardreau - Scott Laughton - Colin McDonald
Greg Carey - Corban Knight - Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Danick Martel - Andy Miele - Chris Conner
Radel Fazleev - Chris McCarthy - Mark Zengerle
T.J. Brennan - Robert Hagg
Will O'Neill - Mark Alt
Sam Morin - Travis Sanheim
Alex Lyon - Anthony Stolarz