|Photo: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey|
Written by: Tony Androckitis - Twitter/Facebook
ALLENTOWN - The Lehigh Valley Phantoms were back at PPL Center Wednesday afternoon continuing their preparation to host the Hershey Bears in Game One of the Atlantic Division Semifinals on Friday night.
The big news of the day came after practice when head coach Scott Gordon told media that defenseman Phil Myers will be joining the Phantoms, though he was not sure of exactly when that will be.
Carter Hart is already with the Phantoms, and was on the ice for his second practice. He was a popular media target today by several Philadelphia outlets that traveled up the Northeast Extension to take in Wednesday's practice.
I talked to several Phantoms players today gauging their excitement levels entering what is for many their first taste of playoff hockey at the pro level. I had an especially interesting talk with Mark Alt about that, who now in his fourth year will be experiencing the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time Friday night. That story will be online tomorrow.
There was also a chat with Mark Friedman, who made his pro debut in the Phantoms' season finale last Saturday night in Binghamton. Friedman didn't look one bit out of place on the AHL blue line and registered his first pro point (an assist) to go along with a plus three in his debut.
Taylor Leier is another guy getting his first pro playoff action this weekend, and he had plenty to say in a 1-on-1 interview with Highland Park Hockey after Wednesday's practice.
After the jump, however, is continuing our Phantoms/Bears playoff preview series with a look at how the two teams stack up against one another. I'll offer my series prediction in my final preview post Friday before Game One.
Chris Bourque - Travis Boyd - Jakub Vrana
Christian Thomas - Chandler Stephenson - Riley Barber
Liam O'Brien - Hampus Gustafsson - Stanislav Galiev
Dustin Gazley - Zach Sill - Garrett Mitchell
Extras: Ryan Bourque and Nathan Walker
Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Taylor Leier - Scott Laughton - Colin McDonald
Greg Carey - Corban Knight - Danick Martel
Cole Bardreau - Andy Miele - Chris Conner
Mark Zengerle - Steven Swavely - Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Extras: Tyrell Goulbourne and Radel Fazleev
Hershey might (still debatable) have the better elite-level AHL scorers, but are a bit top heavy. Lehigh Valley's depth and ability to roll all four lines gives them a slight edge heading into the series.
Christian Djoos - Tom Gilbert
Aaron Ness - Tyler Lewington
Jonas Siegenthaler - Colby Williams
Extras: Matthias Backman, Hubert Labrie and Madison Bowey (injured?)
T.J. Brennan - Max Lamarche
Sam Morin - Mark Alt
Robert Hagg - Travis Sanheim
Extras: Mark Friedman, Phil Myers*, Reece Willcox and Will O'Neill (injured)
The Bears needed to make moves to acquire more help on defense with the injury to Madison Bowey and the overall lack of depth on the blue line, bringing in veteran Tom Gilbert and also Matthias Backman. Lehigh Valley, despite losing a key cog in Will O'Neill, have tons of depth on the blue line with three young and highly-touted A-level prospects as well as arguably the best offensive defenseman in the AHL in T.J. Brennan. Also, Phil Myers is on the way - another top-tier blueliner with size and skating ability. This one is a little more clear cut.
Starter: Pheonix Copley
Backup: Vitek Vanecek
Starter: Alex Lyon
Backup: Martin Ouellette
Prospect: Carter Hart
Again, the Bears needed to bring in help via trade due to inconsistent goaltending that nearly caused them to miss the postseason. Copley coming back to Hershey was the best move they made - he's a game-changer at the AHL level. The loss of Anthony Stolarz to season-ending surgery certainly doesn't help the Phantoms cause in net, but rookie Alex Lyon has had a strong first season of pro hockey and could improve his stock with continued performance in the postseason. Experience vs. youth in net, and you have to side with a proven playoff performer in Copley.
The Hershey Bears are annual contenders, and many on the Phantoms roster acknowledged that when asked about how they think they match up against their Atlantic Division rival. While the two teams don't like each other, the Phantoms locker room admits there's a respect for the Bears players for the fact that they didn't fold at the end of the season in a tough spot and instead rattled off five straight wins to get here.
Much of the Bears' roster this season was also on the squad last year that came up short in the Calder Cup Finals. These guys have been here before, and know what it takes.
Still, despite the fact that two-thirds of the Phantoms Game 1 lineup will be making their pro playoff debuts there are still plenty of solid veterans with experience in the orange in black. Brennan, Miele, Conner, McDonald, O'Neill, Knight and Zengerle have all played in the Calder Cup Playoffs before and most are near point-per-game performers in the postseason.
The players didn't like my "new kids on the block vs annual contenders" storyline, but that's what it really boils down to. The Phantoms are in the process of going from the former to the latter, and what better way to start that than by facing the defending Eastern Conference Champions.
This first round, best-of-five series looks to be a dogfight between two of the best teams in the league. Interestingly enough, despite playing each other 12 times each the three Pennsylvania teams - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Lehigh Valley and Hershey - finished one, two, three in the Atlantic Division this year.
Continue to check back throughout the week for more bonus playoff coverage of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Here's a look at what you might have missed so far: