ALLENTOWN— Another loss for the Phantoms and fans are starting to hit the panic button.
Lehigh Valley (21-19-4-1) dropped their third in last five contests, and seventh in two weeks on Wednesday in a 4-3 defeat against Worcester (24-16-3-2), but don’t be fooled by the score, the game was not nearly as close as it looks.
Despite taking an early lead thanks to a power play goal from Jason Akeson, the Phantoms allowed four unanswered goals from the Sharks, who are eagerly in the hunt for a playoff run in their last season in Worcester.
With two linesmen and two referees on the ice Wednesday, the Phantoms struggled to get a good flow going, which was apparent as the Phantoms struggled to get any offensive momentum.
D-man Brandon Manning said it felt like there was a whistle every few seconds, as the refs tried to "one-up each other" on calls. Manning was called three times in the first period alone, and was responsible for eight of the Phantoms 19 penalty minutes (comparatively, a mellow game considering the Phantoms average more than 25 penalty minutes per game).
"I don’t think the two-ref system works very well, you run into a guy out there and you get a penalty," Manning said. "We're grown men here – we’re playing hockey, not soccer. I think it’s embarrassing half the time."
Multiple botched calls along with critical no-calls came from the NHL-officials, including one that could have seriously injured goaltender Rob Zepp.
Late in the third period, Zepp was pushed down in the crease by a blue jersey and was slow to get up. With no interference call, play continued and just seconds later Zepp allowed Worcester's fourth goal of the night. During post-game Zepp, said he tweaked his neck in the fall, but feels fine now.
Late in the third period the officials botched another call that somehow went in favor of Lehigh Valley.
Less than two minutes remaining in the third period the Phantoms were down 4-1 as Brandon Manning made a shot from left point that appeared to sail past Aaron Dell to hit the top white post and immediately bounced out. It appeared that the official reacted off the goal light, was reviewed for more than six minutes before determining that the goal was good (most likely due to insufficient evidence).
During post game however, Manning said the puck never went into the net.
Zack Stortini added the Phantoms' third goal with 2.5 seconds left in regulation. If the Phantoms had two more minutes to spare, maybe they could have won it.
- Zepp was outstanding Wednesday, saving 40-of-44 shots, the second most he's faced this season. The 33-year-old said he felt great, and despite the loss, said he left the game feeling good about his performance. As he should.
- With tonight’s points, Worcester is now tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 53 points and moved up to second in the Atlantic Division, as the Phantoms fall farther behind in the playoff hunt. Phantoms are still six points behind second-place Wilkes-Barre and behind eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
- The Phantoms were outshot 21-12 in the first 20 minutes, with 21 being the most shots allowed in one period all season for the Phantoms.
- Lehigh Valley averages 25.8 penalty minutes, and leads the league in infractions. Worcester, on the other hand, is the least penalized team in the AHL, averaging just over 10 minutes per game.
- Jason Akeson's power play goal was his 10th of the season, moving him to eighth all-time in the Phantoms goal scorers with 68.
Straka's return to Lehigh Valley
Down 2-1 with less than two minutes remaining in the second period, the Phantoms had a chance to even the score with a near-perfectly executed play, as Brandon Manning sent a pass from the point to Petr Straka who stood in front of an open net, but hit the post as he tried to flick the puck past Dell. That miss was a game-changer, as the Phantoms would enter the locker room with little momentum, and would eventually allow two more goals in the following frame.