It probably would’ve been too much to ask, to have this many things go the Flyers’ organization’s way in a single weekend.
But the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ season — the team’s best season in a decade, the one in which it made its first playoff appearance since before it moved out of Philadelphia — came to an end on Sunday evening, as they dropped a 3-2 game to the Hershey Bears and were eliminated from the playoffs in front of their home crowd at the PPL Center in Allentown. With Hershey’s win, all five games in the series were won by the road team, which is an odd twist on home-ice advantage.
A decent first few minutes for the home team were undone by a Greg Carey high-sticking call, and though the Phantoms were able to continue their run of not having allowed a power play goal in this entire series, Hershey would get on the board just seconds after Carey made his way back onto the ice. Hershey’s Stanislav Galiev took a pass in the slot, cut towards the net in alone on Martin Ouellette, and in making the initial save Ouellette fell to the ice and couldn’t collect the rebound before Galiev got to it and flipped it in.
It took the Phantoms a few minutes to get going after that goal — in fact, they didn’t get their first shot on goal of the game until around the 9:30 mark, though they had a couple of misses and blocked shots before then. But the scales were still tipped a bit towards Hershey — for what may have been the first time in this series, the Bears had gotten out to a pretty strong first period.
And they’d cash in on that once again, doubling their lead about 11 minutes into the first period. A point shot was deflected past Ouellette by Christian Thomas, on a goal that the goalie didn’t have much chance to stop.
Thomas deflects a shot past Ouellette. 2-0 Bears. pic.twitter.com/pw3KWOIY3X— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) April 30, 2017
That second goal seemed to serve as a bit of a wake-up call for the Phantoms, who saw most of their best chances of the first period come in the final seven minutes. A breakaway by Danick Martel was turned aside by Bears goalie Pheonix Copley with 6:35 left in the period, and about 25 seconds later a one-timer from Cole Bardreau was also stopped by the Hershey netminder.
Some more pressure would follow, but the Phantoms would head to the locker room down 2-0 in goals and 8-7 in shots on goal after 20 minutes.
Fortunately, the strong play from the last tail end of the first period carried over to the second, in which Madison Bowey tripped Greg Carey behind the net and gave the Phantoms a power play just over a minute in. They’d take advantage, getting on the board as a point shot from Travis Sanheim would bounce off the back boards and right to Colin McDonald in front of the net.
The Phantoms were able to keep the pressure on, but as the period went on the game became even more back-and-forth as both sides had some near-misses on great chances in transition. The 10-8 shot count for the period (with Lehigh Valley having the 10) probably didn’t do justice to the number of good chances both teams had, as well as the number of times where either team just couldn’t quite get the puck to an open man in time.
Late scrambles for both squads — Hershey with just over two minutes in the period, Lehigh Valley in the frame’s final 25 seconds — went for naught, and the Phantoms would head to the locker room with 20 minutes to find a goal and extend their season. This was something the Phantoms had some experience in — their nine third-period comeback wins this year led the AHL.
But after a couple of scoring chances early in the third period, disaster nearly struck for the home team. Sam Morin would clear the puck over the glass from behind his own goal line to put the Phantoms on the penalty kill, and 36 seconds later, a high-sticking call on Scott Laughton would force the Phantoms into a 3-on-5 situation — one in which they’d be without two of their best penalty killers — that looked like it could mark the end of their season if they didn’t kill it off.
But they’d do just that. Some strong defensive efforts from Robert Hagg and Mark Alt would help matters, and Ouellette made some key saves and freezes of the puck to help kill things off. At that point, the game figured to head in one of two directions: either the Phantoms would capitalize on the opportunity they’d just created for themselves and ride that wave to a tie game, or the Bears would build on the pressure they’d created during that 5-on-3 and make it last the rest of the game.
Unfortunately, things tended to trend towards the latter option. The Phantoms found themselves on their heels for much of the time after that 3-on-5, icing the puck a couple of times and losing nearly every faceoff they’d take. And just over six minutes into the period, Hershey would finally bang the door down, as three Phantoms stuck along the boards could only watch as Colby Williams would put home a Nathan Walker pass in front to double the Bears’ lead.
The Phantoms continued to find themselves reeling, only really starting to generate pressure around the halfway mark of the third period despite the two-goal deficit. But after Martel was denied again in close by Copley, the Phantoms pushed hard, and with just over seven minutes remaining, Taylor Leier would collect a Scott Laughton neutral-zone deflection that trickled past Bowey and get just enough of it to get it behind Copley and cut the lead in half.
The Phantoms would spend most of the rest of the game in Hershey’s zone, but a push with an extra attacker in the final minutes would not result in the game-tying goal and the team would lose by a score of 3-2.
Though their season is over now, it was quite fun to see playoff hockey at the AHL level again, and watching the Phantoms rally from down 2-0 in the series to force a winner-take-all game was a treat. This has been a tremendous season for the boys in Lehigh Valley, and though it’s tough to say quite what their roster might look like next year as various players move on up to the Flyers, they should hopefully be a force in the AHL for years to come.