Happy start of the regular season, everybody! Hockey is officially back and we’re bringing you content, and today we’re here to introduce you to something new.
We’re expanding our Lehigh Valley Phantoms coverage, and one of our new additions to the fold is this, a weekly rundown of all things Phantoms, complete with numbers, notes, and breakdowns of standouts. Our first week was only one game, so it’s an abbreviated rundown, admittedly, but we’re here to debut the format, all the same. And, without further ado, let’s get into the content.
Where we are
Week of Oct. 1 - Oct. 7
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|GP||Wins||Losses||Points||Standing in Division|
The Phantoms played one whole game this week, opening up their season at home against the Bridgeport Sounds Tigers (also known as the baby Islanders). And guess what! That one game was a good one. After a slow first few minutes, the Phantoms really took over, and with the help of a couple power play opportunities, got off to the races and ultimately put up five even strength goals (two for Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Greg Carey, and one for German Rubtsov), before the ultimate empty netter for Phil Varone made it six and sealed up the win.
Did I just choose him because I just wrote about how he’s primed to have a big season, and saying that he’s off to a good start makes me sound good and smart? No… NO… SHUT UP OKAY.
In all seriousness, Aube-Kubel is in fact off to a good start. By the eye, he was zipping around the ice and looking dynamic, pretty much right out of the gate. He put up (blank) shots and did well in controlling entries into the offensive zone to give he and his linemates a better chance to create more and higher danger shots, to be active on the rush. He put up three shots on the nights, and a 52.94 CF% at 5-on-5, both ranking him second among forwards.
And of course, there was the matter of those three points put up on the board. Let’s go to the tape real quick.
Steal.— LehighValleyPhantoms (@LVPhantoms) October 7, 2018
So two absolute lasers on chances on the rush (more on that later), plus an assist on Greg Carey’s first goal made for a pretty neat night for Aube-Kubel, and once again all of those points came at 5-on-5, he hasn’t even seen a boost from being on the top power play unit yet. And, in all fairness, Carey’s first goal was all but a power play goal—a result of the setup but just coming seconds after the penalty expired—and that top unit showed some spark in its regular season debut. We might only just be scratching the surface.
It’s happening, folks! The Carter Hart Era is upon us! Hart played his first pro game on Saturday, and there were certainly some nerves happening (more for us, probably, he’s like the kind of zen), but they would up being needless. After we let out a collective breath after he made his first stop of the evening, it was more or less smooth sailing from there.
The most flash came from the two big stops on shots on breakaways, but otherwise it was a steady performance from Hart. He stopped 31 of the 34 shots he faced, and we can’t even really begrudge him two of those goals, with the first coming after the puck deflected in off Kieffer Bellows’s skate on a Bridgeport power play, and the second, even though he thinks he could get that one back, being a shot that beat him on a 3-on-5 penalty kill. We’re not too riled up about those. Otherwise, his positioning was solid and he flexed that insane vision. And, perhaps most impressive (and least surprising because, you know, zen king), was his recovery, how he wasn’t rattled by those goals and just kept with his game. He remained steady and he did his job, and he helped get his new team the win on his very first game. And that’s pretty nice, as far as pro debuts go.
With the new season comes some new faces, and it’s always a bit of a thing of suspense, waiting to see how the rookies will settle in. And the Phantoms got a bit of good news in the regular season opener—the rookie skaters are settling in nicely. We mentioned Rubtsov above, as he tallied the fourth goal of the night, but perhaps even more noticeable than him was his linemate David Kase.
Kase flexed some impressive speed across the night, showing no trouble keeping pace, or just plain blasting up ice when needed. His defensive side was solid, as he showed a solid poke check and used that speed to be disruptive in his time on the penalty kill. And then, on the offensive side, there was this very nice to Rubtsov for his first point as a Phantom.
The only real rough piece of his performance was the 26.67 CF% at 5-on-5. Which was not great, we’ll concede, but we’ll still give him a chance to turn it around. If he’s getting regularly thrashed after a couple of weeks, we’ll get nervous, but we won’t get too worried just yet. It was his first game with his new team in North America, so it isn’t unbelievable that we’ll see a bit of an adjustment period, but if nothing else, Kase still brought a nice little flash, a look at his potential.
1.Below the red line
We’re going micro, here, for a moment, pals. One of the emphases in the Phantoms’ play from last season that stuck out most was the continued generation of scoring chances starting with a pass from below the red line. Intuitively, we know this should be a worthwhile and dangerous play—the goalie gets moving, is looking behind them, and opening up space, while the defense has to get creative with their coverage of players both in the crease and behind the net—and if executed properly this type of bang-bang play can let them rack up goals and chances.
It was something of an open question, whether or not the Phantoms would continue to emphasize this play, with the departure of Mikhail Vorobyev as one of their biggest utilizers of it. And guess what, they’re still doing it. Saturday’s game, just the way things panned out, saw more chances generated on the rush, but we did see a bit of this “passes flung out from behind the net to the guy parked in front” sort of action, as well. And, of course, it’s just one game so it remains an open question, whether they’ll stick with this going forward. But if nothing else it was encouraging to see a flash of them sticking with what was working for them last season.
2.Phantoms got wheels huh
In the wise words of Kelly Hinkle, as dropped in our slack chat, “Phantoms got wheels, huh?” And they do! And even if it may sound like something of a basic statement, it’s really hard to overstate just how big of a deal this is.
It’s no secret, the Phantoms had a lot of trouble in the Eastern Conference Final against the Toronto Marlies because they just couldn’t keep up. They were playing with pace in the earlier rounds, but something was lost in that last one, and they ended up a half step behind. And there might have been a worry that this would seep into the new season, but it seems there’s none of that to be had. It’s not even just that they’re a team made up exclusively of very fast skaters and that’s all that’s happening here (heck, they lost probably their fastest player, Danick Martel, to Tampa Bay on waivers a few weeks back). To be sure, they do have guys with more than a generous amount of individual speed, but working just as well is the collective’s transition speed, how well they’re connecting on passes and getting the puck up ice. Bridgeport saw it firsthand just how difficult it can be to defend against that style of play, and if the Phantoms can keep that up through the rest of the season, they could be dangerous.
A look forward
The Phantoms will play a home and home this weekend on Friday and Saturday against the Springfield Thunderbirds. Having only played one game, there’s not too much that we can say about them at this point, other than that they lost that game in the shootout, and they’re hanging out tied for third in the division. So we’ll be getting our first look at them this weekend, when we’ll compile some more nuanced thoughts on them then. And we’ll see if the heads of steam that the Phantoms started the season with can hold into the matchup.