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Marlies 4, Phantoms 3: Take over, the break’s over (please?)

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Some observations for your morning...

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

You guys! It’s happening! The Phantoms are in the Eastern Conference Finals! They’re doing the thing! But they…uh… did not get the series off to a great start. They dropped Game 1, and while we don’t love the result, there were still pieces to like. Let’s talk about them (and all those other things we learned).

  1. Firing early

We’ve been doing a fair bit of talking, leading up to this series, about how the Marlies are the toughest opponent the Phantoms have faced yet, and well, yeah. It’s the Eastern Conference Final, so this makes sense. But the sentiment behind that thought is that they would need to bring their absolute best game, and come out swinging early in our first match up. And we got a taste of that.

They started the first period, before we got into the chippiness, with a fair bit of jump working to establish themselves as a Fast Team, ready to do some damage. And they brought with them some promise—to the tune of three shots in the first 3:11, while allowing none from the Marlies. They had claimed the momentum for themselves and looked primed to strike first and quiet to crowd in Toronto.

But just as quickly as they had grabbed that momentum, well, they lost it (and we’ll be getting into that very soon). It was a nice start, but it needs to be better. So today, and the rest of this run, become not just about creating those quality chances early, but also on closing them, before the Marlies get the chance to inflict their will.

2. Welcome back, Nic Aube-Kubel

We had a whole slew of returns for yesterday’s game, and that’s a whole lot to talk about, but why don’t we start with Aube-Kubel. He had a pretty quite start to the playoffs, and then went and got himself that three game suspension for an illegal check to the head in Game 2 of the Checkers series, but he was back and ready to go for Game 1 of the ECF. So how did he do?

Well, it was something of a rocky start, a less than ideal reintroduction. The initial pressure we just mentioned was flipped and turned into a rush going the opposite way, for the Marlies, and saw Aube-Kubel beat and taking a slashing penalty, and sending Toronto off to the power play (where they would score and pick up their first lead of the game). So, not exactly the way you want to get back into it.

But it wasn’t all bad news for the rest of the game. Aube-Kubel closed out the game, while without a point, with only one proper shot on goal, but about three very nice attempts on the rush, coming down the left wing. And maybe that’s our best sign of life—despite that slow start to these playoffs, we’re still seeing him putting in the work, and the dam’s bound to break eventually, and one hopes this means a bit of scoring for him sooner rather than later.

3. Killing penalties

Since we touched on it in the section above, both of them actually, let’s talk about the Phantoms’ penalty kill. It was that slashing penalty that Aube-Kubel took that halted the strong start for the Phantoms, and instead put them back on defense. But their penalty kill’s be decent through the playoffs, and how are they looking so far?

The addition of Travis Sanheim back into the lineup, and back on the penalty kill, gave them an extra boost, and contributed to their good look early, while killing off that Aube-Kubel penalty—they had a nice initial clear, and then did well to stand the Marlies up at the blue line, but unfortunately that pressure couldn’t hold. Once back in the zone, the Marlies were able to start cycling, generate some traffic in front, and then it was a feed, a deflection, and a power play goal for Miro Aaltonen.

So, that was not great, but it got a little better, if not all around messier, from there. Down two goals in the middle of the second period, Vorobyev took a hooking penalty and the Phantoms were off to the penalty kill again. It wasn’t flashy, but they got the job done, tying the puck up and keeping the Marlies from getting into that cycle that proved so dangerous. But they also had some help, in that they only had to kill about a minute of that initial penalty before Andreas Johnsson boarded Oskar Lindblom, and we went off for 4-on-4. And then that was kind of it. Matching roughing minors were the only other penalties dealt through the rest of the game, and we escaped without a longer look at the Phantoms’ penalty kill (which is maybe a good thing, as they were only just fine).

4. A welcome back to the best Travis in this series

And since we mentioned him up there, and since we’re doing some welcomes back, let’s talk about Sanheim! He’s back too! After getting hurt early in the last series, and taking about two weeks off, it seems he’s back and ready to go for the Conference Final. And boy does he ever look ready.

Even after a relatively brief amount of time off, we still might have reasonably expected to see a bit of rust from him early in the game, but there was no rust to be found. He was mobile and active in that early push and showed no signs of needing to take a moment to reacclimate himself to game speed, even the increased Toronto game speed. He was doing what he does best, and brought it all together on one shift where he skated through and around Marlies in the offensive zone, nearly crashing the net for a chance on goal that just missed. It was a real marvel to behold. Elsewhere, he picked up three shots on goal (tied for the team lead) and an assist on Goulbourne’s goal, after a bit of defensive work helped the Phantoms maintain control of the puck, and set up the rush that led to the goal. He was on the ice for two goals against (one while they were on the penalty kill) but that shouldn’t be indicative of poor work on his part—he came back after the injury stint and was still one of the Phantoms’ better players on the evening.

5. And now panning over…

And because apparently we can’t talk about one of these players in the pairing without talking about the other, it’s time to talk Phil Myers!

We’re not bringing him up just because it’s completely obligatory, he had himself a very good night, on the whole. He too picked up three shots on goal, and his offensive game seemed to be buzzing yesterday—with the Phantoms trailing by two getting into the later part of the first period, it was Myers to send an absolute laser of a shot in from the point on the power play to beat Garrett Sparks and close the gap to just one goal.

But it’s not just his offensive work that needs commending, the defensive side was also working well. Alex Lyon made a series of big saves to keep it at a one goal game (you’ll see them soon, or you could just scroll down, follow your heart), and he was able to do this because he had a bit of space, and was able to see the puck, and he had that space because Myers was stationed in front of the net and got to work in clearing the porch. The good work’s all connected, and what could have been a big chance for the Marlies was thwarted.

Now, Myers wasn’t perfect in this game, and he’ll be the first to tell you, but he set a solid foundation, and can keep building from there.

6. Hemming and hawing

It feels like we’ve spent a lot of time in these similarly themed sections, doesn’t it? It’s the same old story we’ve had to watch again and again, and yesterday was just the next installment.

After that bit of initial pressure from the Phantoms that we talked about earlier, things started to even out. And then the Marlies started to pull momentum in their favor, and they did so by generating sustained pressure in the Phantoms’ zone, that they seemed to be able to do little to break it up. The Phantoms were left chasing, while the Marlies were given time and space to get their cycle game going, and to kick up some potential for dangerous chances.

It was still early when I first started to put this point down, ready to note how getting caught in this cycle would burn them soon, when it did burn them. It didn’t come directly as a result of that cycling, but instead from a failed clear, and a bit of quick passing to center after the puck was freed from along the boards gave way to Aaltonen’s second goal of the evening. The good news is that they didn’t spend the duration of the game caught in their own zone, giving up chances, but this remains one of the areas we alluded to earlier, that needs cleaning up.

7. Lyon time

It also feels like another guy we’ve spent a lot of time talking about is our old pal Alex Lyon, and for good reason—he had the huge game in that quintuple overtime game, but was one of the real stars of the show through the series against the Checkers. As such, it came as little surprise when word dropped that Lyon had earned that start for yesterday’s Game 1, and we knew it would be a big challenge for him.

All this considered, it was something of a mixed bag of results for Lyon. By the numbers, he stopped 28 of the 32 shots he faced for an .875 save percentage, which is, well it’s just fine. And that’s pretty much about how the whole of his game evened out as: just fine. The goals he let in weren’t fully in the atrocious or soft category, but they weren’t impossible shots that beat him either. But he was also able to come up big for them in sequences like this one, to help keep them in the game.

So the good and the bad more or less balance out, even in the face of the loss. Lyon did what he could to keep his team in it, but it just didn’t come together soon enough, and the support wasn’t all the way there. If we see Dustin Tokarski today, it won’t be a huge surprise, but it also won’t be because Lyon completely botched his first showing of the series—he was okay, we know he can be better, and we’ll just have to hope he can pick things up when we see him next.

8. On the neutral zone

We’re getting close to the end of our article, here, so maybe it’s time to circle back to one of our earlier ideas, and how once one problem cleared up, another emerged (so it goes).

A few points back we noted how that Phantoms spent a portion of the early part of the game caught in their own end, and couldn’t seem to find a way to break out cleanly. This didn’t completely clear up, but by the halfway point, they didn’t look so stuck, and were able to make their pushes out of the zone. And that was kind of it. They couldn’t get much further because their efforts to move cleanly through the neutral zone were frustrated. They were left to either chip the puck into Toronto’s zone and go in and chase it, or have it taken away at center ice and chased back into their own zone.

And maybe it felt like a tough thing to complain too much about, at the time—they were still gaining momentum and, with the help of a generous dose of power play time, were able to propel themselves into the lead. But this trouble moving past Toronto’s blue line also hindered their attempts to cushion that lead, a lead that needed cushioning, after all. And so we arrive back at one of our even earlier themes presented—that of the good work the Phantoms’ did offensively, and in working around challenges, but of the work that still needs to be done. Because, and I’m just spit balling here, you’ve got to score goals to win the game, dudes, and you have to get past center to score those goals. Go figure.

9. Loose ends

We’re back at it! Time to close out with our handful of small thoughts.

First up, we talked some, during his NHL debut, about what Lindblom must have done in a past life to deserve all of the bad bounces that he was getting, preventing him from picking up that elusive first NHL goal, and now it looks like we have to talk about what he did in his past life that’s making him have to endure all the physical pain that he did last night. I mean, really, boarded on one shift and then hit in the mouth with a high stick, left bleeding and maybe missing teeth, and having to go off for repairs? That’s a lot. He seems like a nice boy. He does not deserve all that.

Second, heading into this series, I knew we were looking at two fast, skilled teams, and expected the emphasis in these games to match that. I definitely didn’t expect it to be a chippy as it wound up being. We saw it in the series against Providence, with the Bruins being a heavier, checking team, but the Marlies aren’t quite that. If nothing else, it provided a bit of extra entertainment factor (if you’re into this sort of thing), but also offers a bit of an extra challenge. Now, it becomes about finding a balance between physicality and sticking to the skill game that’s served them well so far.

And finally, are we worried yet? The Marlies are a talented team and the Phantoms lost their first game against them, but they were more or less right there with them the whole way. Their game needs some cleaning up, they can stand to cut some of the mistakes, to be sure, but we shouldn’t hit the panic button just yet.

10. The only damn thing I know

Okay, so I know I make a lot of jokes in this section, but today I have a (mostly) series question to pose. So the Marlies have what appear to be two mascots, two very nice dogs, walking around the arena and doing mascot things. Cool, no problem. The larger dog is Duke, but the smaller one just has “pup” on the back of his jersey. So, I have to ask: why? Does he have another, secret name? If not, why doesn’t he get to have a name? This is a great injustice that needs addressing. People, I have so many questions.