The American Hockey League’s Atlantic Division is absolutely bonkers this season, and despite sitting in the top two of that division all season long, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms are nowhere near clinching a playoff spot with 16 games remaining in their season.
The AHL has a pure divisional playoff format, meaning the top four teams in each of the Atlantic, North, Central and Pacific Divisions qualify. There’s no wild card situation. The 16 playoff teams play within their division for the first two rounds, then play the other division champion from their conference for a right to represent the East and West in the Calder Cup Finals.
And that’s terrible news for the Phantoms, who play in the toughest division in the AHL.
AHL Atlantic Division Standings, as of March 13
|Team||Games Left||Record||Points||Magic #||Win %|
|Team||Games Left||Record||Points||Magic #||Win %|
|Lehigh Valley Phantoms||16||39-18-3-0||81||25||0.675|
|Bridgeport Sound Tigers||15||37-21-2-1||77||29||0.631|
|Hartford Wolf Pack||15||21-35-3-2||47||Elim||0.385|
You’ll notice that the Phantoms are just four points up on the Hershey Bears, who currently occupy the final spot outside the playoff picture in the Atlantic. All five of these top teams in the Atlantic would be the runaway first place team in the North Division. The peril of the divisional playoff format.
Lehigh Valley’s magic number for playoff qualification sits at 25 points with 16 games to play, which means they need any combo of points earned and Hershey points lost adding up to 25. That’s a lot -- they’d need to go 13-3 the rest of the way just to guarantee the playoffs on their own merits.
There’s a slight cushion here in the form of Bridgeport and Providence, but the situation is much more perilous than it should be for a team that’s cruised through the regular season like a hot knife through butter.
The Phantoms’ remaining schedule isn’t all that easy, either:
- Four more games outside of the division: A home game against North Division-leading Syracuse tonight, a grueling two-game midweek road trip to St. John’s — we’ve talked before about the insane travel for games out there — next week, and the season finale against a bad Binghamton team.
- Six more games against the only team in the Atlantic with a better record than themselves, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Three of those are on the road.
- Two games left against the team directly behind them in the Atlantic, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Both are home.
- Two games left against the Hershey Bears, the team fighting for their playoff lives from the outside looking in. One of these games is home, one away.
- One game against the Providence Bruins, on the last Friday night of the season. It’s at home. The P-Bruins are directly behind the Phantoms in the standings as well.
- One game against the Springfield Thunderbirds, a divisional foe that is not yet eliminated but will not be making the postseason.
This is the toughest schedule of these five Atlantic teams by a long shot. The six games against WBS really skews it against the Phantoms, but in total they play 12 of their remaining 16 games against the Eastern Conference’s top six teams.
Hershey and Providence, by comparison, play just six games each against that group. Bridgeport plays eight against that group. Wilkes-Barre plays 10, six of which are against the Phantoms.
Imagine the team goes through a slight lull here. It’s always possible, especially if the Flyers decide to call up some of the team’s young talent in the garbage time of the NHL season here.
Let’s spitball. Say they drop both games to a desperate Hershey team. Let’s say they split on the difficult road trip to St. John’s, they split the six games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and they split with Bridgeport as well. That’d give them a 5-7 record with four other games on the schedule. Let’s chalk those other four up as wins, giving them a 9-7 record the rest of the way.
That’s a completely reasonable possibility, right? It wouldn’t even really be a bad finish!
It would give them a 48-25-3-0 record on the year, with 99 points. It would also only trim their magic number down to seven, meaning they’d need one of Bridgeport, Providence or Hershey to at least finish with a mediocre stretch run. If all of those teams finish strong — totally feasible, they are all very good and as mentioned they all have it easier from a scheduling perspective — it could spell doom.
We’ve assumed all year that the Phantoms’ seven season playoff drought — dating back to 2008-09, their final year in the Spectrum — would come to an end this year. But since it’s the 2016-17 hockey season and nothing is fair anymore, this team could finish with near or over 100 points and still miss the postseason.
Of course, it’s unlikely that all three of the teams behind them wind up passing them in the standings, as surely one of them will hit a minor rough patch. But with just a four point cushion between the second and fifth spots in the division, Lehigh Valley cannot rest on their laurels if they want to play for the Calder Cup.