Phantoms weekly rundown: Reinforcements are here
A (somewhat) healthier team in the new year.
Where we are
Week of Jan. 3 - Jan. 9
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A bit more roster movement this week, with Mark Friedman being called up to the Flyers on Wednesday. To get them back to seven defensemen, the Phantoms called up James de Haas from Reading. They also did a forward swap, with David Kase being called up to the Flyers and Mikhail Vorobyev being sent down.
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All stats via the AHL.com, Phancy Stats, and Maddie’s NZ tracking project.
1. Connor Bunnaman
Last weekend was sort of funny—heading into the road trip I was thinking about how it sure would be nice if they could get Bunnaman going again. That would be cool, right? And lo and behold, it was indeed very cool, as he turned around and scored goals in both Saturday and Sunday’s games, and looked to have his offensive game clicking a bit more than we had been seeing recently. Obviously, this is a an important development. When offense is hard to come by, you need everyone contributing to help pull the team out of their funk, so this would be a well timed surge for Bunnaman, if that’s what it turns out to be.
2. Pascal Laberge
Bunnaman wasn’t the only player who brought a distinct offensive outburst last weekend—Laberge also scored goals on Saturday and Sunday, and let’s just have a quick look at Sunday’s goal because it was pretty neat.
Rubtsov knocks down Prosser's saucer pass and hits Laberge with a beautiful cross-ice feed for the goal. pic.twitter.com/sSffHfCaMx— Brad Keffer (@brad_keffer) January 5, 2020
The feed by German Rubtsov there was pretty stellar, and it would have been pretty disappointing if Laberge wasn’t able to finish, but he did, so we can be happy. He was on last weekend, and his executing well was exactly what we meant when we said “when healthy, the Phantoms have the depth up front to be really dangerous.” We haven’t actually seen a ton of that this season for a myriad of reasons, but we got a glimpse of it on the road trip.
3. Morgan Frost
Frost is a Phantom again and he’s working to get himself settled with the team again, and his first weekend back was mostly positive. He picked up an empty net goal during Sunday’s game in Toronto, and had a couple of nice chances either for himself or that he helped to set up throughout the weekend. It wasn’t a perfect showing for him—he had a couple of ugly turnovers that reminded us exactly why the team decided puck management was one of the pieces he needed to work on—but they at least came while he was trying to make something happen, and that’s really what we want to hone in on here. Because having Frost back with the team, having that skilled of a playmaker inserted back into the lineup, has been such a breath of fresh air. Just like that, offense seems to be clicking a bit more, and it’s hard to overstate how key that’s been.
Two loose observations
1. Falling into place
That brings us pretty nicely to our next point, how’s that for cohesion! It’s no mystery that the absences due to injuries and call ups left the Phantoms in a tough spot—outside of them just missing the scoring punch those players could bring, it left others, particularly centers, shuffled up in the lineup, playing higher than they normally would and struggling some in more difficult matchups. We understand why that would happen, but it didn’t make it any easier to watch.
But suddenly, the Phantoms were in better shape—Frost was returned to the Phantoms and Cal O’Reilly came back from injury, and just like that, they had, effectively, their top two centers back. That pushed a couple of the depth forwards back down, and then more players were back in their “proper” roles. And the difference was almost immediately noticeable—Friday’s game in Laval was decidedly not ideal, with the Phantoms getting shut out, but on Saturday in Bellville, it was like a switch flipped, and they were playing a more precise game, and also getting the results. The Marlies team they faced on Sunday was pretty well diminished, missing players to injury, call ups, and also World Juniors (sound familiar?), but the Phantoms absolutely deserved to win that one. It was the most complete game we’ve seen them play in a while, they looked so much more cohesive, and even dangerous. In short, it felt like they were back.
2. Turning a corner?
The question, then, is what they means for the future. They lost Kase this week, which hurts because he was playing well, but getting Vorobyev back should further help out their need for stronger playmaking centers. Losing Friedman might hurt them on the back end, but maybe the remaining players can pick up the slack, who knows, we’ll see. There are some other factors at work here, but if we’re talking narratives, last weekend should serve as an excellent starting point for a pivot with the team. If they can build on those performances and get back to a better and more consistent form, that goes a long way. I’m not prepared to talk about a miracle playoff push where they go and win every single one of their games for the next month and dunk on everyone in their division or anything like that. But if they can just go forward and stabilize their performances and keep growing where they need to, that will go a long way in building, at the very least, goodwill back up around this season.
What’s on deck
We’ve got another three-in-three on deck this weekend, folks! The Phantoms are rounding out their road trip on Friday against a strong Utica Comets team who, you might remember, dealt the Phantoms a 4-2 loss at the end of December. Then they’re back home on Saturday and Sunday to face off against the Laval Rocket (lost to last week) and the Cleveland Monsters (first meeting of the season). They seemed to be picking up some steam last weekend, and hopefully they can carry some of that into this weekend.