Phantoms vs. Bears, Game 1 preview: After 7 years, welcome back to the AHL playoffs

It’s been a while, but the Phantoms are back in the hunt for the Calder Cup. It kicks off Friday night in Allentown.

2,919 days ago, the Phantoms played in their most recent playoff game. It was a 1-0 loss to the Hershey Bears at the Giant Center, the final game in the history of the Philadelphia Phantoms. It closed out a sweep in that East Division Semifinal series, and it was the first of four series wins for the eventual 2009 Calder Cup Champion Bears.

Some things have changed in those 2,919 days. The now-Lehigh Valley Phantoms have called two different cities home since. They’ve recycled mediocre prospect after mediocre prospect, toiling away for six seasons in AHL irrelevancy. They’ve opened a brand new arena in Allentown, and they’ve finally reached the playoffs again thanks to Ron Hextall’s commitment to building the Flyers organization at all levels.

Tonight, it’s a bit fitting that the Phantoms will host the Hershey Bears in Game 1 of the Atlantic Division Semifinals at PPL Center in what’s sure to be a difficult first round, best-of-five series. It could have all the hallmarks of the Bears-Phantoms rivalry of old.

The Bears finished just four points behind Lehigh Valley in the Atlantic Division with 97 points, but the Phantoms played them better than most other opponents in the division in terms of the head-to-head. Lehigh Valley went 7-4-1-0 against Hershey this season, including a 3-2-1-0 record on home ice.

Hershey has the league’s third-ranked offense with 3.32 goals per game, and they’re led by Travis Boyd, who scored 16 goals and 47 assists on the year. Chris Bourque (60 points), defenseman Christian Djoos (58 points) and Paul Carey (55 points) round out the list of top performers on offense for Hershey, who in total have six players with 40 or more points on the year.

That all sounds good, but the Phantoms can do them one better. Lehigh Valley’s 3.42 goals per game are best in the American Hockey League, and they have seven players — T.J. Brennan, Andy Miele, Chris Conner, Greg Carey, Colin McDonald, Danick Martel, and Corban Knight — with more than 40 points on the year. (Jordan Weal had 47 points in 43 AHL games this season, but we’re not counting him since he is not on the roster for the postseason.) Scott Laughton finished with 39, Taylor Leier with 37 (in just 48 games) and Travis Sanheim with 37. The team is, quite frankly, stacked.

Both teams are deep offensively, but Lehigh Valley is probably deeper across the board.  We all know about the big names on defense: Sanheim, Brennan, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg. Unfortunately, veteran Will O’Neill is out for the foreseeable future with an injury, so that’s a blow. But the Phantoms have heavy minute-eaters that they can rely on here as the postseason carries on.

It’s likely going to be the Alex Lyon show in goal unless something goes awry. Lyon was signed last season after his final season at Yale and as undrafted prospect that’s a touch older than others in the organization, he hasn’t seen the same sort of recognition. But he actually had a better statistical year than Anthony Stolarz, putting up a .912 save percentage in 47 games compared to Stolie’s .911 in just 29 games.

Stolarz is injured and done for the year, so it’s Lyon’s net. Martin Ouellete — who played mostly in Reading this season but did perform well in four AHL games -- will serve as backup. Carter Hart, called up from juniors for the playoff ride, is likely just around the team to soak it all in as they go for a Calder Cup and might not suit up.

It’s sure to be an electric atmosphere inside PPL Center -- get it, it’s an electric company — for this first playoff game in Allentown AHL history.

If you’d like to watch tonight’s game, Service Electric TV 2 has the broadcast in the Lehigh Valley. Elsewhere, you’re going to have to purchase AHL Live, the $44.99 package that’ll get you all Phantoms games in the first two rounds. If you’re not willing to pay, you’ll be relegated to the radio, where Bob Rotruck has the call.

You can listen from anywhere via the Phantoms Hockey 365 app, the iHeartRadio app or the TuneIn Radio app. We’ll also have live game coverage at @BroadStHockey on Twitter.