The Phantoms are heading to the playoffs
Away we go! Previewing the Phantoms vs. the Checkers.
It's that time of year again, folks! The Flyers may have ended this season way outside of the playoff picture, but there's still post-season action to check out for their fans. That's right, for the first time since 2018, the Phantoms are back in the playoffs! Here's all you need to know.
The AHL is rolling with an expanded playoff format again this season, with 23 teams qualifying for the playoffs and kicking things off with effectively a play-in round, wherein the top two teams in the Atlantic Division, the top three in the North and Central, and the first in the Pacific will earn byes into the second round, and the rest will play in an opening best of three series. Got all that?
What that means, more locally, is that in the Phantoms' Atlantic Division, the Hershey Bears and Providence Bruins will have this round off, and the four teams below them who qualified will play in this first round. The Phantoms, who finished sixth, will match up against the third seed Charlotte Checkers.
Another fun little wrinkle is that all three (if the series requires it) games will take place in Charlotte, but the Phantoms will still receive last-change in one of them. The games will kick off tonight at 7:00, with the second game coming on Thursday April 20, and the third, if necessarily will be on Friday April 21, both also at 7:00. So far, it doesn't look like they will be televised locally in Philly, but you can stream them on AHLtv (with a subscription).
Looking at these two teams' stats across the whole of the regular season, the matchup slightly favors Charlotte in, well, just about every area. The Checkers have had a higher scoring output overall, averaging about two-tenths of a goal more than the Phantoms per game. This higher scoring rate is also backed by a higher volume of shots averaged per game (as we'll see shortly). On the whole, the Checkers tend to generate more offense than they give up, which has not been the story for the Phantoms.
On the special teams side, we see that their power play performances have been about even – the Checkers have tended to draw more opportunities, but both teams are converting on their chances at roughly the same rate. The penalty kill, though, is a real point of difference – the Checkers' 83.80 PK% had them closing out the season tops in their division and sixth in the whole league, while the Phantoms' 73.70 PK% landed them last in their division and second to last in the league.
If me move to look at just the head-to-head matchups between these two teams, though, things start to even out a bit. In their eight games played against each other this season, each side claimed four wins, and the results have been pretty wide ranging. All told, we had a:
3-2 win for the Phantoms.
6-4 win for the Checkers.
2-1 win for the Phantoms.
6-1 win for the Phantoms.
3-2 win for the Checkers.
4-1 win for the Checkers.
5-2 win for the Phantoms.
5-2 win for the Checkers.
And that all, of course, averages out to a pretty even scoring distribution, with the Phantoms claiming a slight edge, but certainly sets the precedent of games that work out to be bit of boat races.
The Checkers still managed a pretty comfortable edge in possession across these games, coming away with more than 55 percent of the total shots on goal. And while we will often see – as we did with them in their regular season results – the overall scoring results to regress to match the process in shot creation, in a smaller sample like these six games, we don't always see those results bear out. Which is to say: this doesn't necessarily need to be a huge area for concern for the Phantoms. If they're able to get a few games worth of good goaltending, getting buried by shots may not necessarily be the thing that ends them. But we'll see how this shakes out.
Another interesting piece to note is that the Phantoms' penalty kill actually was able to keep the Checkers' power play pretty well contained, all things considered. We wouldn't call keeping them to a 21.88 percent conversion rate shutting them down by any means, but a much worse than league average penalty kill being able to keep a good power play to producing at just about their average rate a small win for them.
Players to watch
The Phantoms have had a trio of prospects leading their scoring charge all season, and they'll be looking to see continued contributions from them. Their top three scorers in Tyson Foerster (20G, 48P in 66GP), Olle Lycksell (14G, 45P in 53 GP), and Elliot Desnoyers (23G, 44P in 65 GP) have been at least producing steadily, if not heating up again, down the stretch before a bit of a quiet final weekend of the season, and the Phantoms will need them to find that next gear – that we all know they're capable of hitting – if the team is going to find the success they need in the post-season.
On the back end, with Egor Zamula still out, Emil Andrae has been given a big role to work with as he's still getting acclimated to the North American game, and he's been finding a lot of success therein (it's a small sample, but he's up to six points scored in his first 10 games played).
And, of course, there's Sam Ersson. He's been leaned on really heavily this season, playing in 42 games, where he picked up 24 wins and a .900 save percentage, and it's clear that he's going to be their guy going forward. It's likely to be a busy series for him, so we'll see how he holds up.
On the other side, we'll see some familiar names in Charlotte's lineup with former Flyers and Phantoms Gerry Mayhew and Connor Bunnaman. Old pals, hello!
This is set to be, if nothing else, and interesting series. These two matched up pretty evenly during the regular season, and on paper, there's a lot of potential for this to be a pretty wide open series.
But the precedent the regular season games have set is certainly on the Phantoms' radar. Speaking before the game today, head coach Ian Laperriere emphasized the importance of locking things down defensively to avoid these scores getting away from them:
"For me it's just, if we take care of our zone a little bit better, we'll be fine. We need to be a little bit tighter defensively, not turning the puck over as much as we did last game against them."
This is a worthwhile aim, but it will remain to be seen whether it ends up being easier said than done. As we said, the Phantoms look to be a bit shorthanded on defense without Zamula, and that hurts them, to be sure. It's also worth remembering that this is a team that had to exert a lot in order to get where they are now.
That run that they went on to clinch a playoff spot and get themselves all the way up to third place in their division for a period of time was certainly impressive, but that will take a lot out of you. It's an open question of much did they have to empty the tank just to get into a playoff spot, and how much to they have leftover to kick up into that more intense playoff gear now. A lot has been asked of the skaters, and even more has been asked of Ersson, who faced the ninth most shots of any goalie in the league (with five of the eight goalies who have faced more having played more games). That's a lot, and things aren't going to get any easier from here.
It will be a big test for them, to see if this young team can rally well, can bear down and "stay in the moment," as Laperriere said. The big moment has arrived, and we'll see what they do with it.
All stats via the AHL, and many thanks to the Phantoms for passing along video of Laperriere's pre-game availability.