Taking a deep dive into the Phantoms' first round exit

Things did not go to plan, and we're here to talk about it.

Taking a deep dive into the Phantoms' first round exit
credit: Heather Barry / Heather Barry Images

This time last week, just as quicky as it began, the Phantoms' playoff run was coming to a close. Really, it was less of a gentle peter out and more of a door slamming in their face – the Phantoms were handed a matchup against the Checkers that they were probably ill suited for, and despite some early flashes, the story of this series was letting it slip away from them. Game 1 saw them take a commanding lead and then let off the gas and allow the Checkers to get themselves back within one goal late in the game. In Game 2, they were able to mount their own comeback to force what would become double overtime, and despite a nice stretch of pressure, creating chances in droves to take the win and close out the series, two failed opportunities to clear the puck from the defensive zone blew up on them, and Charlotte took the win. And Game 3 was the biggest struggle of all – they never really got going, and with a chance to keep their season alive, they fell flat, and were shut out 6-0.

It was, in short, not the series that the Phantoms would have wanted, by any stretch of the imagination. And what are we to take from this?

My lovely assistant Brad Keffer and I undertook the monumental task of tracking both the 5-on-5 shot and neutral zone impact figures for these three games to see what we could see. Now, three games is an undoubtedly small sample, and we want to be careful about how many sweeping generalizations we're taking away based on it. We would not feel comfortable calling these numbers predictive, but they are enough to give us a sense of how things went in this series. So we'll work our way through some small loose takeaways in a bit.

And, just a couple of pieces of housekeeping before we get into the details: below we have first a complete table of shot impacts from the players and team, and then the neutral zone impacts split down the middle (entry numbers first, then exits). These are just static images, but if you'd like to do any sorting of these sheets or look at the individual game numbers, you can do so here.

5-on-5 On-Ice Shot Impacts

5-on-5 Individual Entry Attempts

5-on-5 Individual Exit Attempts

Bits and bobs

Overall, the Phantoms were outmatched offensively

We talked about this in the series preview, that the Phantoms might have some trouble in this series as the Checkers, based on the shot and scoring numbers we had from the regular season, tended to generate more volume in both of these areas, and we saw this trend bearing out in this series as well.

In raw shot volume, the Phantoms came out of this series with a defecit, just a 45.65 CF%. Curiously, Game 3 saw them come out slightly ahead, with 38 shot attempts to the Checkers' 35. This also helped to pull up the series average, at least a bit, which was a 43.35 CF% after Game 2.

Shot quality was the bigger issue

That said, in each of the three games, the shot quality differential is where we saw them really lagging behind. They didn't produce many very good chances (59 scoring chances and 26 high danger chances), and bled many more (87 scoring chances and 39 high danger chances). This amounted to, to repeat, a 40.82 SCF% and 40 HDCF%.

As a result of this – and as they have for much of the season – the Phantoms were relying heavily on their goaltender to bail them out. And Sam Ersson was able to do this for a period of time, and this kept things from getting too out of hand early, but he couldn't keep this up for the whole of the series. After a heavy workload in just shy of 100 minutes played in Game 2, they went right back to him the next day for Game 3, and he just ran out of gas. And given the underlying process that the team had been working with heading into this game, it's not a surprise that this is when the wheels really came off.

Who stood out, you ask?

We can, of course, still find some positive showings in the midst of all of that. While his line with Adam Brooks and Cooper Marody didn't put up stellar on-ice impacts, Olle Lycksell was driving offense well on an individual level, leading the team in all areas with 12 shot attempts, 10 scoring chances, and five high danger chances.

Kevin Connauton served as one of the team's volume shooters from the blue line, with 10 individual shot attempts. And so too did Ronnie Attard, who had 11, and annecdotally, was nice to see step up late in Game 3 – we know the offense wasn't really coming for the team, but as the game went on, we saw Attard activating more and taking the offensive generation more completely into his own hands, which felt quite reminiscent of his dominant junior season in college.  

Puck moving ability on the back end took a hit

The Phantoms may have started the season in a better position to be a strong puck-moving team, but losing Cam York early in the regular season, and Egor Zamula more recently, hurt their transition game on the whole, and that was something that we also saw exploited in this series. The Phantoms were not terribly efficient in their exits, as they had 47 failed zone exits across these three games, and an additional 53 successful exits that they failed to convert into offensive zone entries. And this was a complete team issue, but it starts on the back end. The Phantoms only had three of their seven defensemen who played in this series – Attard, Emil Andrae, and Adam Ginning – who were able to break 50 percent in Controlled Exits, and when you combine that with the added context of Andrae and Ginning spending most of the series paired together, that made for the team being at a disadvantage here more often than not.

Entries, somehow, were worse

And for as much as the Phantoms struggled to exit the defensive zone with control of the puck, entering the offensive zone with control proved to be an even more difficult task. The team averaged just a 37.5 percent rate of Controlled Entry overall, and only three forwards were able to break the 50 percent mark on an individual level – this was Artem Anisimov, Tyson Foerster, and Brendan Furry, who spent the whole of the series together on the same line. Each of the three other lines, as such, struggled more in this area.

And, for a bit more context (and with an asterisk that these sample sizes were not created equal), this is a worse rate than we saw in an eight game sample tracked during last year's regular season (45.60 Controlled Entry%), which was Laperriere's first season, as well as the last two seasons before that (51.01 percent in 2020-21 and 41.79 percent in 19-20).

Now, to pull back for a moment, we know that dump and chase can be an effective game plan for teams. Controlled zone entries do tend, on average, to result in more offense generated, but a team that is forechecking well and successfully retrieving many of the pucks that they dump in can still do well in creating offensive pressure. We've seen it done well before. The problem, though, is that the Phantoms were not doing it well.

Across these three games, the Phantoms were able to recover just 29 of the 120 pucks they dumped into the offensive zone. Which is to say, that in those battles for retrievals which, in theory, should be 50/50, the Phantoms were recovering less than 25 percent of them.

Final thoughts

The Phantoms were at their best in this series when they were being propped up by stellar goaltending, and receiving scoring pop from their flashiest prospects (five of their eight goals scored came from Foerster, Lycksell, and Elliot Desnoyers). The success we saw them find came, on the whole, from a few standout performances from the players we expected, while the rest of the team lagged behind a bit. The complete team effort, that is, is something to forget.

Now, we don't know if the trends established here would have continued over a larger sample of games if the Phantoms had found a way to advance into the next round and gone on a longer run, but the reality is that we haven't been left with much that would have us believe that they were due for a hard pivot in approach or level of play. It was an underlying process that left much to be desired, and as we alluded to earlier, the consistency from the team within each of these games was a bit of a concern.

And there's a prevailing thought that the playoff experience that the prospects in particular gained this year will be very valuable in their development, but we'd like to push back against that a bit. We asked earlier what we are to take from this series, and the answer that we found was generally, not a whole lot of good. Which is to say, then, that we're left to wonder how valuable three games of getting caved in under a system not working well for them could possibly be for these prospects.