We’re quickly barreling towards hockey again (finally) at the PPL Center, as the Phantoms return from their 5-game road swing. As always, you’ll have a massive “Hockey Night” post from me on game day, to get you ready. It will likely go up sometime Friday morning.
However, with 5 road games to recap–roster news and team notes–my material was getting kind of lengthy. So, let’s get some of this stuff out there more in advance of Hockey Night:
The road trip started following the Phantoms 2-1 loss to Bridgeport at the PPL Center on Boxing Day. It was a sell-out crowd, and the team seemed to be playing hard, but just couldn’t seem to get pucks on net in a game which should have been very winnable. Stolie took the loss in net.
So now on to Casey Plaza to face the mighty Penguins. But, with the flightless ones without their top two goaltenders, the Phantoms were able to put together a 3-0 win with a goal in each period. They held off 35 Scranton shots to only 19 of their own and beat the Pens at their own game: get a lead and then play ultra-disciplined hockey, staying in position and not allowing anything cheap at all. It helped that they were able to keep themselves out of the box for the most part and keep the Pens Power Play scoreless as well. It also helped that goalie Jason LaBarbera had a star-worthy night, stopping all 35 Pen shots. Reports out of Wilkes Barre had the Phantoms playing very well, especially to start the game.
So we felt good heading up I-81 to Binghamton to face the hapless Senators–the worst team in the AHL. What we forgot, is that the B-Sens own the Phantoms lately, and what should have been an easy–or at least comfortable–victory, turned into a loss by shootout 2-1. It was one point, but it didn’t feel good after the previous night’s loss and knowing the competition. Stolie took the loss again, but with the shots 41-39 it certainly wasn’t a bad game by him. The increase in shots on goal coupled with radio and internet reports of a buzzing team–one who came out in the first period with a definite jump–were reassuring, despite the results. Finally, the team was saying all the right things about wanting to get wins and wanting to get pucks on net–tired cliches perhaps at this point in the season, but still better to hear than our old IronPigs friend who “wasn’t concerned about the results.”
So back to Pennsylvania we go for a New Years Eve, late-afternoon, match-up in Chocolatetown with the Hershey Bears. Again, the Phantoms come out with the jump, and finally get a power play goal from Aaron Palushaj half way through the period, in which they would out-shoot the Browns. A Danny Martel goal in the second extended the lead, which was important as the Browns were able to push one through after pulling the goalie late. Danny then added an empty netter, and secured not only the game but the top star in the 3-1 victory. Barbie with another very strong showing in this game.
So there we were–a somewhat disappointing post-Christmas game at the PPL Center, then two division wins sandwiched around a shootout and 5 of the 6 possible points on the first three games of the five-game roadie. A long hike to Portland, Maine followed, and the outcome of the road string hung in the balance: lose both games against a very good Portland team, and the 5/10 points on the trip would keep the Hamilton Street Heroes mired in the mediocrity they’ve been known for, thus far.
In the first game Saturday night, the Phantoms again came out buzzing–and promptly took a 1-0 lead. However, the Pirates battled back, and a blitzkrieg of goals gave them a 3-1 lead early in the second period. Our “heroes” were not to be denied, though–quick back-to-back goals by Alt and Palushaj put the game back in play tied 3-3. Ultimately, that’s where it would finish in regulation, before the Pirates got an open look in the 3-on-3 overtime and pushed through a winner, giving the Phantoms a 4-3 OT loss. Stolie played well in goal, facing 32 Pirate shots. A goal and a +2 rating, gave Alt the third star of the game. It was another point on the road-trip pile.
Right back at it on Sunday afternoon–faced with a long bus ride home–it was LaBarbera back in net, coming off two very strong performances on the trip. Again the Phantoms would take the early lead, going up 1-0 on a Cole Bardreau goal with helpers from his checking line-mates Goulbourne and Rehkamp. Martel would add another in the second off a feed from Cousins and a beauty of a pass up-ice from Sammy Morin. After a bevy of penalty minutes racking up in the second period, and shots almost even, the Pirates really pressed in the third and did manage a goal on the stone-solid LaBarbera. Ultimately, the Phantoms prevailed 2-1 in regulation. Barbie again with a top star.
“What the #@!!’s going on out there?” –Vice Lombardi
So what gives? What has the Phantoms playing so well over the course of five straight road games? Here’s what I’ve got:
- Strong play in net, consistently. Stolie gave us some good games early on, of course. But now, with the revelation that Barbie was playing hurt–needed the time off–and has now come pack healthy and much sharper: Consistent good play at the back end gives the defenders and the whole team more confidence to play their own game. Even before I knew he was injured, I was still on his side in this point/counterpoint I had with d.E.
- “Buying in.” Perhaps it took a little longer than I thought it would. However, Coach Gordon preaches a simpler game–not trying to get too fancy with the puck and end up making mistakes. He preaches puck control: They can’t score when we have the puck and we’re controlling our zone. So maybe the players are heeding the coach and staying in position–trusting their teammates and simplifying their game. And, all the while playing hard with….
- …no let downs. There was a streak there where we kept hearing in the press about “we weren’t ready” or “we came out flat” or “except for that one period” or “what about the play Mrs. Lincoln?” You know what I mean. I mean they’ve looked prepared and ready to play the games lately. There hasn’t been a real down period or time in the last few games–and even when Portland went up by two goals in the second period the other night, they didn’t panic. They just went out and got them back.
- Special Teams. Once near–nay AT–the bottom of the rankings for penalty kill, the Phantoms have risen to 11th out of 30 in the PK. The power play has been anemic at times, but is now a respectable 15th/30. It also helps that the team has been reasonably good at staying out of the box all season long–they’re currently 7th in the league in lowest penalty minutes.
- Road Unity? I’m mostly guessing with this one, but sometimes without the distractions of home the team can settle in and focus on the hockey. Maybe. One might also propose that we’ve made it too cushy on them at home in Allentown with the most expensive minor league arena in the world. But then, I’ve also heard it said that the reason the team did so poorly in Glens Falls was the decrepit nature of the facility. Maybe. I’m not sure I buy either side much; I expect the Phantoms to begin winning games at home at a similar click if they can keep up the four things above.
- Coming of age. Some of the younger players, like Sam Morin, are starting to play better–and some of the guys who’ve been away from North American hockey, like Aaron Palushaj, are starting to re-acclimate. Just a theory.
Oh how I crave playoffs. Playoff hockey is just mesmerizing–and I love winning stuff, too. So let’s talk about playoffs…
No let’s not.
The Breaking the Ice show from Chickie’s and Pete’s, put on most every Monday night LIVE at 7PM by our friends from Service Electric TV2, spent a good deal of time talking about the playoffs the other night. Given our still middling record–above .500 finally, but just barely–I think the talk is premature. There’s a lot of hockey to play and I’d like to see us put together a good, solid January before I get too excited. If you want, cheer for wins. Cheer for regulation wins versus division opponents. Cheer for points any way we can get them, if necessary. We’ll take a closer look at the points and games and such at the end of the month. “Hockey Night” posts will still include the standings on occasion, but I don’t want to get drawn into a playoff discussion until things are more solidified. Perhaps I’m just being cautions. Perhaps my fandom is fragile. I just want to see a little more consistency at home before my very eyes–then we’ll talk playoffs. “…I just hope we can win a game!” –Jim Mora
Given the time, there’s not a ton of roster news. But, I do have a few things:
- Goalies: As mentioned above, both are healthy and playing well. It’s one of the key factors in our recent strong play. Let’s hope it continues.
- Updates on previously injured (as much as we can tell):
- Marti is back at practice and could be back to game play at some point this weekend. It’s a “three-in-three” you know.
- Sundher: Unknown. Not close?
- Rankin: Skating fully. Expected to be available this weekend.
- Conner: Did skate non-contact one day, but that’s it. Original time frame still puts him out another week or three.
- Parks: Was skating non-contact at one time, but I’ve heard nothing lately.
- New Updates from the trip:
- AMac has been out for a little–one game and a practice or two–but should be fine for the weekend I hear. Some speculation on the interwebs that he could be headed back to Philly now that they’ve cleared some cap space (see below); however, they already have 7 healthy D-men.
- Palushaj missed some time with illness–he was playing really well at the time, too. Reports have him back this weekend no problem.
- Straka: The AHL goal leader took a puck to the knee very late in the game on Sunday. Bob Rotruck reports that he should be available at some point this weekend–if not right away on Friday.
- The other big roster move: No, not that one. We’ll get to that in a minute. However, last week forward Sam Gagner was sent to the Phantoms after passing through waivers. The move cleared enough cap space to allow the Flyers to keep Ghost in Philly with the activation of Mark Streit. I wrote more about it here.
- In the games with the Phantoms on the road–which I viewed via AHL-Live–he seemed to play well and was doing all the right stuff digging out pucks and whatnot. He’s not played a ton recently, so he’s been working his way up the lines–starting on the third line his first night with the team. As his game comes back, I’d expect him to take an even more active role. But I wondered how he felt about the demotion? A guy who’s never played AHL hockey?
- In an exclusive interview by Highland Park Hockey’s Tony Androckitis (HERE) Gagner says all the right things, such as: “I’m happy to come down here and play,” Gagner said after his third game with the Phantoms Sunday evening in Portland. “Get my game to where I need it to be and hopefully help the team win some games while I’m here.”
- It’s a good article; I encourage you to click on the link and go read it for yourself, in its entirety.
- One more thing: Kind of a footnote for us with the Phantoms, but Cam Reid, who’s been playing some good hockey for Reading, has received a PTO from Hershey. We may see him in the lineup opposite us the next time around. The Royals signed a dude today to replace him.
STOP THE PRESSES!
So, I’ve learned by now–especially when you’re over 2,000 words–check Twitter before posting because something may have changed. Sure enough, it did. Flyers GM Ron Hextall pulled off what some thought was an impossible trade: Vinny Lacavalier and his massive contract. That’s right, Vinny was sent to the LA Kings along with defenseman Luke Schenn in exchange for forward Jordan Weal and a third-round pick in this year’s draft.
The move garners some cap relief (and a metric-shit-ton of praise from fans) for the Flyers. Could they bring Gagne back up? Will they take AMac to replace the departed Schenn? Well, nothing right now as far as I’ve heard. The talented and AHL-starring Weal will get his shot with the Flyers after not getting much ice time in LA. The Flyers have 7 healthy D and 13 attackers and don’t require any support immediately. From what I’m hearing, no roster moves to come right away–so our crew should be intact for this weekend. What this buys the Flyers right now is some flexibility–If they want to move guys around a little they’re not completely pinned up against the salary cap.
The one move which has been speculated on a bunch this evening is the possible move of our old friend Laughts back to the Phantoms. He’s not getting much ice time in Philly and may benefit from some increased shifts in Allentown. If there’s a move to be made–be it for AMac or Gagne or whomever–I’m thinking Scotty Laughts might be back with us for a bit.
So that’s what I’ve got on this Wednesday night. It looks like the plan is coming together for the Phantoms, but it’s too early to talk about playoffs. As always, things will change, and we’ll have to see how it plays out. Scranton got a win again last night; they seem to be back on track now that they have their goalie Murray back in the fold–they’ll be a tough test for us Friday night and I’ve got no reason to believe the Mighty Murray won’t be in net.
Look for the “Hockey Night” post on Friday and another on Sunday if I have time. It’s gonna be a tough weekend with WBS, then up to Albany–whom we always have trouble scoring against, then home for Binghamton on Sunday afternoon–the bad team that beats us every time. Oh, and it’s Star Wars day on Sunday, so bring the kiddos for pictures with storm troopers. Rumor has it, Stortini will be in town and has volunteered to play Chewbacca…. 🙂 (kidding)
See you at the arena,