Piece was written by Bob Herpen, special to The Sin Bin
ALLENTOWN, PA – The script couldn’t have been written any better: a shiny new building, hosting a shiny new team, one which was making a return to the Calder Cup postseason for the first time in seven years and three different locations.
There was supposed to be a coronation when the playoffs opened up on Friday night in Allentown, with the Phantoms holding the cards, having taken home-ice advantage and hosting back-to-back weekend games against a long-time rival, the Hershey Bears.
It was a zenith for the Brooks Brothers, who own the Lehigh Valley franchise and placed millions of dollars into state-of-the-art facilities in pushing for a high-level minor-league team closer to Philadelphia than upstate New York. It was a victory for Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall, whose shrewd but patient planning allowed a rag-tag bunch of defensive and goaltending prospects, plus a generous helping of veteran AHL forward talent, yielded a dangerous team for the first time in years.
And of course, for the Phantoms themselves. Battle tested and adversity improved, they put together one of the best seasons in the 21-year history of the AHL farm club: 48 wins (tying for second most in team lore, and most since Philly’s Calder Cup-winning campaign in 2004-05), fourth-best overall winning percentage, second place in the highly-competitive Atlantic Division and in the Eastern Conference and carrying the highest-scoring offense (260 goals) in the entire league.
Leave it to the hockey gods and the Cocoa Kings to spill an industrial-sized container of White-Out all over those regular-season accomplishments.
First, the higher powers dictated that prized netminder Anthony Stolarz — the nominal starter who gained some teaser time with the Flyers mid-season — would be sidelined for the entirety of the Spring, after being felled by a torn meniscus in his left knee only 92 seconds into a gritty, playoff-berth-clinching 2-1 shootout win at Wilkes-Barre on Apr. 12.
Enter Alex Lyon, the 24-year-old Yale graduate who had been through the ringer before in three straight ECAC playoffs and the NCAA men’s tournament. His last pre-playoff start was one to forget, allowing four goals on 14 shots in 21:18 of action, but the Phantoms rallied from 4-1 down to beat Providence, 5-4, in OT.
Lyon drew in for game one on Friday, and though his defense restricted the Bears to only 18 shots on goal through regulation, the vaunted “offense-from-defense” which head coach Scott Gordon preached since his arrival last year nearly evaporated due to Hershey’s tight-checking game plan.
Without puck moving defenseman Will O’Neill and subject-to-waivers former-leading-scorer Jordan Weal unavailable, the Phantoms elected to try and get down and dirty near the crease at even strength and on the power play — to no avail. They endured several near misses and lost, 1-0, at 7:38 of OT when Nathan Walker got to a rebound in front of Lyon and chipped it over him from the left side.
— AHL (@TheAHL) April 22, 2017
“I know how vital every blocked shot is, every detail matters. It can happen just like that. The hard part to stomach, in the playoffs, the numbers don’t matter anymore,” said Lyon, whose final NCAA game ended in an overtime loss to UMass-Lowell last March. “It’s just one notch in their belt, We have four more games to go.”
A Friday night crowd sold as full-throated, raucous and energized throughout was, in reality, seemingly struck by a wave of apathy from season-ticket holders and other fanatics who decided to wait and see. Yes, there were bright orange rally towels, and an anthem singer who could have given Lauren Hart a run for her money, and the faithful who gave an extra lift to the players during a dominant first period and swaths of play in the third and overtime.
Yet, an announced crowd north of 7,000 patrons appeared for most of the game to be hovering around 5-to-6,000. There were huge gaps of empty rows abutting the area just below and to the left of the press box and sprinkled throughout the multi-level venue. It was reminiscent of many March and April games the first two years there, when announced crowds in the high sevens and low eights looked half that as the Phantoms ground out the schedule, well out of contention.
Less than 24 hours later, the home team rewarded their fans’ patience by finally entering the record books with a goal from AHL stalwart T.J. Brennan just 70 seconds after the opening faceoff. That score, by the Phantoms leading point-producer this past season, ended a drought of 68 minutes and 48 seconds. For a second straight evening, they dominated their opponent in the first period, with a 16-4 shot edge after a 15-5 margin in the first 20 minutes on Friday. Greg Carey posted two goals and one assist to lead the charge, which saw the Phantoms cruising with a 4-2 advantage.
And then the roof caved in once more. With 11:22 left in regulation time and the Phantoms clinging to a one-goal lead, Lyon himself went down in a heap following incidental contact in the crease with a Hershey puck pursuer. As with Stolarz, he too was carried off by team personnel without the ability to put weight or pressure on a leg but this time, on the right side. An MRI later revealed that Lyon would miss at least the remainder of the series, updated Tuesday morning to reveal a sprained MCL in his right knee.
Enter Martin Ouellette, a University of Maine product and organizational yo-yo who has seen plenty of time split between Reading in the ECHL and Allentown. He was beaten on a pair of screen shots, including the game-winner from Chris Bourque (son of Ray) from the point coming with just 33 seconds left in regulation and the Phantoms lost, 5-4.
Hershey’s three-goal performance in the final period, and four-goal burst over two games at a time when playoff-hopeful clubs need it most, put it in the driver’s seat with two games to clinch back home starting Wednesday night.
“The first 10 minutes it seemed like every time down the ice we had a real good scoring opportunity. The pucks through the goaltender, hitting the post,” Gordon said after Saturday’s defeat. “Multiple opportunities and we just didn’t find the back of the net. You get one of those and maybe you can say the nail’s in the coffin. But, didn’t happen.”
Underscoring the result, was the turnout. On Saturday night, Phantoms fans who could have done better did do better, officially drawing 7,516 patrons which was accurately reported as a minuscule percentage behind the number of tickets sold. However, it was an impassioned final tune-up for a second chance which might never arrive.
In two decades of operation, the Phantoms have never rebounded from a 0-2 series deficit with home ice to win a best-of-five, so a potential Game 5 home date – scheduled for this coming Sunday – has a slim-to-none chance of actually arriving. Back in 2009, the Philadelphia Phantoms bombed both ends of a home-ice audition against Hershey, and the end result was not a valiant recovery, but a four-game first-round sweep.