*As written by Bob Herpen*
“So you think that your life’s become a catastrophe. Oh, it has to be, for you to grow boy.”
Even if exactly none of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms players were even born when Roger Hodgson of Supertramp back in 1979, the lesson is no less pertinent as their season ended with a thud on Sunday night.
Remember when I wrote about the in their Calder Cup openers on home ice last weekend? When I said a deciding Game 5 back in front of a friendly crowd had a slim to none chance of happening? It wasn’t the first time I was wrong and it won’t be the last, but any time a team gives you more chances to follow it in the pursuit of a championship, you don’t question why or how.
After a pair of baffling losses against the rival Hershey Bears in Games 1 and 2 in Allentown despite dominating long stretches of play, the Phantoms took advantage of the generous gaps in scheduling on the road. In keeping with the Bizarro World in which this best-of-five series has been staged, they won Games 3 and 4, pushing the set to the brink.
Then, back home in the second of back-to-back games, having seized all the momentum lost by dropping the first two games at home by taking Game 4 in surprisingly easy fashion, Scott Gordon’s kids reverted to earlier form. The Phantoms were unable to penetrate the Devils-like wall put up by Hershey’s checking, and lost a 3-2 heartbreaker that wasn’t as close as the score suggested.
Winning 48 games and making a return to the postseason for the first time since 2009 became absolutely hollow accomplishments, when you consider that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Atlantic Division champions, also to fourth-place Providence hours earlier. That favorable second-round matchup was there for the taking, but ended up a carrot dangling just out of reach.
“We’re certainly not going to stay down one or two or three goals. It’s tough to think about,” said Phantoms winger Taylor Leier in a barely audible voice during Sunday’s postgame. “It’s a short series, this best-of-five. Maybe if it’s a seven (game series), it’s a little bit different but that’s the way it works. “
Back to Wednesday. The promise and the prize were directly ahead. The boys began beating the breaks down 1-0 in the second period of Game 3 on Wednesday night at GIANT Center, when team captain Colin McDonald let fly with a knuckle puck from center ice that had Bears goalie Pheonix Copley frozen like a statue.
You’re a wizard, Colin. pic.twitter.com/lAHw7a3Qri
— LehighValleyPhantoms (@LVPhantoms) April 27, 2017
From that point, the Phantoms began to play like they knew the possession game would pay off. It did, eventually, after some late-regulation close calls — which included a controversial no-goal when defenseman Sam Morin accidentally pushed a puck intended for goalie Martin Ouellette through his teammate and over the goal line. Late in the second shift of overtime, Andy Miele blocked a shot in the defensive zone and had enough strength to find a streaking Chris Conner, who roared in alone and put the visitors back in the series with a score at 1:49.
— AHL (@TheAHL) April 27, 2017
Hershey could only stew, having to wait three days until Game 4 for another shot to close out its foe, but the psychological advantage lay with Lehigh Valley. On Saturday night, they turned up the heat again with a strong first period, snagged a one-goal lead after two before Scott Laughton’s in the third period cemented a 4-1 decision. Ouellette’s ledger summarily blossomed to 2-0 with a 1.85 goals-against average in those two do-or-die road contests.
Only two teams in AHL history had ever rebounded from an 0-2 deficit to win a best-of-five, and Phantoms fans had to feel good since Gordon had previously been a part of one such comeback. As an assistant with the Baby Bruins, he had a front-bench seat when they toppled the Hartford Wolf Pack back in 2001. Like the Flyers in 2011, who stole Game 6 from the Sabres in Buffalo on Easter Sunday and then coasted the following night in Philly to ice the series, Game 5 figured to be in the bag.
And yet — blame it on a school night, blame it on the fact that fans might have been wary to invest in a team that had lost its first two home playoff games — PPL Center was just over half full for the franchise’s first home elimination contest since the Philadelphia incarnation took on Albany in a 2008 Game 7. The Phantoms also tempted fate by making a cosmetic change, donning their orange thirds.
The loud, raucous fans who were there couldn’t sustain that momentum through sheer volume. The Bears reverted back to their form from Games 1 and 2, played things tight in all three zones and waited for the first miscue to strike. They found it 5 ½ minutes in, when Stan Galiev exploited a hole in coverage and lifted his own rebound past Ouellette. Christian Thomas added a second goal on a mid-air deflection 5 ½ minutes later, and the Phantoms were forced to chase the game.
McDonald put a charge into the faithful by from Travis Sanheim on a power play early in the second period, but Game 1 OT hero Nathan Walker sprung Colby Williams on a give-and-go early in the third for the death blow at 3-1. Even when Leier snuck his first goal of the series with 7:10 to play, the sense was that sands through the hourglass would move ever more quickly until the end.
And so, the hockey gods and Cocoa Kings conspired once more to short-circuit a feel-good story in an organization whose NHL entrant failed to make the playoffs and whose ECHL club also bowed out in the opening round.
Dealing with adversity and processing pain is a part of growth, so it wasn’t a bit surprising that players interviewed Sunday night weren’t too broken up about losing — aside from their quiet tones in discussing the loss itself.
“This has to be the standard. You can’t just be happy to get in,” McDonald admitted. “We play to win a championship. It took a couple years to get to this point and we’re laying a good foundation. “We’re trying to change the culture here. The young guys playing here and the ones watching, it’s a great opportunity to see playoff hockey. Hopefully they can take a lot from this, have a great summer and come ready to work next year.”
Flyers GM Ron Hextall’s intention of creating a winner at the highest minor league level arrived in year three in Allentown. Players who are likely to be on the way up have experienced the full gamut of losing and winning. It is their responsibility to bring that experience toward gaining a full-time NHL roster spot. That responsibility cascades down to the veterans and prospects on the AHL roster next year to teach the new kids.
Those lessons learned will be the difference between April sadness and the madness that comes with hockey in May and June.