TORONTO, ON- The Lehigh Valley Phantoms started off their weekend by earning a critical standings point in a shootout loss to the Toronto Marlies, the top team in the AHL North Division. Alex Lyon made 35 saves in his first start of 2018, while his counterpart, Garrett Sparks made 33 stops in what was a stellar night for both netminders. The difference came in the shootout, where Lyon was not able to stop either shooter he faced, while Sparks made two big saves to get the much-needed victory for Toronto.
The trip to that shootout was a wild one, starting in the first minute of the game. Toronto scored just 49 seconds into regulation time, with Miro Aaltonen breaking the ice. Kasperi Kapanen started the play, stealing the puck from Maxim Lamarche in the Phantoms end. Kapanen then sent the puck back to the point to Rinat Valiev, who returned a feed to the winger at the top of the right circle. Kapanen pulled around and took a shot toward the goal which Lyon turned aside, but Aaltonen happened to be standing in tight at the left side of the cage, right where Lyon tried to direct the puck toward. The bouncing biscuit went off Aaltonen up high and landed in the net, and after a short review, it was deemed a good goal giving the Marlies a 1-0 lead.
The Phantoms responded quickly, peppering Sparks with 13 shots in the period, testing the Toronto goalie early and often. Sparks showed his stature five minutes into the period, as a point shot from TJ Brennan led to multiple rebound opportunities for the Phantoms. The initial shot came off the right pad of Sparks and laid in the slot, where Colin McDonald took a whack at it. He could not convert, so Mike Vecchione tried his hardest. Sparks stopped him as well. The puck went trickling off the netminder out to the point for a shot from Lamarche, which hit iron and stayed in behind Sparks. A flurry of sticks, wielded by both Lehigh Valley and Toronto players, took whacks at the puck until finally a defender helped Sparks out and cleared the crease. It looked like it would be that kind of night for the Phantoms, as the puck luck was not friendly through the first 20. They headed to the room down 1-0, which worked in the Marlies favor in more ways than one. Going into Friday night, the Marlies were 13-1 in games in which they had a lead after the first period.
The second period was a little friendlier to Lehigh Valley, as they again put up 13 shots on Sparks, but saw results. About two and a half minutes into the period, the Phantoms tied the game on a great singular effort from Alex Krushelnyski. Krushelnyski blocked a shot at the Phantoms blueline, and the bounce off his shin pads sprung him the other way on a breakaway. He skated in on Sparks, went forehand to backhand to forehand, deking the Toronto goalie out of his pads and poting the puck into the open net to make it 1-1. At the 8:15 mark, Lehigh Valley took the lead. Skating down the left side, Oskar Lindblom tried to center a pass out in front of the net, but it bounced off a defender and came back to his side.By the time the puck came back, he had his back to the net, so he backhanded a shot toward the cage, and it went in, making it 2-1 Phantoms. Lehigh Valley had a huge chance to make it 3-1 late in the period, with Greg Carey bursting toward the net with a full head of steam. He, like Lindblom, tried to center a pass, and it went off a Toronto defender. This drew Sparks sliding into the middle of his crease, but trying to get back when the puck started heading the other direction. The bounce went right to Chris Conner, who wasted no time backhanding a shot toward the yawning twine. Somehow Sparks, making like Gumby, lunged back across to make a save with his glove hand, keeping it a one-goal game.
That save proved to be important, as Toronto tied the game late in the third. At the 16:21 mark of the frame, Colin Greening got an unassisted goal to even the contest up, sending us toward overtime. A turnover by Brennan in the right-hand corner of his own defensive end started the play, due in large part to Greening’s pressure on the Phantoms defender. Greening took the puck from the two-time Eddie Shore Award winner and skated to the goal, tucking the puck into a little speck of daylight between Lyon’s pad and the pipe to tie the game with 3:39 left in regulation. With time winding down, the Phantoms got a power play with 57 seconds left, leading to a very eventful extra session.
Lehigh Valley started OT off with 1:03 on a 4-on-3 power play, resulting in play going to 4-on-4 until the next whistle after the penalty expired. At which time, the extra frame would return to its normal 3-on-3. Thats exactly what happened, as Sparks and the Toronto penalty killers came up huge. They played so well infact that they drew a penalty on Phil Varone at the 3:16 mark, setting them up to finish overtime on the power play. The tables had turned on the Phantoms, but, much like Sparks, Lyon was up to the task, hanging on to get the game to a shootout.
Toronto elected to go first in the shootout, sending Aaltonen out to take the first crack at Lyon. He came in on Lyon fast, spliting the wickets and going five-hole on the Phantoms goalie to make it 1-0 Marlies. Conner went next for Lehigh Valley, and hes the guy you would usually want in these situations. Sparks stopped him however, keeping it 1-0. Next was Kapanen for Toronto, and he beat Lyon as well, choosing to go top shelf over the glove to make it 2-0. Lindblom came up next, as the Phantoms last hope. He stayed simple with his move, trying to beat Sparks to the five-hole. It would not go, and the Marlies skated away with the 3-2 victory in the shootout.
Lehigh Valley stuck it out with another heavyweight in the Eastern Conference but was unable to get two points in the standings Friday night. If Lehigh Valley and Toronto meet again this season, it would not be till the Conference Finals in the playoffs, which would be a fantastic series between these two clubs. Next up for Lehigh Valley, the second place team in the North Division, the Rochester Americans, tomorrow night in northern New York.