ALLENTOWN, PA – Phantoms forward Phil Varone scored the 100th goal of his AHL career Friday night, but that was basically the only positive note for Lehigh Valley as they dropped the contest 6-2 to the Springfield Thunderbirds. The Phantoms played very sloppy the entire night, showing some promise in certain moments, but they performed as bad as the score shows. The biggest set back was turnovers in their own end, resulting in the defense leaving goalie Alex Lyon out to dry on multiple occasions. Such play lead to a string of three straight goals in the second period by the Thunderbirds, which all but sealed the night.
It started to show that Friday was not the Phantoms’ night early on as the team’s penalty killing unit failed to fend off the first power play they saw in the game. Oskar Linblom sat for tripping at the 10:42 mark of the first period, and by the 11:49 mark, it was 1-0. Jace Hawryluk got the T-birds started, by gaining position in front of the Phantoms net and tipping home a blast from Anthony Greco to break the ice. Hawryluk got position by bodying out defenseman Mark Alt, and took away Lyons sight line to Greco, who dropped the hammer on his shot from the top of the right circle.
The Thunderbirds first lead of the night ended up not lasting the entire period as Nic Aube-Kubel tied the game with less than two minutes to play in the frame. Aube-Kubel skated across the blueline, taking a pass from Alt in stride. He then cut down the left wing, pulling up at the face-off dot and wristed a laser past the glove hand of Samuel Montembeault to make it 1-1.
Springfield took their lead back five minutes into the second period, exposing the Phantoms defense again. This time, speed on the rush killed Lehigh Valley as Rob Hamilton and Ed Wittchow got through all five Phantoms to create a 2-on-1. Hamilton, cutting down the left side, fed a cross ice pass to Wittchow, who caught it and back handed a shot up and over a lunging Lyon, who was doing all he could to make up for the defensive play. Seven minutes later is when Varone struck for his 100th goal of his AHL career, benefiting off a play by Greg Carey. Varone won a faceoff in the Springfield end cleanly, getting the puck back to Carey. Carey cut toward the middle of the ice and used a forehand to backhand move to evade a defender. Once back to his forehand, he let go a quick shot through a maze of legs that Montembeault never saw, but stopped. Going to the net, the puck rebounded right to Varone, who finished it off to tie the game back up. It was all down hill from there.
A minute and four seconds later, Springfield took the lead back. With Reese Willcox in the box for hooking, the Thunderbirds power play went to work again. Dryden Hunt got the marker this time, knocking home a bouncing puck off a rebound from the pads of Lyon. Originally the goal was listed as unassisted due to the amount off bodies it hit after the initial shot hit Lyon. Upon reviewing it further, they added assists to Hawryluk and Greco, giving each player a two point night. Not even a minute later, another defensive break down ended up behind Lyon. A bad play on a clearing attempt gave Mark Fayne all the time in the world to rip home a one timer off the rolling puck that ended up at the right point. A shot that had eyes somehow spun its way up and over Lyons glove to make it 4-2. Again, the goal was originally listed as unassisted, but they added helpers to Ryan Horvat and Greco, who now had three points. Chase Balisy finished the barrage just over two minutes later, giving the Thunderbirds three goals in three minutes and three seconds. Balisy just beat Lyon cleanly on a feed from Horvat, making it 5-2.
Balisy added another goal in the third to bring us to that 6-2 final, with Horvat and Greco adding another assist each, giving Horvat three and Greco four. Another turnover off a bouncing puck lead to the sixth Thunderbirds goal, which Balisy jumped all over for his second of the night. Montembeault, other than the two goals, was not very busy at his end, only facing 19 shots the entire night, and helping his team come out on top for the second straight game in the state of Pennsylvania (Springfield beat Hershey in OT on Wednesday thanks to another spectacular performance from Montembeault).
For the Phantoms, the loss made four straight games on the wrong end of the decision, and dropped their record to 5-4-1-1 over their last ten. Their three previous losses were to teams ahead of them in the standings in Charlotte, Toronto, and Rochester, but Friday night’s set back was their first handed to them by Springfield this season. Springfield sits in last place in the Atlantic Division. Whether it happens to be a case of playing down to a team or not, the Phantoms cannot afford to do so again when critical points are on the line, especially against divisional foes.
Nine of the Phantoms next ten games, and fifteen of their next twenty, are against their Atlantic division rivals. That starts Saturday and Sunday night, with a home-at-home series against the Hershey Bears. Saturday, the Phantoms have home ice and will debut their “color rush” jerseys they will also sport next Saturday during the Outdoor Classic. Hershey will host Sunday. After Sunday, all that separates the Phantoms and Bears from taking their rivalry outdoors is a Wednesday game against the Penguins up in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Critical points will be on the line over the next few weeks for Lehigh Valley, ones they desperately need.