Phantoms in playoffs; goalie situation muddy
The Phantoms believe that the road to the 2018 Calder Cup goes through the Lehigh Valley.
The team clinched a playoff berth with a 5-4, overtime loss at Providence which combined nicely with Bridgeport’s 4-1 loss at Syracuse to lock up their playoff ticket. This will be the 12th playoff appearance for the Phantoms, dating back to their days in Philadelphia, and second in a row as they look for their third Calder Cup championship.
Since Jan. 20, the Phantoms have just four regulation losses and have played at an incredible clip posting a 19-4-4 mark over that period. The run has not only put them at the top of the division, but they’re now the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Even with a playoff spot secured, the team has some questions to answer over the final eight games of the regular season. The biggest of those will be to see how the goalie situation plays itself out. Dustin Tokarski and John Muse have been combining well in the crease since Alex Lyon was called up to the Flyers. Now, there’s another piece to add to the puzzle in Anthony Stolarz.
It’s very possible that Stolarz would be the starting goalie in Philadelphia if not for a knee injury last April that has kept him off the ice for the better part of a full year. Stolarz had been on a rehab assignment with the Reading Royals of the ECHL to work on his conditioning and timing and returned to the Phantoms Saturday for his first start of the season with the team, which unfortunately, didn’t go very well. Providence jumped out to a 5-0 lead and finished with a 6-1 victory over the Phantoms, putting 35 shots on goal against Stolarz.
Just how coach Scott Gordon will approach the goalie rotation over the final eight games is going to be interesting. Tokarski and Muse have both played well, but Stolarz has the higher ceiling for the organization in the long-term. It’s likely that all three goalies will see some playing time down the stretch, but Stolarz may get most of the games. That would give him an opportunity to return to form while also providing Tokarski and Muse with a bit of a break.
LOOKING AHEAD, PART ONE: Remember last season when it seemed like the Phantoms and Penguins were playing each other every night? This year, they haven’t seen each other in over a month and they have just one game left, which is the regular season finale at the PPL Center on April 14. Of their eight remaining games, they have two each against Providence and Charlotte and then single games against Belleville, Hartford, Bridgeport and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
LOOKING AHEAD, PART TWO: If things stay as they are right now, Lehigh Valley would be playing Charlotte in the first round of the AHL Playoffs. The Checkers have a pretty comfortable lead – nine points – over fifth-place Bridgeport. It appears that the Phantoms will be joined in the divisional round by Providence, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Charlotte, but the exact order of the finish will be interesting. While Lehigh Valley has an eight-point lead in the division, the other three teams are separated by just four points.
LOTS OF VISITORS: The Phantoms rank fifth in the AHL in average attendance this season with 7,829 fans per game at the PPL Center, well over the league average of 5,841. San Diego is the top draw at 9,206 followed by Hershey, Cleveland, Providence and Lehigh Valley.