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Phantoms looking for long playoff run

Wednesday, April 4, 2018 by chuck hixson Special to the Press in Sports

Last season, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms reached the AHL Playoffs, but had a much quicker exit than most expected.

That hasn’t been forgotten by the players who are around on this year’s playoff team and they’re determined to make this postseason a much longer experience. For veteran players and the organization as a whole, returning to the playoffs for a second straight season has a bigger meaning than just playing for a Calder Cup Championship.

“It gets back to trying to create that winning culture,” explained team captain Colin McDonald. “It’s different from some other teams. Some teams find a way to get in every year and that’s part of that winning culture.”

In last year’s playoffs, the Phantoms met Hershey in the first round and bowed out losing the series three games to two. The Bears won the first two games in Allentown, but Lehigh Valley came back to take the next two in Hershey only to lose game five back at the PPL Center. This season’s team has been a beast at home, so the same type of outcome would be completely unexpected. Lehigh Valley has the best home winning percentage (. 764) in the AHL with a 25-6-3-2 record on home ice. That record at home could be important if Lehigh Valley is to get home ice advantage with a first-place finish in the Atlantic Division.

Lehigh Valley is close to clinching that spot, with their magic number at six over second-place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. To get home ice advantage throughout the Atlantic Division and AHL playoffs, the Phantoms would have to catch top-seeded Toronto, who have a five-point advantage over Lehigh Valley.

“We’re too good in here to not make a long run,” explained McDonald. “Of course, we’re happy that we’re able to get in; the next goal now is try to remain in first place and gain home ice.”

Last season, the Phantoms had to go to the penultimate game of the season to clinch a playoff spot. This season, they have already wrapped up a playoff spot giving them some time to breath before heading to the postseason. The schedule doesn’t provide much of a break for the Phantoms over the final six games – the first four of which are on the road – as they face teams battling for a spot in the playoffs, including potential first-round opponent Charlotte. The Phantoms and Checkers play Tuesday and Wednesday nights this week in Charlotte.

Facing teams fighting for playoff spots should keep Lehigh Valley sharp while at the same time, knowing that they’re not must-win games to reach the playoffs. That knowledge leaves a little of the pressure off the team down the stretch. Phantoms coach Scott Gordon is focused simply on the team playing well heading into the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“Would I love for our team to be in first place in our division? Would I love for our team to be first in the conference? Would I love for our team to be first in the league? Yeah,” said Gordon. “But really, it’s what you do down the stretch and hopefully, it carries through in the playoffs.”

WHERE THE LYON SLEEPS TONIGHT ... Goalie Alex Lyon has been somewhat of a nomad of late. Lyon was returned to Lehigh Valley from the Flyers last Wednesday only to be recalled again on Saturday. It’s all part of a goalie shuffle that saw Anthony Stolarz return from Reading where he was on a rehab assignment and John Muse – who put up spectacular numbers with the Phantoms – head back to Reading. Stolarz is deemed completely healthy after knee surgery that got his season off to a very late start.

BACK TO CHARLOTTE ... As things stand right now – and are likely to finish – the Phantoms and Charlotte Checkers would meet in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. The best-of-five series would likely have the two teams play games one and two in Charlotte before moving to the Lehigh Valley for any remaining games. The series would be set up that way because the teams are more than 300 miles apart, limiting travel.

SAME GUY, NEW RECORD ... Greg Carey broke his Lehigh Valley record of 28 goals in a season and is now the first Lehigh Valley player to reach the 30-goal mark in one season. The last Phantoms player to reach 30 goals was Jonathan Matsumoto, who reached the milestone as a member of the 2009-2010 Adirondack Phantoms. Carey is second in career goals with Lehigh Valley to Danick Martel, who has 66 compared to Carey’s 58.