Northampton Press

Friday, May 29, 2020

Eyes still on young Phantom players

Thursday, March 5, 2020 by CHUCK HIXSON Special to the Press in Sports

While the Phantoms have basically no hopes of playing in the postseason, the players have to be aware that they are always on the stage and seeking to open eyes. Times like these are when players can stand apart somewhat by putting out strong efforts even though they know the team won’t really benefit by gaining a spot in the postseason. The Phantoms have a couple guys who are looking to show off what they can do as the AHL season heads into the home stretch.

Phantoms goalie Kirill Ustimenko made his PPL Center debut Saturday against the Charlotte Checkers. While the result was a 4-2 loss, Ustimenko showed some good signs in the game, making 24 saves. One thing that appeared evident was how Ustimenko seemed to be very comfortable stopping shots from in close. Three of the goals came on shots from longer range and the other came after Ustimenko easily turned aside a number of up-close opportunities from Charlotte before they were finally able to sneak a shot past him and into the goal.

The Flyers drafted Ustimenko in the third round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and he made his pro debut this season with the Reading Royals of the ECHL. In 31 games with the Royals, Ustimenko had a 2.14 goals against average and made saves on 91.9 percent of the shots that he faced. In just three games with Lehigh Valley, the native of Gomel, Belarus has a 3.14 GAA with a save percentage similar to what he had at Reading.

Ustimenko was named the Warrior Hockey ECHL Goalie of the Month in January and his play that month may have been the tipping point that made the Flyers decide they needed to move him up. To do so, they traded veteran J-F Berube, opening a spot on the Phantoms roster. Of course, now that he’s at the AHL level, there’s an even bigger blockade in front of Ustimenko in the person of Carter Hart, who has been playing well in Philadelphia since his return from an injury.

The early returns have been good on the 21-year old as he learns the rigors of playing at a higher level. In his debut with the Phantoms back on Feb. 8, The Phantoms beat Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 5-3 with Ustimenko making 38 saves in his inaugural AHL game. He followed that up with 36 saves in a 2-1 loss at Syracuse prior to his latest outing against Charlotte.

Another player who is showing off some skills of late is Andy Andreoff. Saturday’s game was a case-in-point when Andreoff continued to fight for the puck even with the Phantoms down 4-0 to Charlotte. Andreoff was positioned perfectly to take a redirect from Cal O’Reilly and put it past Charlotte goaltender Callum Booth.

The goal was the tenth of the season for Andreoff, 28, who is in his first season in the Flyers organization and played 14 games with Philadelphia this season. While Ustimenko is a young player looking to keep moving up, Andreoff is a veteran player who has nearly 200 NHL games on his resume and is fighting to get back to the NHL either this season with the Flyers or perhaps down the road even if it’s with a different organization. Andreoff has four goals in his last six games with Lehigh Valley and six points in his last seven games.

The Phantoms split their two-game home series with Charlotte this past weekend to end the season series at 4-2. Alex Lyon got the win in Friday night’s game and Andy Welinski picked up both assists in Saturday’s loss.

Monday was a day that likely only the most devoted hockey fans were aware of — the annual AHL trade deadline. The NHL deadline was a week earlier and the Flyers made a few moves to stiffen themselves for the stretch run.

On Monday, all was quiet as the Phantoms weren’t involved in any moves. There were rumors that veteran Greg Carey could have been headed elsewhere, but nothing ever materialized.

There are just 18 Phantoms games left on the schedule and they find themselves 12 points out of a playoff spot, with a couple other teams ahead of them that they would have to climb over. Lehigh Valley stands seventh in the division, with the top four teams destined for the postseason. This weekend is a three-in-three weekend with a home game against Bridgeport, a trip to Binghamton on Saturday and then back home for another contest with Bridegport on Sunday. Ten of the remaining games are on the Phantoms home ice.

Lehigh Valley used this past weekend’s games against Charlotte to salute the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team that beat Russia for the gold medal. The weekend included special 1980 Olympic-style jerseys, which were auctioned off following Saturday’s game. The night also saw an appearance from Craig Patrick, the assistant coach of the 1980 team, who took part in a ceremonial puck drop prior to the game.