Phantoms & Checkers Expect Goals Galore

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms continue their run towards the team’s third Calder Cup on Friday against the Charlotte Checkers. The Phantoms won a playoff series for the first time since 2008, when they were playing back in Philadelphia, by beating the Providence Bruins in four games. Home has been where the heart is for the team as they have now won nine consecutive games at the PPL Center. Charlotte enters the series having won 10 straight games and has gone 13 straight outings without a regulation loss (12-0-1).

Greg Carey TJ Brennan Phantoms
Greg Carey and TJ Brennan, Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Apr. 30, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Atlantic Division Finals could be a high scoring affair as the Checkers finished the regular season as the top scoring offense (3.45 goals per game) and the Phantoms were number two (3.42 goals per game). The regular season series was a tight one as each team won four games, but Lehigh Valley was 3-1 at home. Charlotte outscored them 28-22 while outshooting them 260-239. These games were not close, with only two of the eight being decided by one goal, and four of the eight saw a team score five-plus goals. The Phantoms scored six power-play goals on 35 attempts, while the Checkers scored nine on their 34 times with the man advantage.

Players to Watch

AHL MVP Phil Varone’s status for the start of the series is unknown since he missed Game 4 against Providence with an injury. This was a huge loss for the team considering Varone contributed one goal, five assists, 11 shots on goal and a plus-five rating vs Charlotte this season.

One player that could fill the void is Oskar Lindblom, who made an immediate impact with three points in two postseason games after being sent down by the Philadelphia Flyers. Lindblom had three goals on 15 shots in six games against Charlotte during the regular season.

Flyers fans will have some top prospects to watch for on defense. Travis Sanheim, fresh off his first NHL postseason experience, is now paired with fellow top defensive prospect Phil Myers. Sanheim suited up in only two games against Charlotte this season, but had a point in each game played, both resulting in a victory. Myers has three points and five shots in his first four AHL postseason games. The defense would get a huge boost if first-round pick Sam Morin, who hasn’t played since January, could return at some point in this seven-game series.

The Checkers were paced by Andrew Poturalski’s six goals during the regular season series, and AHL regular-season leading goal scorer Valentin Zykov (33 goals) scored three goals in four games against Lehigh Valley. Greg McKegg, acquired in a February trade with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, has been an added weapon to the Checkers arsenal. The center had 23 points in 19 games played during the regular season and added five more in the first-round sweep of his old team.

The Masked Men of the Series

Dustin Tokarski and Alex Lyon both saw action in the first-round victory and both played well. Lyon was the hero in the Game 4 OT thriller saving 49 shots and having a “colorful” postgame comment about the fans. Lyon had a record of 2-1 in the regular season with a 2.35 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.

Tokarski was not as successful against Charlotte this season, getting pulled in his first game on Dec. 12 after giving up three goals on seven shots against. Despite these difficulties, the Phantoms came back to win the game 6-3. His next start against Charlotte wasn’t until Apr. 3, when he allowed two more goals on 38 shots against, resulting in a loss. As in the last round, the Phantoms are most likely to use both goalies in this series.

We will only see one goalie for the Checkers as Alex Nedeljkovic has been a workhorse for the team. His 49 games played during the regular season was the second most in the league. He saved 78 of the 84 shots he faced in a three-game sweep of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins but was 1-3 in four meetings with Lehigh Valley, posting a 3.78 goals-against average coupled with a 0.881 save percentage.

The Prediction to Believe In

Lehigh Valley has a 19-1-2 mark in Allentown since Jan. 13 and led all AHL teams with a league-best 27 home wins. Ultimately, this series will come down to home ice. Charlotte is red hot with the additions of Greg McKegg to the front line and Hayden Fleury to the back line. These moves have helped a team that already has a ton of firepower and will undoubtedly give the Phantoms some trouble. The Phantoms defensive unit will be up for the task and be the difference-makers, especially on special teams.

The ice is set for the first NHL game to ever be played at PPL Center, Allentown, PA – Flyers/Islanders.

The Phantoms’ power play was a factor in their opening round victory against Providence, going 4-for-14 (28.6 percent). Meanwhile, Charlotte’s man advantage was just one-for-15 (6.7 percent) in the first round. Home cooking and special teams will move the Phantoms to the third round for the first time since 2005, when they won the Calder Cup.