Bethlehem Press

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Article By: Scott Pagel spagel@tnonline.com

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 by Scott Pagel spagel@tnonline.com in Sports

As eastern Pennsylvania comes out of a deep freeze, the AHL season is two-thirds over and there are just 25 games remaining for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. A lot has happened this season with more than just the usual up-and-down player movements and the Phantoms have made it through in relatively good shape. Now, as the end is starting to come into view, it comes time to realize that the Atlantic Division is one big tightly packed mess.

The Charlotte Checkers are hands down the best team in the division, the conference and the league. They have a league-leading 68 points and have outscored their opponents by 23 goals. All of this includes a recent slow streak that has seen them go 4-3-3-0 in their last 10 games. The Checkers are followed closely by Bridgeport, with 56 points. Bridgeport is followed closely by Providence and Lehigh Valley, who both stand at 55 points. Providence and Lehigh Valley are followed closely by Springfield with 52 points and Springfield is followed closely by; well, you get the idea. While the Checkers hold a 12-point lead over their closest competitor, the spread between second and last in the Atlantic Division is just 13 points.

Obviously, with that many teams that close, the conference race is tight, too. There is a span of just seven points between second and eighth for playoff spots and just 10 points between the last playoff spot and the bottom of the conference.

“We’ve been seeing this coming for a month-and-a-half,” pointed out interim coach Kerry Huffman. “Everybody knew Providence would be better too. And now Hershey is playing some good hockey, so it’s going to be a tough last 25 games. That’s for sure.”

Hershey is playing better hockey and are moving closer to the group that for much of the season had a wide gap over the Bears. On Saturday night, the Bears downed the Phantoms 2-1 to help close the gap a little more. Branden Komm got the start in goal for Lehigh Valley and turned away 31 of 33 shots that he faced, but the Phantoms offense couldn’t muster much against Hershey. Ironically, the night before, Lehigh Valley tallied seven goals in a game for the third time this season and beat Bridgeport 7-5.

Mike Vecchione led Lehigh Valley with a goal and three assists, for a career-high four-point game. Justin Bailey extended his point streak to three games with two goals in the win, but had that streak stopped the next night against Hershey. Bailey has four goals and two assists in eight games since being acquired from Buffalo in a trade that now has Taylor Leier playing for the Rochester Americans.

With time starting to wear thin on the season and teams scrambling for playoff positions, the Phantoms are needing to find consistency.

“There are some things we have to do better,” said Huffman. “We’ll get some guys back here over the next little bit. We’ll have a good week of practice, we haven’t had a whole lot of practice time the last three weeks, either. It will be nice to really spend some time and break some things down and get working on some things.”

HARD SHOOTER... Greg Carey competed in the CCM Hardest Shot Contest at the All-Star Festivities in Springfield. On his first shot, Carey unloaded a 97.9 mile-per-hour shot and followed that up with a 100.4 mile-per-hour laser that would be the highest recorded in the competition to give him this year’s title. Carey and teammate Colin McDonald played for the Atlantic Division team that finished as the runner-up in the team competition. Both Phantoms finished with a goal and an assist in the competition among teams made up of players from within the same division.

MCKENNA COMES TO THE LEHIGH VALLEY... Goalie Mike McKenna, who played in 10 games for Ottawa this season and one with the Flyers, was loaned to the Phantoms from Philadelphia on a conditioning assignment. McKenna is well versed in AHL hockey and played in each of the last two Calder Cup Finals, with the Syracuse Crunch in 2017 and the Texas Stars in 2018.

ARE WE HOME YET?... The Phantoms end a three-game road trip Friday night in Utica before returning to play four of the next five at home. It starts with games against Hartford Saturday and Sunday and then Bridgeport comes in the following Friday. Lehigh Valley and Hershey have a home-and-home series on February 16 and 17.