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Playoff berth still special for Phantoms

By Stephen GrossAHL On The Beat

After one of the times Peter Laviolette led the Flyers into the NHL playoffs as their coach, he was asked what it meant to make the playoffs.

His reply was short and simple. It just meant they made the playoffs.

With the Lehigh Valley Phantoms — a team that was expected to be playing in the postseason from the beginning of this season — clinching a playoff berth for the second straight year last weekend, do they feel the same?

“I do think it’s a little bit more than that,” Phantoms captain Colin McDonald said.

Even though the Phantoms aren’t ending a seven-season postseason dry spell, it is still a bit special.

“It’s different than some other teams; some teams find a way to get in every year,” McDonald said. “So it goes back to trying to create that winning culture.”

McDonald often refers to building a winning culture in his interviews, and that’s exactly why he and a number of other veterans were brought to the Phantoms by Flyers general manager Ron Hextall. One year doesn’t create a winning culture, which makes this season and the next few that follow it important.

An earlier-than-expected playoff exit last season — a first-round loss to the Hershey Bears — also has the many players returning from that team hungry to get back in the postseason. It’s why there is excitement, but not nearly as much as last year.

“It’s just the first step,” McDonald said. “We’re too good in here to not make a long run. 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.”

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Another factor that helped increase the tension last season is absent this time around. Last year’s berth was sealed with just two games left on their schedule. Despite piling up 101 standings points, Lehigh Valley had to wait until nearly the end of the 2016-17 season to know for sure that they’d make the postseason.

This year, the Phantoms have the luxury of playing three more weeks of the regular season before their first Calder Cup playoff series. Time will tell whether that turns out to be a good thing- one night after locking up a playoff spot, the team played one of its worst games of the season on March 24, losing to the Providence Bruins 6-1.

McDonald said clinching the spot was not discussed but it’s possible that they took the night off, knowing in the back of their minds a playoff spot was secured.

“They reminded us quickly that we have to show up every night,” McDonald said. “It cost us.”

That  was the middle contest of three straight games against the Bruins for the Phantoms. It had almost a playoff series feel, especially because the Bruins are a potential first- or second-round matchup the way things currently stand in the Atlantic Division.

This past week at practice, the team focused on how it needed to play going forward. They responded Friday night by shutting out the Bruins 2-0 and then topping Belleville Saturday 4-2.

The Phantoms will continue to be tested the rest of the way; four of their final six games come against teams currently in a position to grab one of the Atlantic Division berths.

But even more than where they finish in the standings, Phantoms coach Scott Gordon would like his team to be playing well as they finish the season.

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