by Patrick Williams
The feeling still stung for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, even if it could be rationalized.
It was the powerhouse Toronto Marlies that had delivered that disappointment, after all.
The Marlies had sliced through the Phantoms – the regular-season Atlantic Division champion and a group that had posted 104 points, second-most in the AHL – in a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals. A 3-1 Toronto win in Game 4 at Lehigh Valley last Friday finished the Phantoms’ season.
“That’s a really good team over there,” Phantoms captain Colin McDonald said of the Marlies to reporters after Game 4. “It would have taken our absolute best effort every game.”
But it still stung, even if the sweep could be rationalized on some level. The Phantoms had expectations of their own.
“This is too good of a team,” McDonald said of his Phantoms. “We were expecting to make a run at [the Calder Cup]. We were talking about it, it seems, from day one.”
Now the Marlies are the Texas Stars’ problem. The teams meet in Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals on Saturday afternoon at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto.
THE BIG PICTURE
Their run into the Toronto buzzsaw aside, the Phantoms headed home after an extremely successful season. After missing the postseason for seven consecutive seasons, the parent Philadelphia Flyers found the right blend of quality AHL veterans and a deepening group of talented young prospects.
Last season, Lehigh Valley lost a first-round series against the archrival Hershey Bears.
That changed this season.
With a first-round victory against the Providence Bruins, the Phantoms won their first Calder Cup Playoff series since 2008.
That followed a 47-win regular season that also featured an AHL-best 27 home wins. An up-tempo club built around speed and skill, the Phantoms’ well-balanced offense generated 3.42 goals per game, ranking them second overall in the regular season despite their home in the loaded Atlantic Division.
The success did not stop after an excellent regular season and first round, either.
Lehigh Valley went on to knock out the formidable Charlotte Checkers in a five-game second-round set that featured three wins in Charlotte. Among the trio of victories was a five-overtime win -– the longest game in AHL history — in Game 4 that featured a 94-save performance from goaltender Alex Lyon.
Once the disappointment of Toronto sweeping the Phantoms wears off, Lehigh Valley fans should have ample reason for optimism next season.
That feeling can begin with goaltending prospect Carter Hart, the Flyers’ second-round selection in the 2016 NHL Draft. Hart, who will turn 20 in August, will turn pro next season after an exceptional career in the Western Hockey League. He will likely start his pro career with Lehigh Valley and is a reasonable projection to take over the number-one job in Philadelphia eventually.
Hart won the Canadian Hockey League’s Goaltender of the Year Award for the second consecutive season, becoming the first CHL goaltender to accomplish that feat. In 41 regular-season games with the Everett Silvertips, 31 of them wins, he put up a 1.60 GAA and .947 save percentage alongside seven shutouts that also earned him WHL Goaltender of the Year honors.
He carried that play throughout the postseason, taking the Silvertips to the WHL final. He went 14-8 in 22 playoff games with a 2.40 GAA and .921 save percentage.
His play carried into international competition as well, where he led Canada to a gold medal at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. In six games, he carried a 1.81 GAA and .930 save percentage.
Veteran netminder Dustin Tokarski, who held the number-one job through much of the regular season before yielding to Lyon in the second round, is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. Lyon will be a restricted free agent.
The possibility of a Lyon-Hart goaltending tandem on a nightly basis at PPL Center would again make the Phantoms a dangerous contender.
McDonald, 33, is another unrestricted free-agent. While he isn’t still producing 42-goal seasons in the AHL like he did in 2010-11 as an Edmonton Oilers prospect, he still played a valuable role throughout the season and is one of the AHL’s most respected captains.
He arrived in Lehigh Valley for the 2015-16 season and has captained the Phantoms for the past three seasons, including a 25-goal performance in 2016-17. In that time, he has seen a winning mentality take root for an AHL affiliate that had endured years of struggle.
LET IT BURN FOR A BIT
He tried to balance the sting of the Eastern Conference final with the bright long-term outlook. Still, he did also still want to leave room to let that bitter feeling linger, at least for a bit.
“Of course, big-picture, it’s positive,” McDonald said.
“But the last thing I want is for guys to be okay with it. It’s about winning championships here, and that is the precedent we’re trying to set here. We took the right step last year, and we took another step this year.
“We really have to remember this feeling to try to prevent this from happening again next year.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.