Phantoms get much-needed points
They needed these!
After a Sunday loss in Bridgeport last week, the Phantoms were looking ahead at a road game in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and two home games against the Charlotte Checkers. At that point, the Phantoms were 4-9-1 in their last 14 games and starting to sink quickly in the Atlantic Division and in the Eastern Conference standings. They traveled north to meet the Penguins and came away with a nice, tidy 3-1 win with Alex Lyon saving 27 of the 28 shots that he faced.
Two nights later, the conference leading Checkers came to town for two games after having swept the Phantoms in back-to-back games in Charlotte in late February. In the first of the two games, Mike Vecchione scored two goals and Lyon again put on a nice show in goal with 32 saves.
With the team playing great in some spurts and pretty badly in some, Vecchione has been a constant for the team this season, but his goal scoring hasn’t been quite what the Phantoms may have hoped it would be, even though the rest of his play was above and beyond what they were anticipating.
“I knew at some point, he was going to score goals,” said interim head coach Kerry Huffman. “He’s got that ability to put the puck in the net and I think he’s had a lot of games where he’s had a lot of opportunities and just didn’t have the best puck luck in the world, but he got rewarded tonight.”
Vecchione’s big night put him at 15 goals on the season with 21 assists for 36 points on the year in his 61 games with the Phantoms. Both of his Friday goals came in the second period when Lehigh Valley put the Checkers back on their heels, scoring all three of their goals. One of Vecchione’s goals was short-handed, on a classic move to beat a Charlotte defender and get the goal.
On Sunday though, the Phantoms couldn’t get the sweep as they came out listless and then let a bad call push them down even further in a 4-0 loss to Charlotte. The disputed call came when it appeared that Connor Bunnaman deflected a shot by Zach Palmquist with his stick, but the goal was waved off and went to a video review. The video showed that Bunnaman wasn’t in the crease and that any call should have come on Charlotte goalie Alex Nedeljokovic, who appeared to be attempting to trip Bunnaman. After the game, Bunnaman denied that he even touched the puck on the play, but the call stood as a no goal.
The bottom line to what could have been an impressive three-game run for Lehigh Valley is that they went 2-1, but the loss to Charlotte kept them out of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference who qualify for the playoffs. The win would have put them into eighth place, one-point ahead of Utica and Belleville, but instead, they’re a point behind the two teams. The good news is that the win over the Pens has them a point ahead of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Cleveland in the battle for that final playoff spot.
COLE ON ICE... Cole Bardreau, who has been nursing a hand injury since mid-December, returned to the Phantoms lineup Friday night and was on the starting line for coach Kerry Huffman. On Sunday, Lehigh Valley also got Nic Aube-Kubel back in the lineup after he went down with a head injury the weekend before. David Kase played in his fifth straight game after missing time because of an injury and looks to be 100-percent.
CAN’T CATCH ME... We’ve all Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, dodge a bullet in The Matrix. It might not have been quite as impressive, but Justin Bailey had his own Matrix moment Sunday afternoon against Charlotte. With Josiah Didier looking to be the baseball bat and Bailey the ball, Bailey simply stepped aside and let Didier launch himself into the boards. Didier got up and played without injury, except to his pride, which was clearly a little damaged.
MATH IS HARD... Especially in hockey. The Phantoms have 15 games left, seven of which are against teams ahead of them in the standings. Obviously, those games stand out, but they also have to watch the Penguins, who are one point behind Lehigh Valley with the two teams slated to play five more times. Lehigh Valley also has two back-to-back road games in Cleveland, who are also just a point behind Lehigh Valley. Factor in points for overtime games and the math gets fuzzy at best. Thankfully, Bunnaman knows the bottom line: “Every game is a big game. This playoff push is huge for us and there’s no days off here. Every period we have to work and get wins,” he explained.