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MELTZER: Vecchione valuable in Phantoms playoff run

Flyers prospect proving to be an experienced rookie in the big moments

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

A Hobey Baker finalist last year who chose a contract offer from the Flyers among multiple offers from National Hockey League teams, Phantoms rookie forward Mike Vecchione has spent his first full pro year making the transition from collegiate to pro hockey. He made his NHL debut in the final week of the 2016-17 season and spent this season in Lehigh Valley.

At age 25, Vecchione is older than most skaters who are classified as National Hockey League prospects. He's two months older than his good friend and former Union College teammate Shayne Gostisbehere, who will enter his fourth NHL season come October. He's a year older than Flyers center/left winger Scott Laughton, who was the organization's first-round pick back in 2012.

The positive side of Vecchione being older than most rookies: nothing overwhelmed the late-blooming forward, and he understood that development is a long-term process.

"I've been working on the details of my game," Vecchione said back on Oct. 24. "I think it's going well. Things we've talked about here are things I know that [Flyers general manager Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol] put value on up at the next level. Getting to the right spots. Being responsible. Back pressure, helping the D below the dots. Making reads, like if there's a chance to work the puck down low or if there's a low-to-high play to make."

 

After an up-and-down training camp and preseason with the Flyers and Phantoms, Vecchione had an excellent start to the regular season. The 5-foot-10, 203-pound forward found quick chemistry with Danick Martel and regular early-season linemate Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and Vecchione was named the American Hockey League Rookie of the Month for October.

"I think Mike was thinking a little too much before the season; you could see the wheels turning [in his head] a little bit. Now, it's been like night and day. He knows where to go. The reads are much better, the support down low. The decisions he makes up-ice and getting back. Pretty much right across the board," Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon said on Oct. 24.

From an offensive standpoint, Vecchione started the season by posting 11 points (2g-9a) in 10 games. One other area that surprised Gordon has been the rookie's prowess in the faceoff circle, which is an area where most young centers (even older rookies such as the 24-year-old Union College graduate) tend to struggle. His play without the puck also improved rapidly, with only occasional hiccups.

However, Vecchione's season was interrupted by an injury in a Dec. 9 game in Hershey that kept him out of the lineup until the Christmas break. Even after his return, it took some time for Vecchione to get back to where he was prior to the injury.

Although he scored a goal in his first game back in the lineup, Vecchione struggled for nearly a month. In his first nine games after his return, Vecchione posted just three points (1g-2a) and was minus-10 at even strength. Thereafter, Vecchione had only four minus games the rest of the regular season. 

Offensively, Vecchione finished the regular season with 17 goals, five on the power play, and 40 points in 65 games for a deep Phantoms team that spreads the wealth across the lineup. The team had nine players who scored 14 or more goals, and 10 with double-digit goals.

Gordon said that spending a largely successful season in the AHL was more beneficial to Vecchione's career than if he'd played in the NHL this season and struggled.

"It's better to learn down here what you can and can't do than go up there and fail," Gordon said to the Morning Call. "A lot of first-year players, they come in and think 'I made this play in college, I made this play in juniors. I can still make it.' Sometimes you just can't because you're playing against men that have experience. They're stronger, they skate better, better stick." 

In the playoffs, Vecchione has posted six points (3g-3a) through the Phantoms' first nine games. His play was an important factor in the Phantoms' first-round win over the Providence Bruins, as Vecchione scored twice and added a pair of assists in the four-game series. Vecchione took second-star honors in Game 3 of the Phantoms' second-round series with the Charlotte Checkers, garnering a goal and an assist in a 5-1 win that gave the Phantoms a two games to one lead in the series. 

The extended Vecchione family got an assist, of sorts, in getting the Phantoms through the six-hour fourth game of the series. Vecchione's aunt attended the game, bringing along homemade brownies to give to Mike after the game. As the game went to overtime and one extra frame begat another and another, Vecchione's aunt decided to send the brownies to the locker room. Vecchione and his teammates devoured the treats before the fourth overtime frame.

Moving forward, the Phantoms could use from Vecchione a productive Eastern Conference Final series against the Toronto Marlies. Toronto posted the top regular season record in the American Hockey League, boasts strong goaltending and consistently plays a strong two-way game. Vecchione's background experience includes winning an NCAA championship with Union College in 2013-14.

"I was a freshman that year. Obviously, [the NCAA Frozen Four tournament] is single-elimination and up here, it's a longer series. But every shift is important in the playoffs. That's the biggest thing," Vecchione said.

 

The Phantoms-Marlies series kicks off Saturday night in Toronto. Below is the complete schedule...

Game 1 - Sat., May 19 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 4:00 p.m.
Game 2 - Sun., May 20 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 4:00 p.m.
Game 3 - Wed., May 23 - Toronto at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m. (TV broadcast: NBCSP+)
Game 4 - Fri., May 25 - Toronto at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m. (TV broadcast: NBCSP+)
*Game 5 - Sat., May 26 - Toronto at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m. (TV broadcast: NBCSP+)
*Game 6 - Mon., May 28 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 7:00 p.m.
*Game 7 - Wed., May 30 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 7:00 p.m.
*if necessary... All times Eastern

GAMES 3, 4, and 5 will be held at PPL Center in Lehigh Valley. Get tickets HERE.

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