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Phantoms Surge in November

Flyers AHL affiliate posts 8-game win streak, climbs atop standings

by Bill Meltzer @NHLFlyers /

Video: Scott Laughton's overtime winning goal for LVPAlthough the Lehigh Valley Phantoms saw an eight-game winning streak come to an end with a 5-2 setback at the hands of Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Saturday night, the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate has soared in the standings to a 10-4-1 overall record. It took Lehigh Valley a few weeks to get going, but the team has gelled after a 2-3-1 start to the season.

Over the course of the Phantoms' eight-game winning streak, head coach Scott Gordon's club wasn't just squeaking out wins apart from a late-game comeback and overtime road victory over the Providence Bruins on Friday before the streak ended in Bridgeport the next night. As the Phantoms rattled off its winning streak, the team outscored its opponents by a whopping 36-14 margin. 

Lehigh Valley defeated some of the top clubs in the AHL during the winning streak, including a 4-1 home win over the Atlantic Division leading Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins (12-3-1), who currently hold a four-point lead on the Phantoms. Other teams victimized by the Phantoms in November included a 7-2 shellacking of the North Division leading Toronto Marlies at the PPL Center in Allentown and a 3-1 road win over the arch-rival Hershey Bears.

Through the games of November 19, the Phantoms are one of just four teams in the AHL to have already earned 20 or more standings points on the season: Wilkes Barre/Scranton, Hershey and the Central Divison leading Milwaukee Admirals are the other three. Moreover, the firepower-laden Phantoms attack has produced 59 goals. Only the Texas Stars (60 goals) have tallied more to date. 

By design, the Phantoms roster has numerous veteran AHL standouts such as Greg Carey (10g-3a), team captain Colin McDonald with nine points (7g-2a) and defensemen T.J. Brennan (5g-9a) and Will O'Neill (1g-9a) in prominent roles.

These players and others have done their part as the organization focuses on developing a core of young players in a winning environment while working on the aspects of their games that need continued growth to eventually reach the next level. Development, not individual statistics, is the objective throughout the season but especially in the early months. 

Jordan Weal, who has missed the last three games after receiving a crushing hit by Hershey's Thomas Di Pauli, remains the Phantoms' leading scorer with 15 points (3g-12a) in 14 games. Weal participated in the morning skate prior to the win against Providence on Friday but was not ready yet to play. 

Also getting closer to returning to the lineup is third-year defenseman Robert Hagg. The 2013 second-round draft pick had been one of the team's steadiest defensemen this season until he took a puck to the face during the Phantoms' 6-4 win over the Springfield Falcons on Nov. 5. He may be ready to return to practice over the coming week. Likewise, veteran Andy Miele (seven points in nine games) may soon return to practice after sustaining an upper-body injury that has kept him out of the lineup since the Springfield game.

With the injury to Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth and the recall of Anthony Stolarz (6-2-0, 2.39 GAA, .927 save percentage, one shutout) to the big club for a projected four-to-six-week stint, first year pro Alex Lyon will receive an extended run of playing time for the Phantoms. He was roughed up in his first few appearances in October but settled down to play very well during the team's recent winning streak. 

Overall, Lyon has posted a 2.84 GAA, .910 save percentage and 4-2-1 record in seven appearances to date.

Now in his third pro season, Taylor Leier emerged even a year ago as one of the Phantoms' top two-way players and a young leader-by-example. His growth has continued early in 2016-17 and the speedy forward has produced 14 points (4g-10a) in 15 games while contributing in all game situations. With the reassignment of Scott Laughton from the Flyers to the Phantoms, Leier and McDonald have formed a promising line combination. 

To date, Laughton has eight points (2g-6a) in eight games including the overtime winner to cap the dramatic comeback win in Providence.

Speedy rookie forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel is still finding game-in and game-out equilibrium at the professional level but has shown flashes of brilliance in scoring three goals and five points in his 15 appearances. Aube-Kubel has recently been on a line with Cole Bardreau (two goals, three points in 11 games) while continuing to work on details of his overall game.

Fellow rookie Radel Fazleev, making the transition from being relied on for offense at the Western Hockey League level last season to being a 200-foot role player in the pro game, has been adapting quickly and has even offensively chipped in his first AHL goal and seven points. On an AHL contract, former Florida Panthers forward Corban Knight has also been a solid overall presence in the Phantoms' third line while also contributing four goals (one shorthanded) and six points. Second-season speedster Danick Martel has posted 10 points (4g-6a) in 12 games.

During the Flyers' preseason and a brief late-season stint with the Phantoms last year, 2014 first-round pick Travis Sanheim showed off his abundant speed and prowess to create offense by joining the rush. His primary challenge as an AHL rookie in his first full pro season is to continue developing his play without the puck and decision-making without sacrificing his ability to make things happen offensively. 

The presence of Brennan and O'Neill on the club this season affords Sanheim the opportunity to focus on these critical areas that will be vital to his long-term advancement. Through his first 15 games, Sanheim has contributed eight assists but, more importantly, he is a plus-five at even strength and has shown early signs of being able to bounce back after a mistake or a subpar game. 

Second-year pro Samuel Morin continues to be nurtured into the shutdown role the Flyers envision him playing at the NHL at some point. His straight-line speed was always remarkable for such a big man but his footwork, positioning and reads have improved considerably from the start of 2015-16 through the first 15 games of his second pro season. The mantra with Morin is "less is more", as he is at his most effective when he uses his size, mobility, reach and first-pass ability to his advantage. Hagg has undergone a similar process in terms of learning to make higher-percentage plays and doing so at the pace demanded by the North American pro game.

A pleasant surprise for the Phantoms in the early going is rookie defenseman Reece Willcox. The 6-foot-4 recent graduate of Cornell and 2012 fifth-round draft pick has compiled a plus-seven rating for the Phantoms in 15 games this season and has chipped in two goals. Young veteran Mark Alt, injured during a preseason fight, remains sidelined. 

In the meantime, with the Phantoms boasting so much depth up front, second year pro Tyrell Goulbourne was recently assigned to the ECHL's Reading Royals to get some playing time.

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