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Phantoms Update: Strange Days Indeed

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer /

For many long months during the extended offseason, there were no guarantees of whether there would be a 2020-21 American Hockey League season at all amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After much adjustment and planning, the campaign finally got underway in February following an abbreviated training camp.

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms, as with the parent Philadelphia Flyers, are playing an entirely intra-divisional schedule.The Phantoms schedule consists of 38 games (between Feb. 6 and May 16). Lehigh Valley will play 14 games apiece against the Hershey Bears, Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins and Binghamton Devils (who have temporarily relocated for this season to the parent New Jersey Devils' home base at the Prudential Center complex in Newark). 

B2B Overtime Games

The Phantoms have played two games to date, taking three of four possible points. Both matches went overtime, tied at 1-1. 

The Phantoms earned a 2-1 overtime win on opening night against Hershey on Feb. 6. Rookie defenseman Wyatte Wylie scored in the final minute of regulation to force OT and then assisted on Ryan Fitzgerald's game-winner in 3-on-3 sudden death. 

Veteran goalie Zane McIntyre, in his Phantoms debut, turned back 34 of 35 shots. Samuel Morin, who played left wing at 5-on-5 and defense on the penalty kill, dropped the gloves with Bears heavyweight Kale Kessy in the third period. 

On Feb. 10, the Phantoms traveled to Newark to play Binghamton and settled for one point in a 2-1 overtime loss. 

Max Willman fed David Kase for a shorthanded 2-on-1 goal at 13:46 of the first period. That was the lone tally the Phantoms -- who did not score until the final minute of regulation in last Saturday's 2-1 overtime win in the season opener in Hershey -- were able to muster. The Phantoms had three power plays in the third period (0-for-4 overall) but were unable to score. 

For the second straight game, McIntyre played well for Lehigh Valley, although he wasn't as busy in this game as he was in the first two periods of the opener. Ben Thomson tied the game at 1-1 early in the third period and then Brett Seney won it for the Devils with a goal on the opening shift of overtime.

The Phantoms return to action on Sunday afternoon, heading back to Hershey to play the Bears. On Feb. 19 (next Friday), the Phantoms rematch with the Devils in Newark. The following day, the venue shifts to Allentown for the Phantoms regular season opener against the Devils.

Injury Bug Bites Early and Often

Even before training camp started for the Flyers and then for the Phantoms, the Lehigh Valley club had several notable injuries to players whom the Flyers consider NHL prospects. There have been several names added since. 

Goaltender Kirill Ustimenko, who briefly played in his native Belarus (two games) during the extended NHL offseason, was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his hip, with an estimated four to five month recovery span from December. The injury scuttled his second pro season in North American after a promising rookie campaign with the ECHL's Reading Royals and the AHL's Phantoms.

Second-year pro left wing Isaac Ratcliffe had a seemingly unrelenting stream of bad medical news during the fall into early winter: a serious rib injury, a collapsed lung and surgical procedures. He has been rehab skating in Voorhees but, per general manager Chuck Fletcher, is at least another month until he could rejoin a practice and a couple more beyond that before he could potentially be game-ready again.

Rookie center/winger Tanner Laczynski had offseason core muscle surgery. He did rehab skating during training camp and skated with members of the Flyers' Taxi Squad before reporting to Allentown. Laczynski played very well in the Phantoms' lone exhibition game, racking up seven shots on goal. However, after making his official pro debut in the Phantoms' regular season opener in Hershey, Laczynski sustained a groin pull.

Rookie power winger Wade Allison took part in Flyers' training camp at the outset but was soon sidelined with a lingering ankle issue. He underwent surgery to correct the issue. His timetable to return is roughly four or five weeks from the beginning of February.

On the opening night of the Phantoms season, Flyers 2020 first-round pick Tyson Foerster and 2020 fourth-rounder Zayde Wisdom made their respective official pro hockey debuts. The still-uncertain status of the 2020-21 Ontario Hockey League campaign resulted in a temporary relaxation of the age-eligibility rule in the AHL for OHL-affliliated players. Unfortunately, late in the first period of the opener in Hershey, Foerster sustained a fractured right shinbone in a freakish collision where legs were accidentally taken out by a sliding Steve Whitney. Foerster is projected to be out for three to four weeks.

Morgan Frost, who is arguably the organization's top forward prospect and an AHL All-Star as a rookie last season, produced a strong NHL training camp last month and earned a spot on the Flyers' opening night roster. Unfortunately, he has been on injured reserve at the NHL level since sustaining a dislocated shoulder in a Jan. 19 game against the Buffalo Sabres. The injury required surgery, and the player was likely lost for the season. On Feb. 11, Frost was also placed on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list.

Taxi Squad Moves

Due to recent callups from the Phantoms' roster to the Flyers' Taxi Squad at the NHL level -- as well as the NHL team currently being in a COVID protocol-related "pause" until Feb. 15 -- there are currently eight players listed on the Flyers' Taxi Squad.

The players are as follows:goaltenders Alex Lyon and Felix Sandström, defensemen Nate Prosser and Derrick Pouliot, and forwards Connor Bunnaman, Andy Andreoff, Morin, and Carsen Twarynski. 

Given the Flyers' current list of four NHL starting lineup veterans who are unavailable to practice or play due to being on the COVID-19 protocol list -- forwards Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, defensemen Travis Sanheim and Justin Braun -- the parent team will need to make use of Taxi Squad and/or AHL recall players for a little while. Andreoff and Twarynski have been on the Taxi Squad the entire season to date. Thus far, Morin and Prosser have dressed in one NHL game apiece. Lyon had an emergency recall to dress as Brian Elliott's backup when Carter Hart was unavailable for the Feb. 5 against Boston after suffering back spasms in the morning skate. 

Bunnaman dressed in eight games as the Flyers' fourth line center with both Sean Couturier and Frost injured. In between games, for salary cap purposes, Bunnaman was officially assigned back to the Taxi Squad before being recalled on the next game day. Couturier returned to the lineup in Washington on Feb. 10.

Here is a brief explanation of how NHL recalls from the Phantoms and Taxi Squad differ: Taxi Squad recalls to the NHL roster are not subject to potential quarantines, and are immediately eligible to play once called up to the NHL roster. A player can also be sent to the AHL and recalled, per normal, to either NHL active roster or the Taxi Squad. However, this group of players may be subject to a pre-activation quarantine period unless they are COVID tested on the same daily basis as NHL/Taxi Squad players, have no coronavirus symptoms and no suspected exposures. This, for example, was why Morin was able to move seamlessly around from the Flyers Taxi Squad, appear in an NHL game and also play in an AHL exhibition game and regular season game before his name appeared again on the Taxi Squad recall transactions.

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