The Phantoms vs. Bears playoff series represents a clash between the AHL's highest-scoring (Lehigh Valley) and second highest-scoring (Hershey) clubs. The Phantoms racked up 260 goals during the 76-game regular season, while Hershey lit the lamp 219 times.
PHANTOMS OFFENSIVE FIREPOWER
Even without AHL All-Star Game selection Jordan Weal (15 goals, 47 points in 42 games for the Phantoms prior to dressing in 23 NHL games for the Flyers), the Phantoms have a deep and potent attack. Five different players scored 20 or more goals, four players produced at least 50 points, seven players (excluding Weal) had at least 40 points and 11 players (again excluding Weal) scored double-digit goals.
Leading the way offensively for the Phantoms was high-scoring veteran offensive defenseman T.J. Brennan (21 goals including 12 power play tallies, 60 points). He was tied for the AHL scoring lead among all defensemen. Veteran forwards such as Andy Miele (7th in the AHL with 44 assists among his 57 points), Chris Conner (22 goals, 56 points), team captain Colin McDonald (25 goals) and Greg Carey (28 goals, 51 points) brought a new dimension to the Lehigh Valley attack. Pint-sized speed demon Danick Martel recorded his second straight 20-goal season.
Rookie defenseman Travis Sanheim, the Flyers' first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, spent much of the first half of the season working on his play without the puck but the speedy and offensively gifted blueliner saw the points start to come with regularity in December. After going goalless with 10 assists through the first 23 games of the season, Sanheim finished with 10 goals - nine at even strength - and 14 assists for 24 points over the remainder of the season.
Up front, the Phantoms also boasted a solid cadre of two-way forwards. Third-year pros Taylor Leier (13 goals, 37 points, +10 in 48 games) and Scott Laughton (19 goals including four shorthanded tallies, 39 points, +17 in 60 games) brought both speed and strong abilities both with and without the puck. Corban Knight (11 goals, 40 points, +8) also contributed in a variety of different ways. Cole Bardreau (nine goals, 24 points, 85 penalty minutes) added grit and tenacity.
Rookie players such as Nicolas Aube-Kubel (nine goals, nine assists in 71 games) and Radel Fazleev (six goals, 10 assists in 65 games) were expected to work on their all-around abilities this season and to earn their ice time. Both 20-year-old forwards produced a few highlights over the course of the season but are still works in progress in terms of showing consistently successful adaptation from the junior level to the pros.
While few opponents found much success when they tried to out-skate and out-chance Gordon's team, the Bears had their own array of players who found the net with regularity during the season.
BEARS UP FRONT
Third-year pro Travis Boyd led the Bears with 63 points during the regular season. The forward ranked 7th in the AHL in overall scoring and his 47 points ranked fourth; two helpers ahead of 22-year-old Bears offensive minded defenseman Christian Djoos (13 goals, 45 assists, 58 points, +9). Veteran left winger Chris Bourque was second on the Bears in overall scoring with 60 points (18 goals, 42 assists). Fellow veteran forward Paul Carey had 55 points in 55 games (including a team-leading 24 goals) and finished the season in the NHL with the Capitals, for whom he is the Stanley Cup playoff roster.
Hershey right winger Christian Thomas, a fifth-year pro, wound up tied for the team goal-scoring lead with 24 goals among his 49 points. Russian forward Stanislav Galiev had a bounceback season as he posted 21 goals, 40 points and a plus-21 rating in 56 games after battling early season injuries.
Highly touted 21-year-old forward Jakub Vrana, the Capitals' first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, dressed in 49 AHL games (19 goals, 36 points, +12) and 21 NHL games (three goals, six points) this season. Last year, he had 14 points in 21 games during the Bears' run to the Calder Cup Finals.
Overall, the Bears had 11 players (excluding Carey) who hit the double-digit mark in goals this season.
VALLEY OF THE D
The biggest strength of the Flyers farm system lies in its quality and depth of blueline prospects, and the organization is pleased with the progress that 2013 first-round pick Morin, 2013 second-round pick Robert Hagg and first-year pro Sanheim showed during the 2016-17 campaign. Morin continued his evolution toward a projected future NHL shutdown role, while Hagg displayed consistently strong work away from the puck, simplified his passing game, stepped up his physicality and still managed to pot seven goals. Sanheim took important early steps in evolving from a junior hockey offensive defenseman into a two-way blueliner.
While veteran defenseman Brennan has always been known more for his work with the puck on his stick than his defensive play. The 28-year-old Willingboro, NJ native is heavily relied upon by Gordon to shoulder major responsibilities as a veteran on the team. Off-season acquisition Will O'Neill (31 points in 57 games) did not play after March 11 due to injury.
Rookie defenseman Reese Willcox dressed in 48 games for the Phantoms; mostly in the first half of the season while steady veteran Mark Alt was still shelved with an injury suffered in a preseason fight. When 24-year-old fourth-year pro Alt returned to the Phantoms lineup, he posted a +8 rating and 11 points in 40 games while handling many unglamorous but important defensive tasks.
Following his junior season at Bowling Green University, the Flyers signed slick-skating defenseman Mark Friedman, a 2014 third-round draftee, to an entry-level contract. The 21-year-old made his AHL debut in the final game of the Phantoms' regular season. Likewise, highly touted 20-year-old defense prospect Phillipe Myers has joined the squad now that his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies is finished. Myers is not imminently expected to dress in a Calder Cup playoff game.
BEARS ON THE BLUELINE
The Bears' blueline was led by Djoos for much of this season, with Aaron Ness splitting time between Hershey (51 games) and the Capitals. The Phantoms had a few run-ins during the season with 21-year-old second-year-pro Tyler Lewington, whose 142 penalty minutes (20 in games against the Phantoms) ranked fifth in the AHL.
Thirty-three-year-old Tom Gilbert, a veteran of 655 NHL games, came over to Hershey during the 2016-17 season and provided 13 points and a plus-12 rating in 25 games while also contributing the benefit of his experience. Twenty-one-year-old Madison Bowie, a big scorer during his junior hockey days with the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets, dressed in 34 games for Troy Mann's Bears' team this year.
The Phantoms and Bears high-powered offenses were entertaining to watch but the teams' goaltenders had to earn their keep on a frequent basis. Lehigh Valley ranked 19th in the AHL with 219 goals against while the Bears were 17th with 211 opposition tallies.
Signed by the Flyers out of Yale University, first-year pro Alex Lyon appeared in 47 games. He posted a 27-14-5 record, 2.74 goals against average, .912 save percentage and five shutouts. During the phases of the season while teammate Anthony Stolarz was on recall to the Flyers, Lyon was a workhorse for Gordon's team.
With Stolarz (29 games, 18-9-0, 2.92 GAA, .911 SV%, one shutout) shelved for the duration of the Calder Cup playoffs due to a lower-body injury suffered in the final weekend of the regular season, Lyon will once again be called upon to start on an every-game basis. He will be backed up by Martin Ouellette, the Phantoms de facto number three goalie who has been recalled numerous times from the ECHL's Reading Royals the last couple seasons whenever the Phantoms were short a man in goal. Highly touted 2016 second-round draft pick Carter Hart is also now with the Phantoms after his WHL team, the Everett Silvertips, was eliminated from the playoffs. However, he is unlikely to dress for a game in short order.
The Bears strengthened their goaltending depth this season with the Washington organization's reacquisition of 25-year-old Pheonix Copley for the stretch drive and postseason as a secondary part of the deal that brought star NHL defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington. Now in his second stint with the Bears, Copley dressed in 16 games for Hershey this season, posting an 11-5-0 record, 2.15 GAA, .931 save percentage and one shutout. Primarily playing for the Chicago Wolves before the trade, Copley got into one NHL game for the Blues this season.
Hershey also has 21-year-old Vitek Vanecek. Drafted by the Capitals in the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft, the Czech netminder spent his first full season in the AHL in 2016-17 after primarily playing in the ECHL during his first season in North America. In 39 outings for the Bears, Vanecek posted a record of 18-10-7 to go along with a .909 save percentage, 2.54 goals against average and five shutouts this season.
Puck drop for Game 1 of the series is Friday at 7:05 p.m. ET. Continue to check into PhiladelphiaFlyers.com and the Flyers social media networks for more coverage on the Flyers top affiliate's playoff push.
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