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Sanheim and Lindblom: Reinforcing the Phantoms

Pair helping lead the charge as Phantoms enter Round 2 of Calder Cup Playoffs

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

NOTE: The Phantoms face off against the Charlotte Checkers in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. The series will be played in a 2-3-2 format with Game 1 at the PPL Center on Friday and Game 2 on Saturday. The full schedule is at the bottom of this article.

The 2017-18 season has been a learning experience for both Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom. The two players showed significant promise at the National Hockey League level, and navigated the almost inevitable rookie ups and downs - including being scratched from the Flyers lineup in Games 5 and 6 of the playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins - with a positive attitude. Both players possess the talent and work ethic to earn expanded roles come next season. 

In the meantime, the Flyers have loaned both players back to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms for the duration of the American Hockey League's Calder Cup playoffs. Sanheim, a second-year pro, spent the entire 2016-17 season and an 18-game portion of the 2017-18 campaign in Lehigh Valley. Lindblom, the 2016-17 Swedish Hockey League Forward of the Year winner, acclimated himself to the North American game with 54 games with the Phantoms before he was called up to the Flyers. 

During the NHL stretch drive and the first three games of the Pittsburgh series, Lindblom primarily played on the Flyers' second line. The left winger showed almost instant chemistry with Nolan Patrick and Jakub Voracek, showed his characteristic commitment to playing sound two-way hockey and performed better offensively than his stats would suggest (2g-4a-6pts in 23 games). He had some struggles finishing off his scoring opportunities, but the chances were often plentiful. Lindblom was not as effective in the playoff series against Pittsburgh and he had been in his regular season games with the Flyers.

Sanheim, a talented offensive defenseman with good size and excellent mobility, worked throughout the season in polishing his game without the puck. He took strides toward becoming a reliable all-around NHL defenseman. At the AHL level, he was dominant during his return to Lehigh Valley and came back to the Flyers with a big boost in confidence. 

"To see the way they handled everything, 'Sanny' goes down to the minors and he comes back. You could ask anyone in this room he was night and day better. He took a lineup spot away pretty much, but he deserved that because he put in the work, he got a lot better," Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. 

In the Flyers' playoff series against Pittsburgh, Sanheim held his own for the most part while averaging 15:30 of ice time. He received second-unit power play duty and was only minus-one at even strength in a series where the Flyers were outplayed in Games 1, 3 and 4. Sanheim also scored his first Stanley Cup playoff goal; a center point shot through traffic in Game 3. 

For Games 5 and 6, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol replaced Sanheim in the lineup with fellow rookie Robert Hagg in an effort to get more physicality into the lineup. The coach moved up Andrew MacDonald (who had been paired with Sanheim) to play with Ivan Provorov, reunited the early season duo of Gostisbehere and Hagg, and opted to keep together veterans Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas.  

After the Flyers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Sanheim and Lindblom were assigned to the Phantoms. At the time, Lehigh Valley was tied 1-1 in their best-of-five first round playoff series with the Providence Bruins. 

The reinforcements were much needed from the Lehigh Valley standpoint. The Phantoms went on to win the series in four games, with Sanheim and Lindblom each playing vital roles.

"We played them five times in the last month of the season and, as we were going into Game 1 and Game 2, I looked at their lineup and I said to myself, 'This isn't the same team we had been playing.' It was a very deep roster, and the two games in Providence were very tough. We were fortunate to come away with a split," Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon said.

"To be honest, it would have been pretty hard for us to deal with that team without those two guys [Sanheim and Lindblom]. With both of those guys, it's almost like getting three players because they play both sides of special teams and they make a difference at even strength."

In Game 3 of the Providence series, Lindblom tallied shorthanded and power play goals to spearhead a 4-1 victory. He had several scoring chances in the first period of Game 4 and assisted on the first of two goals tallied by Chris Conner. However, Lindblom's best work of the Phantoms' unartistic 4-3 OT win in Game 4, may have come as he occupied the puck in the offensive left corner during the waning seconds of a third period penalty kill. It took three Providence players more than 12 seconds to finally pry the puck away. By the time the Bruins gained possession, the penalty was over. 

Gordon said that the instant offensive boost from Lindblom was basically "a wash" with the loss of 2017-18 AHL Most Valuable Player (Les Cunningham Award) winner Phil Varone due to an upper-body injury Varone suffered mid-match in Game 3. It was Lindblom's overall two-way presence that bolstered the Phantoms' chances to win the series.

The extent of Sanheim's role on the Phantoms during the Calder Cup playoffs can be at least somewhat likened to Provorov's indispensable role on the Flyers. He logged a massive 34 minutes of ice time in the Game 4 clincher, double-shifting at times in addition to his regular turns with his primary partner, rookie Philippe Myers. 

Although Sanheim was minus-two in Game 4, he was by leaps and bounds the best Phantoms defenseman on a game-long basis. The previous game, he had a nifty assist on a power play touch pass to Lindblom, which gave the Swedish rookie an open point-blank opportunity that he promptly deposited in the back of the net. 

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said that the experience of transferring to playing leading roles in the Calder Cup playoffs - whereas the rookies had been supporting-cast members with the Flyers in the Stanley Cup playoffs - will be beneficial to Sanheim and Lindblom as they prepare for the next NHL season. 

 "It's huge for those kids. It's enormous for kids to learn the sacrifice, the effort, the resiliency, the mental toughness it takes to go on a long run. Everybody's fighting for the same thing and it's hard," Hextall said.

The GM said that he's seen growth from both Sanheim and Lindblom this season and credited their AHL experience with advancements they showed at the NHL level. Those steps must be built upon during the 2018-19 season, and being heavily relied upon in the Calder Cup playoffs can be a linchpin in taking the next steps toward getting there. 

"With Oskar the other day, I asked him how many games he played last year, and I think he said around 70 in total so he's over that now and every little bit that he increases is gonna help him long term. It's a long season especially for guys who come from Europe and I think they play 52 games in the regular season and Oskar went to the [SHL] finals last year. He played a lot of games this year, it helps, so that's one building block and now hopefully they can go far here, and he ends up playing who knows, 85-95 games depending on how far they go," Hextall said.

"Travis, when he left here when we sent him down, had hit a wall. He was struggling, and I didn't feel like he was going to get back up on his feet, I don't like keeping a kid for 2-3 months and then sending him down, but I give the kid credit. Almost instantaneously down there, he took his game to a high level.

"Sometimes there's a little bit of a transition. You're down and maybe you're moping a little bit. Travis went down there and assembled right into the team and played at a high level. Came back up here and continued at that level. I thought he did a really good job for us once he came back. I think he's going to go right in there and play at a very high level. If they can go on a long run, it's going to do him a lot of good. People don't understand long runs are hard guys get beat up. Half your team two rounds in is banged up and injured. Hard to believe what guys play with."

For their parts, Sanheim and Lindblom are happy that their 2017-18 season did not end with the Flyers elimination from the playoffs as they watched Game 6 from the pressbox. The disappointment was quickly replaced with the excitement of jumping back into a playoff series, the camaraderie of rejoining familiar faces in Lehigh Valley and the anticipation of being heavily relied upon to beef up the Phantoms lineup as they take on similarly bolstered opposition that has been beefed-up with young players who saw time in the NHL this season. 

"It's been fun, walking back in here and being part of this. The guys all welcomed me back. I knew it was possible [to be sent back to the Phantoms for the playoffs if the Flyers' lost], but you don't focus on that when you are playing. Now that I am back here, I'm just having fun and trying to do my best to help this team. It's good to extend my season," Lindblom said. 

Sanheim, who was partnered with Myers both during the early portion of training camp and again during Sanheim's regular season return stint in Allentown, noted that he had instant comfort and familiarity with Myers. Likewise, after a full 2016-17 season and a portion of this season with the Phantoms, his familiarity with the Lehigh Valley lineup, coach Gordon, assistant coach Kerry Huffman and the nuances of the PPL Center rink were all factors that helped make for a seamless re-entry into the Phantoms lineup.

"I was happy with how my season ended with the Flyers, from a personal standpoint. I thought I played well. My time with the Phantoms has been good for me. Obviously, I'd rather still be playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs but this is also a good experience. It was disappointing to lose to Pittsburgh, of course, and everyone would rather be in the lineup at the end. I just look at it as one step at a time. Keep developing. It's a good experience to be back in the playoffs, keep on playing and hopefully we can go on a long run here," Sanheim said.

The Phantoms now face a very challenging second-round series against the Charlotte Checkers; one in which protecting their home-ice advantage could be vital. The Checkers, who have a reinforced lineup of their own that Gordon described as being like having "four first lines" at the AHL level, have played outstanding hockey in recent weeks and are especially tough to beat in their home rink. 

SECOND ROUND SCHEDULE (Best of 7)
Lehigh Valley Phantoms vs. Charlotte Checkers

CHA @ LVP: Fri. May 04 - 7:05PM 
CHA @ LVP: Sat. May 05 - 7:05PM 
LVP @ CHA: Tue. May 08 - 7:00PM 
LVP @ CHA: Wed. May 09 - 7:00PM 
LVP @ CHA: Sat. May 12 - 6:00PM 
CHA @ LVP: Mon. May 14 - 7:05PM 
CHA @ LVP: Tue. May 15 - 7:05PM 

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