Since advancing to the Calder Cup Final in 2012, the Toronto Marlies have twice reached the Eastern Conference Final only to fall at the second-from-last hurdle.
Standing in the way of the Marlies making it the third time is the charm are the Atlantic Division champions, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate accumulated 104 points on their way to clinching the regular season divisional title, finishing second in the Eastern Conference in the process. After proving their superiority against Atlantic Division rivals in rounds one and two, the Phantoms progression to this stage sets up an Eastern Conference Final series that will represent just the third playoff meeting in the last 18 years between the AHL’s top two regular-season teams.
Better Know the Enemy: Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Like the Marlies, Lehigh has lost just twice in the post-season up until this point, losing a single game in each round. After out-scoring Providence Bruins in a series which produced a combined 25 goals in four games, the Phantoms took a different route to success in Round 2.
Lehigh may have lost Game 2 to Charlotte by a 6-0 scoreline, but they limited the Checkers to just four goals in as many games to secure their passage to the Conference Final, including the now famous record-breaking contest which took five overtimes to decide.
The Phantoms’ success is even more impressive when you consider they’ve been without some of their top scorers.
Regular season points leader Phil Varone (70 points) has featured in just three times through the post-season but took part in Wednesday’s practise wearing a non-contact jersey and could feature in Toronto.
Injury-prone defenseman Sam Morin has been confirmed as needing surgery, so his year is done.
The curious case is 22-year-old forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who was third in team scoring in the regular season. Yet to record a point in the playoffs, the right winger was suspended for three games for a hit to the head during the Charlotte series but is now eligible for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. Despite having picked up three multi-game suspensions since March, head coach Scott Gordon has said he does not want the second-year professional to change his approach or mentality.
Better news for Lehigh is that defenseman Travis Sanheim has reportedly recovered from a knee injury (could feature this weekend) and rookies Carter Hart (goaltender) and Morgan Frost (centerman) have been added to the Phantoms roster.
Leading the charge offensively has been veteran winger Chris Connor. The 34-year-old has eight points (4-4-8), heading what’s been a scoring-by-committee effort from the Phantoms up until this point.
Swedish rookie Oskar Lindblom and Dannick Martel have also contributed four goals apiece, while proven AHL goal scorer Greg Carey continues to find the twine in the postseason with three in nine games after tallying 31 through the regular season.
NCAA graduate Mike Vecchione is enjoying his rookie AHL season; the 25-year-old centerman put up 40 points during his rookie year and has six points in the playoffs (3-3-6) through the opening two rounds.
Providing offense from the blue line has been rookie Philippe Myers (2-3-5) and a familiar face to the Marlies in T.J Brennan (1-5-6).
Lehigh’s star performer has undoubtedly been starting goaltender Alex Lyon. The Minnesota native has posted a 6-1 post-season record with incredible individual numbers, including a 1.49 GAA and .959 save percentage. The victory secured in the fifth period of overtime owed much to Lyon, who turned aside 94 shots — not a typo — from Charlotte in that victory.
The two teams met just twice during the regular season, with Toronto taking the two points in both (5-1 and 3-2 SO), but the last meeting was back in January, meaning little can be gleaned from those encounters.
Keys to the Series
The Marlies have almost a full roster to select from, with Andreas Borgman the only player currently injured, and the Swedish defenseman could play a part in this series. With Orlando losing in the second round of the Kelly Cup, the Marlies have recalled forwards Max Novak, Martins Dzierkals and Jean Dupuy plus defensemen Sam Jardine and Alex Gudbranson.
The Marlies are well rested, but the possibility of rustiness could be an issue in Game 1.
With Lehigh likely to bring in players who may not be 100% up to speed, Toronto’s fitness and depth throughout their lineup might benefit them over a long series.
Both teams have excelled with the extra man (Toronto 20.8% / Lehigh 19.4%) during the playoffs and therefore the team’s respective penalty kills will have to be on their game. The Marlies PK struggled early in the postseason against Utica but has rebounded to give up just a single goal in the last five games. If that trend continues, Toronto will definitely hold an edge, especially if they remain disciplined and continue to increase their current penalty differential of +16.
The aforementioned discipline will be fully tested by a Phantoms team that likes to play a hard-hitting and physical brand of hockey. It’s likely that Lehigh will target the top line of Andreas Johnsson – Miro Aaltonen – Carl Grundstrom and the Marlies will need to go toe-to-toe with their Atlantic foes without crossing the line or losing their composure.
Despite Phantoms coach Scott Gordon stating in a recent interview that Toronto doesn’t own the scoring power of Charlotte through their line-up, the Marlies have had 16 different skaters tally at least one goal and nine players have produced six or more points through nine games. That balanced scoring will be required to breakthrough against a Lehigh outfit that has given up just 21 goals in nine games.
With a 2-3-2 format for this series, a fast start will be vitally important; the Marlies will need to continue their rich vein of home form that has seen them unbeaten thus far at Ricoh Coliseum. After losing twice in Utica, the Marlies were far better on the road against Syracuse, quieting the normally-raucous home crowd. The same will be required at the PPL Center, where around 9,000 fans pack the stands in Allentown, PA.
Toronto Marlies vs. Lehigh Valley Phantoms – Round 3 Schedule
|Date||Home Team||Puck Drop|
|Saturday, May 19||Toronto||4 p.m. EST|
|Sunday, May 20||Toronto||4 p.m. EST|
|Wednesday, May 23||Lehigh||7:05 p.m. EST|
|Friday, May 25||Lehigh||7:05 p.m. EST|
|Saturday, May 26*||Lehigh||7:05 p.m. EST|
|Monday, May 28*||Toronto||7 p.m. EST|
|Wednesday, May 30*||Toronto||7 p.m. EST|