(Kate Frese/Sports Talk Philly)
By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms now have a magic number of six to clinch a playoff spot. However, they played some of their worst hockey of the season in one of their biggest weekends of the season.
Lehigh Valley faced a 3-in-3 of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Friday, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Saturday and Hershey Bears Sunday.
The Phantoms managed to get two points out of the six possible on the weekend, but remained in second place in the Atlantic Division thanks to getting some help from other teams.
Friday night's tilt with Bridgeport was the Phantoms second game with the New York Islanders affiliate in six days. Lehigh Valley rallied late on Sunday to beat Bridgeport in overtime, but Friday's game would have a much different feel.
The Sound Tigers dominated much of the game, outshooting the Phantoms 37-21, and winning the game 3-1 to keep their own playoff hopes alive. Anthony Stolarz made 34 saves in one of his best games of the year, but got little support both offensively and defensively in the loss. The game highlighted the struggles the Phantoms have had scoring lately, which really came out Saturday night.
On Saturday night, the Phantoms got shut out for just the second time all season, but also the second time within seven days. Both times, the Penguins were on the winning end.
This time, it was Casey DeSmith doing the honors, making his first start of the year against Lehigh Valley and earning a 3-0 win. DeSmith stopped all 26 shots he faced, while Alex Lyon turned aside 34 of the 37 shots he faced before being replaced by Martin Ouellette in the third. The move was a precautionary one, with the frightening injury to Michal Neuvirth having happened just hours earlier in Philadelphia and the organization's goaltending situation very much up in the air.
Sunday was do or die for Lehigh Valley, who would have fallen back into third place if they lost to Hershey due to the Providence Bruins win over the Hartford Wolf Pack. The Phantoms, or Chris Conner rather, decided it was time to end the offensive woes. Conner broke out for a hat trick in the game, beating Phoenix Copley to the five-hole each time. Greg Carey added another tally, and the Phantoms rolled to a 4-2 victory. Lyon looked sharp again, picking up a win with 32 saves.
Only picking up the one victory hurt Lehigh Valley in that it helped Bridgeport climb back into making the race for the Atlantic Division's playoff positions. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton clinched the only guaranteed spot thanks in part to beating the Phantoms Saturday night, which also is not particularly good news for the Phantoms.
However, they did knock Hershey back into fifth place with their win on Sunday, putting the Bears out of a playoff spot for the time being. Here's a look at the current Atlantic Division standings as of Monday night:
Even with their magic number at six, Lehigh Valley can not take their foot off the gas. Four of their final six games are against teams within their division, all battling for position in the top five, including two games against the division-leading Penguins.
The Phantoms return to action Wednesday night with another huge game against their other arch rival, the Hershey Bears.