The 2001-02 regular season will not be remembered as a glorious one for the American Hockey League’s Philadelphia Phantoms. Though the team held the
first place position in the Southern Division for a decent portion of the campaign, a terrible midseason slump temporarily put the team’s playoff
hopes in jeopardy. The Phantoms were able to recover and, with a 4-2 victory over the Norfolk Admirals last Saturday, clinch a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs
for the sixth consecutive season. The team has now reached the postseason every year since its
inception in 1996.
In many ways, this has been an up-and-down season for Philadelphia. The team received typically solid seasons from its veteran players (Mark Greig,
Mark Freer, John Slaney, Neil Little) and steady play from some youngsters (Bruno St. Jacques, Guillaume Lefebvre) this year. On the other hand, there
were some disappointments along the way (Pavel Brendl, Tomas Divisek, Vaclav Pletka), a rash of injuries (particularly to Slaney and fellow defenseman
Brad Tiley) and great deal of player movement. The 2001-02 season saw the Phantoms part with many popular players, including Joe DiPenta, Francis Lessard, Petr Hubacek and goaltending prospect Maxime Ouellet.
Recently, the team welcomed veterans Yves Sarault, Greg Koehler, Jarrod Skalde and goaltender Corey Hirsch (on loan from the Washington Capitals)
for the stretch drive. (Note: Be sure to check this space next week for the “Philadelphia Phantoms regular season report card”)
As they prepare to enter the final weekend of the regular season, the Phantoms (31-26-15-5) hold the eighth seed in the Western Conference with 82
points. With the Rochester Americans (81 pts.) and Cincinnati Mighty Ducks (77 pts.) looming
right behind (remember, nine teams per conference make the playoffs these days), the onus is on the Phantoms to win in their final three games of the
The Phantoms will close out the regular season with games against their three Southern Division rivals on consecutive nights. The team will travel
to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tonight for a showdown with the Penguins. On Saturday, the team will return home to host the division-leading Norfolk Admirals in the regular season finale at the First Union Spectrum. Speaking of finales, the Phantoms will travel to Hershey on Sunday to close out not just the season, but the regular season legacy of the legendary Hersheypark Arena.
The following is a preview of this weekend’s action…
1.) Friday, April 5 – 7:05 p.m.
At Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (20-42-13-3)
Season series: Penguins lead, 6-2-3
Neil Little made a career-high 38 saves on Wednesday night, helping the
Phantoms earn a 1-1 tie with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the First Union Spectrum in Philadelphia. Expect a ton of fireworks in tonight’s rematch – the last meeting of the season between these bitter division rivals.
This game has all the markings of a war on ice, so don’t be surprised if things get out of hand in a hurry. The Penguins are playing for pride at
this point, having been eliminated from playoff contention weeks ago. Calder Cup finalists last spring, the Pens will be looking to take out
a season’s worth of frustration in their final home game of 2001-02. After coming within two wins of the league championship last June, WBS sunk to the
basement of the Southern Division this season. The Pens are currently mired in an eight-game winless streak (0-7-1), a microcosm of their entire
By far the most undisciplined team in the AHL, the Pens lead the league in penalty minutes by a huge margin with a whopping 2754 total PIMs (the
Cleveland Barons rank second with 2162 total minutes; the Phantoms are third with 2120). Chances are, the Pens will be more than willing to drop the gloves early and often tonight, if for no other reason than to send the fans home happy after what has been a dismal season.
Despite their struggles, however, the Penguins have handled Philadelphia well this season. The Phantoms locked up a playoff spot last weekend, but the team is still jockeying for postseason seeding. WBS would like nothing more than to play a spoiler-type role tonight.
This may seem like a meaningless affair in the grand scheme of things, but don’t tell that to the game’s combatants (or the Pens’ fans). With pride, playoff implications and pugilistic bragging rights on the line, look for an entertaining “show” tonight. Just remember, this ain’t the Olympics.
Players to watch
The Goon Patrol: WBS’s Darcy Verot (385), Steve Parsons (366) and Jason MacDonald (324) are ranked one, two and four in the AHL in penalty minutes. Philly’s Peter Vandermeer (313) is ranked fifth. Do the math, then draw your own conclusions.
John Slaney (Phantoms): On Thursday, Slaney was awarded his second straight Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman. A former Penguin, the veteran rearguard is often inexplicably booed when he returns
to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Regardless, Philly’s leading scorer (59 points in 62 games) always plays a solid game against the Pens and is a legitimate
threat to take over a game at any time.
Jarrod Skalde (Phantoms): Fresh off of a one-game injury call-up to the Flyers, the veteran left winger scored the Phantoms’ lone goal on Wednesday night. After getting off to a slow start in Philly (he was acquired from Atlanta for Joe DiPenta on March 5), Skalde looks to be heating up as the playoffs loom. He currently has six points in 13 games with the Phantoms.
2.) Saturday, April 6 – 7:05 p.m.
Vs. Norfolk Admirals (37-25-12-4)
Season series: Phantoms lead, 5-3-1
Norfolk all but clinched the Southern Division title with a 3-1 home win over Hershey on Wednesday night. With two games remaining on their
schedule, the Admirals are sailing smoothly with 90 points. Hershey has three games left, but only 85
points. Thus, the Admirals control their own destiny. One more win, tie or overtime loss will officially bring the division crown to Virginia.
The Admirals have a chance to stick the proverbial fork in Hershey when the two teams play again – in Norfolk – on Friday night. Thus, Saturday’s contest between the
Admirals and Phantoms may or may not be a pressure-filled affair for Norfolk. Either way, the two teams have established a fairly heated rivalry
over the course of the season. Playing an opponent 10 times a year tends to have that effect.
As is the case with the Phantoms/Hershey game on Sunday, this is a potential playoff preview. Thus, both teams will be looking to drop a few
calling cards on the other, if nothing else. This being the team’s regular season finale, Philadelphia will almost certainly play a “spirited” (pardon
the pun, Phantoms fans) brand of hockey on Saturday night. The teams’ last meeting, a 4-2 Phantoms victory at Norfolk last Saturday (March 29), should still be fresh in everyone’s mind as well. For
the Admirals, the loss halted a franchise-record eight-game winning streak.
Players to watch
Mark Greig (Phantoms): Philly’s captain always seems to come through when the team needs him. While this game may or may not be of the
“must win” variety, Greig is sure to put out a great effort in the Phantoms’ regular season finale. The veteran right winger is currently the Phantoms’
second leading scorer with 58 points (26 goals, 30 assists) in 63 games.
Matt Henderson (Admirals): Though his numbers are far from spectacular (47 points in 71 games), Henderson has been Norfolk’s best all-around player throughout the season. His two-way contribution is a big reason why the Admirals (ranked just 14th in the league in goals scored) have found a way to win so many games this season. His presence has been huge, particularly in the absence of veterans Tyler
Arnason and Casey Hankinson (who have both seen time with the parent Chicago Blackhawks this season).
Neil Little (Phantoms)/Michael Leighton Admirals): Though it’s hard to say at this point whether either will play on Saturday night, both Little and Leighton have contributed greatly to the success of their respective teams this season. Some may be surprised to hear that Little ranks second in the AHL in GAA (2.02), while Leighton is fourth (2.16). Despite getting minimal offensive help from their teammates at times, both netminders have turned in a stellar
3.) Sunday, April 7 – 7:05 p.m.
At Hershey Bears (34-26-11-6)
Season series: Tied, 4-4-3
Expect emotions to run absolutely wild in this one, as this will be the final regular season game played at the Bears’ 65-year-old hockey temple,
the Hersheypark Arena. The team is planning a special sendoff (dubbed “A Night to Remember”)
for what is unquestionably one of the most storied sports venues in North America.
A pre-game ceremony will feature appearances by a number of past Hershey stars, including Bob Bilodeau, Dave Fenyves, Ralph Keller, Mitch Lamoureux, Willie Marshall, Frank Mathers, Mike McHugh, Mike Nykoluk, Obie O’Brien and Tim Tookey. The Bears will also present a 10-minute video commemorating the building’s history.
The Bears couldn’t have picked a better opponent for this historic night. After all, Philadelphia’s relationship to both the Bears and Hersheypark Arena is much more than a mere local connection. The Bears served as the Philadelphia Flyers’ AHL affiliate from 1984-1996. During that time, the Bears posted a 407-379-94 record, captured a Calder Cup title (1987-88) and developed several future Flyers (most notably, goaltender Ron Hextall).
When the Phantoms took over as the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in 1996, one of the top rivalries in all of minor league sports was born. The cross-state
feud has been a natural(and very profitable) fit for both the Bears and Phantoms, and for the AHL
in general. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were conceived at least in part because of the success the league already had in eastern Pennsylvania. With so much history behind it, Hersheypark Arena has stood as a standard in the world of minor league hockey for years. But, sadly, the old barn will officially give way to the new Giant Center next October. In the meantime, expect a heck of a hockey game on Sunday evening. The atmosphere should be positively electric
for this special event.
Players to watch?
· Everyone on the ice: This is somewhat of a copout choice, but let’s face the facts here. Every player on the ice will want to be the hero
in this one. The arena should be supercharged with energy, and any player could conceivably grab the
spotlight. For the record, I’ll pick Hershey goaltender Philippe Sauve to take home first star honors. That leaves the Bears’ Matt Herr and Phantoms captain Mark Greig as my picks for second and third star, respectively.