Phantoms meet Admirals in AHL playoffs

By Ailyn Diaz

Players are told since juniors that their team becomes their family. They eat, drink, room and play in the same household. Sometimes they call their teammates “brothers” and tease each other during practice. It’s all good in a big family like the Philadelphia Phantoms headed by General Manager and ex-Flyer Bobby Clarke.

Like in any other family, the Phantoms have their share of ups and downs. Players might fight with their coach because of hard practices. At other times, they might even pretend not to listen when a fatherly point is made. Nevertheless, the Phantoms never forget that families help each other out when they are down. They stick together no matter what. It’s literally written on the locker room wall, “It’s all about the team. Nothing else matters.”

Nothing else matters in playoff hockey against the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL Eastern Conference Semifinals. Forget the long hour bus rides and practices. It’s all about playing as a unit.

“We can’t always make direct plays against this team because they play so well defensively. They play a very defensive minded game. That is the way they played all year. I don’t expect any differently,” said Phantoms Head Coach John Stevens as he faced the press while two of his players helped each other bagging hockey equipment near the dressing room. Their chatter and the clatter of hockey sticks interrupted the interview. “Put everything in the bag,” one of them yelled out as the press entered the large Wachovia Center dressing room.

The team’s dressing room is their home. Endless hours are spent practicing, dotting Xs and Os on the board and charting line-ups and plays, on a dry erase board.

“Maybe this is the sign of the playoffs, who knows. In a couple days we regroup and we are ready to go down the road,” said Stevens.

Stevens pointed out that the new additions to the Phantoms are “explosive” referring to 19-year-olds Jeff Carter and Stefan Ruzicka. Jeff Carter played for Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL and ranks as the Flyers number one prospect. Back in Canada, he would play hockey with his family in the driveway and leave dents on their garage door from puck shots.

At 6’3” and at 193 lbs, this center seems to fit in with Philadelphia’s large offensive bodies. Many scouts say he plays a tough game similar to that of Toronto Maple Leaf’s Ron Francis. His teammate, Stefan Ruzicka, played for Team Slovakia leading this team to the silver medal during the 2003 Under-18 World Championships. He was originally as selected third round (81st overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

For Stevens it’s not about individual players. “You have to get everyone involved. You have to chip pucks not always make direct plays against this team because they play so well defensively. You know we can play better.”

After the loss, he made sure that no one in his Phantom family blamed each other. “I’m really not unhappy with anyone, I thought. We are going to see our health on the road.”

However, goaltender Antero Niittymäki took full responsibility. “I didn’t play very good,” he said candidly lowering his head. “I didn’t stop all the shots that came in. (The Admirals) played the first 20 minutes really hard to get the lead. (It’s) really tough to play against them.”

Niittymäki, although down, was not dismayed. He complimented the work to defensemen such as Joey Hope, Randy Jones, Wade Skolney to name a few.

“The defense played great! They took out 17 shots or something. They helped me and I had to help them.” Like with any family problems, the best way to get to the grit of the matter is ”to deal with it” as Niittymäki pointed out.

Across the hallway, the Norfolk Admirals, affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, closed the dressing room doors to wandering visitors and the press. During the first game of the series, Coach Trent Yawney left the building quietly after the loss. After their second game and an overtime win, he was rather vocal about team privacy and matters. For the Admirals, a defensive team, family plans are not disclosed publicly during playoffs. They are kept confidential especially in the dangerous neighborhood territory of the Philadelphia Phantoms.