Phantoms’ Calder Cup hopes “Crunched”

By Al Alven

For 40 minutes, the underdog held its own against the heavily-favored opponent. For two periods, the proverbial David battled the proverbial Goliath to the proverbial standstill. For two-thirds of last night’s game against the top-seeded Syracuse Crunch, the Philadelphia Phantoms hung right in there.

Then, something happened. Something happened that changed the complexion of the game. Something happened that ripped away any and all momentum the home team had previously built. This “something” has been the Phantoms’ arch nemesis of late. Unfortunately, it’s also quite the common occurrence in hockey. It’s simply known as (drum roll of death, please)… the third period!

Once again, a lackluster third period doomed the Phantoms to defeat. After playing the Crunch to a 1-1 tie through two periods, Philadelphia was unable to get anything going over the game’s final 20 minutes. Once the team let its guard down, Syracuse was quick to capitalize. The result was a 3-1 victory for the Crunch at the First Union Center, a win that completed a three-game sweep of the Phantoms in the best-of-five Calder Cup Quarterfinals.

The Crunch will now go on to play the Chicago Wolves in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Phantoms will just go home.

Though the Phantoms faced elimination in Game 3, the team remained relatively optimistic about its chances. After all, the first two games of the series had been played at the War Memorial in Syracuse. With the Phantoms returning home, there was a feeling that the series could still be turned around. However, there was a problem. With the circus occupying the team’s usual home, the Spectrum, the Phantoms were forced to play in the more unfamiliar, cavernous First Union Center (not exactly the ideal locale for minor league hockey).

Thus, much of the Phantoms’ built-in home ice advantage was wasted in what often had the feel of a neutral site game. Still, the team was at “home” and needed to play a desperate brand of hockey to survive. It did so… for two periods.

Had Philadelphia been able to establish any kind of momentum at the beginning of the third period, the final result might have been different. As it was, the team came out without the look of a team that wanted to seize the lead. As has been the case with this Phantoms squad throughout the season, the killer instinct just wasn’t there. As a result, the game belonged to Syracuse before the period was three minutes old.

When a wristshot by Crunch forward Blake Bellefeuille founds its way into the back of the net just 2:28 into the frame, it became apparent that the final stanza would again be the Phantoms’ undoing. After all, Philadelphia had been outscored by a collective margin of 6-0 in the third period of the previous two games. Effectively, the powerplay goal ended any chance the Phantoms had of salvaging their season.

The Crunch held Philadelphia to just five shots against goaltender J.F. Labbe over the game’s final 20 minutes. Syracuse managed eight third period shots against Phantoms netminder Neil Little. The team’s ninth shot – off the stick of captain Sean Pronger – found its way into the back of an empty net. Labbe wound up finishing the game with 27 saves on 28 shots. Little stopped 21 of 23 shots for the home team.

Like in the previous two games, the Phantoms had plenty of opportunities to swing the momentum of the series in their favor. In fact, Philadelphia opened the scoring for the second straight game, but ultimately failed to take advantage the situation. Instead, the team allowed Syracuse to jump right back in and take control of the game.

John Slaney tallied the aforementioned marker – the Phantoms’ only goal of the game – at 5:49 of the opening period. The play was started by Mark Freer, who initially set up captain Mark Greig for a 30-foot slapshot. The puck clanked off the post and onto the stick of Slaney, who read the play perfectly. Before Labbe could react, the puck was behind him for a 1-0 Philadelphia lead.

Syracuse turned up the pressure in the later moments of the first period and eventually broke through. Both Pronger and Mathieu Darche hit posts before David Ling knocked a shot off Slaney’s skate to tie the game on the powerplay with just 18 seconds left in the period. The goal visibly demoralized the Phantoms, but, to the team’s credit, they came out strong after the first intermission.

The Phantoms outshot the Crunch in the second period, 13-7, but were unable to take back the lead. Had Yves Sarault not been stoned on a breakaway midway through the stanza, the complexion of the game might have been radically altered. The same can be said for several missed opportunities during a 5-on-3 Phantoms powerplay in which Labbe turned back brilliant scoring chances from Greig, Slaney and Pavel Brendl.

In fact, the 5-on-3 powerplay was clearly the turning point in the game. Syracuse gained a tremendous lift from Labbe’s stellar play during the shorthanded situation. After it was over, the Crunch tightended up on defense, and Labbe was not significantly tested for the duration of the game. The same cannot be said for Little, who was challenged more and more as the game wore on. Eventually, something had to (and did) give.

With the score tied at 1-1 early in the third period, Peter Vandermeer took a costly slashing penalty that led to the Crunch’s series-winning goal. The Phantoms killed off the majority of the minor, but with just 10 seconds left in the 5-on-4, Bellefeuille broke down the far side, took a perfect pass from Derrick Walser, and fired a wrister past Little for the go-ahead tally. Pronger’s empty-netter with 34.3 seconds remaining sealed the deal for the Crunch.

With the off-season now upon them, the Phantoms are left with many questions. What changes will be made to the team for next season? Who will/won’t be back, and which players (if any) will find their way onto the Flyers’ roster come October? Obviously, all of these questions will be answered in due time. So, stay tuned.

For now, however, this team must ponder its inability to seize the moment. As in any sport in any league, it all comes down to opportunities. The Phantoms had plenty of them, both in the final game against Syracuse and throughout the series. The inability to turn those opportunities into goals (along with the Phantoms’ third period woes) ultimately proved to be the team’s downfall.

Three Stars
1. J.F. Labbe (Crunch): Yet another stellar performance in net by one of the Phantoms’ all-time antagonists. Labbe has long been a thorn in the team’s side, dating back to his days with the Hershey Bears.
2. Blake Bellefeuille (Crunch): His big powerplay goal in the third period turned out to be the series-winner. Bellefeuille stepped up when his team needed him most.
3. Mike Lephart (Phantoms): Didn’t show up on the scoresheet, but provided the home team with his usual brand of energetic, hard-hitting hockey. Was a physical force all night long.

Head coach John Stevens was very positive and upbeat after the game. Though he shared his disappointment with the way the season ended, he seemed genuinely pleased with the way some of the team’s younger players progressed this season. Stevens cited an overall lack of consistency as the reason the team didn’t get further in the playoffs… Left winger Matt Zultek was recalled from the Trenton Titans before the game. He saw his first action with the Phantoms since May 1, 2001 because of a groin injury to center Jarrod Skalde… With the loss, the Phantoms are now 8-6 all-time in playoff games at the First Union Center… Powerplays turned out to be an important factor in this game. The Crunch went 2-for-6, while the Phantoms went 0-for-4… Including the results from this series, Syracuse went 5-1-1 against Philadelphia this season. The Crunch won the regular season series, 2-1-1… The series was the first ever postseason meeting between the two teams… Official attendance for the game was 3619.