After wrapping up the 2023-24 regular season with at a 4-1 home win over the Charlotte Checkers on Sunday, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (32-31-9) will get ready for the start of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal round series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (39-24-9) this week. The schedule is as follows:

Game 1: Wed April 24 at WBS -- 7:05 p.m. EDT

Game 2: Fri April 26 at Lehigh Valley -- 7:05 p.m. EDT
Game 3: Sun April 28 at WBS -- 5:05 p.m. EDT (if necessary)

The winner of the series will move on to play the top-seeded Hershey Bears (53-14-5) in the best-of-five division semifinals. The Divisional final is also a best-of-five. The Eastern Conference Final and Calder Cup Final are both best-of-seven series.

Friday's game at the PPL Center in Allentown will mark the Phantoms' first home playoff match since the 2018 Eastern Conference Final series against the Toronto Marlies. Last season, due to AHL rules governing the distance between two cities engaged in the best-of-three preliminary round (conference quarterfinal), all three games of the Phantoms' first-round series against the Checkers were played at Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte. 

Following is a preview of the upcoming series with the Baby Pens:

Regular Season Series: Phantoms Went 4-7-1

The AHL has an unbalanced schedule in the regular season, even within divisional games. There's a heavy emphasis maximizing the number of times that teams play against their closest geographical rivals. For the Phantoms, that meant a lot of games against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey. 

The Phantoms played the Penguins a dozen times this season, going 4-7-1. Lehigh Valley also played 12 games against Hershey, going 4-6-2. Conversely, the Phantoms played fewer games against more geographically separated clubs in the Atlantic Division; For example, Ian Laperriere's team had six games (4-2-0) against the Bridgeport Islanders and eight games (5-2-1) against Charlotte. In the latter case, some the season series games were doubled up in the same city on back-to-back evenings or afternoons.

Playing so many times against WBS meant that there were no surprises when the Phantoms would take on the Penguins. The teams could usually expect the winning side to play a tighter-checking, grind-it-out brand of hockey.

Overall, the Phantoms often struggled to score when they played against the Baby Pens. Lehigh Valley was not alone in that regard, because Wilkes-Barre/Scranton boasted the fourth fewest goals against by any club in the 32-team American Hockey League this season. The team defense was often stifling and the goaltending from Joel Blomqvist (25-12-6, 2.16 GAA, .921 SV%) was often excellent. 

In order to combat WBS successfully, it takes a patience approach but also some opportunistic finishing ability. Virtually all teams have more success when playing from ahead or on equal footing rather than chasing the game. But this is especially true for the Phantoms' first-round playoff opponent. While the Pens were a top-four team in preventing goals, they ranked 23rd offensively. 

Lack of scoring is where the Phantoms themselves got into problems during the regular season series with the Penguins. Lehigh Valley was the lowest-scoring team (ranked 29th) to qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs in either conference this season. However, some end-of-season reinforcements to the Phantoms' roster potentially could change this for the better in the postseason. See the next section for more. 

This is how the regular season series between the Phantoms and Penguins progressed:

January 6 (away): Phantoms 4 - WBS 3 (OT)

January 26 (home): WBS 4 - Phantoms 3

February 3 (home): WBS 3 - Phantoms 1

February 9 (home): Phantoms 5 - WBS 4 (SO, 2-1)

February 21 (away): Phantoms 3 - WBS 2 (OT)

March 8 (home): WBS 3 - Phantoms 2

March 9 (away): Phantoms 4 - WBS 2

March 13 (away): WBS 3 - Phantoms 0

March 24 (home): WBS 3 - Phantoms 1

March 30 (away): WBS 4 - Phantoms 3 (OT)

April 7 (away): WBS 5 - Phantoms 1

April 20 (home): WBS 2 - Phantoms 0

Phantoms Offense vs. Penguins Defense/Goaltending

During the regular season, with the exception of a five-game winning streak in mid-November, the Phantoms had trouble trying to get multiple forward lines and defense pairs clicking at the same time. Injuries were one key factor, as were key depletions through NHL recalls that tested Lehigh Valley's depth. 

Entering the playoffs, however, the Phantoms roster (at least on paper) looks stronger than it did it during the regular season. Some players who lost time to injuries are now healthy, and the roster has been strengthened by some key arrivals from Philadelphia and the college ranks. 

After the Flyers season ended, the organization assigned forwards Bobby Brink (13 AHL games this season, 7g, 6a, 13 points) and Olle Lycksell (39 AHL games, 19g, 20a, 39 points) back to the Phantoms for the final weekend of the regular season plus the Calder Cup playoffs. The Phantoms also re-added hard-shooting defenseman Ronnie Attard (48 AHL games, 10g, 17a, 27 points) and shutdown defenseman Adam Ginning (58 games, 15 points) to the blueline.

Additionally, after Denver won the NCAA championship in the Frozen Four, top playmaking forward Massimo Rizzo (30 collegiate games, 10g, 34a, 44 points) signed an AHL tryout contract that will make him eligible for duty in the 2024 Calder Cup playoffs. Rizzo's new entry-level contract with the Flyers/Phantoms will kick in for the 2024-25 season. 

Veteran forward Cooper Marody led the Phantoms in scoring during the regular season this year with 56 points (19g, 37a) in 68 games played. Marody is particularly dangerous on the power play when he is able to dish to players with some finishing ability or find a seam for himself. 

The Phantoms top all-around forward this season was Tanner Laczynski. "Laz" missed a combined 23 games due to injuries and illness but was arguably the Phantoms most reliable all-situations forward both early in the season and down the stretch after getting healthy again. Offensively, Laczynski produced 44 points (17g, 27a) in 49 games and was a team-best plus-12 on a club that did not have many forwards on the plus side the ledger this season. Laczynski was sorely missed while he was out of the lineup.

Prior to the AHL All-Star break, rookie forward Samu Tuomaala was one of the primary bright spots for Laperriere's club. After earning a selection to the AHL All-Star Game, however, the young Finn hit a wall and struggled in the latter portion of season. He finished with 43 points (15g. 28a) in 69 games. Tuomaala missed the final three games of the regular season due to an injury sustained on April 13. 

Down the stretch, with the exception of Laczynski, no Phantoms forward was hotter offensively than his linemate, Adam Brooks. Brooks missed significant time due to injury during the early portion of the season, and then got off to a slow start after he came back. However, he clicked in the latter stages of the campaign to finish with 25 points (13g, 12a) in 47 games. This including a run of 13 points in 13 games heading into the final regular season weekend.

Rookie defenseman Emil Andrae showed a lot of promise as a breakout passer, puck mover and power play option during the majority of his first season of North American pro hockey. Andrae, who started out the season in the NHL with the Flyers, still has some adjustments to make on the defensive side of the puck. Offensively, he finished his rookie campaign with 32 points (5g, 27a) in 61 games to lead the Phantoms' blueline corps in scoring.

Last season, forward Elliot Desnoyers enjoyed a very promising AHL rookie season. He led the Phantoms in regular season goals -- 23, three more than Tyson Foerster in one fewer game played -- and was deployed in all game situations. Unfortunately, the 2023-24 season was a rough campaign for Desnoyers, from training camp until very late in the season. He moved down in the lineup from a top-six to role to the bottom six while enduring a nightmarish 41-game goal drought. A switch from center to wing late in the season seemed to help Desnoyers turn the page. He concluded the regular season with two goals in the final three games. 

Rookie forward J.R. Avon was an ace in shootouts this season (a non-factor in playoff games, of course) and showed some all-around promise in middle-six minutes. As with Tuomaala, however, Avon's play dipped in the latter portion of the season. Offensively, he finished with 18 points (9g, 9a). With the late-season additions to the Phantoms roster, Avon's playoff role could be limited. In the longer term, there is some upside to the speedy young forward.

Phantoms Power Play vs. WBS Penalty Kill

The Phantoms' special teams, for the first two-third of the regular season, were the opposite of the Flyers: The Lehigh Valley power play ranked near the top of the AHL for much of the season. Unfortunately, the production dropped dramatically down the stretch.

Entering Sunday's season finale, the Phantoms were mired in a horrific 0-for-31 drought on the power play. Unable to work their way out of the massive slump, the team's leaguewide ranking sank like a rock.

However, the season finished on a positive note as the Phantoms notched a pair of power play goals in the season finale. This, plus the roster re-additions such as Brink, Lycksell and Attard could provide a boost in the playoff series against the Penguins. However, Lehigh Valley will still have their work cut out for them on the man advantage.

Overall, the Phantoms' power play finished the regular season at 18.4 percent efficiency (tied for 14th leaguewide) after dropping to 19th headed into the final game. The WBS penalty kill is a very good one, however. The Baby Pens ranked second across the entire AHL with an 85.4 percent success rate on the PK. Only Hershey (87.7 percent) topped the Penguins.

Phantoms Team Defense/Goaltending vs. WBS Offense

The Phantoms have a generally mobile defense corps and have gotten healthy at the right time. The Pens, as noted earlier, are not a high-scoring team. Nonetheless, staying connected as five-man units will be important against the Pens (and absolutely vital if the Phantoms find a way to advance and play Hershey). 

Lehigh Valley does have some reliable two-way forwards in the lineup: Laczynski, Brooks, center Rhett Gardner, Desnoyers when he's on his game, etc. The blueline group dealt with a more-than-normal amount of injury attrition, with the likes of Helge Grans (56 games played), veteran Louie Belpedio (38 games played) and others missing significant stretches of time. 

Fleet-footed blueline Victor Mete dressed in 59 games for the Phantoms this season. Rookie Ethan Samson appeared in 63 games. A late season addition now under NHL entry-level contract for a 2024-25 and a current AHL tryout deal that will carry over into the playoffs, Hunter McDonald played very well overall in 11 late-season games for Lehigh Valley. Look for McDonald to play in some key matchups against WBS.

The Phantoms goaltending this season, as with other aspects of the team's performance, was rather inconsistent for the majority of the season. Neither Cal Petersen (10-15-3, 2.71 GAA, ,902 save percentage, two shutouts) nor Felix Sandström (13-7-3, 3.15 GAA, .884 SV%) were able to get on a sustained run of strong play for the first two-thirds of the season.

However, Petersen's play picked up significantly down the stretch. His strong starts in the final six weeks of the season outnumbered his uneven performances in the decided majority of his latter-season appearances. Sandström had a pair of very strong stretch drive starts but his overall inconsistency remained an issue. 

In the final two weekends of the regularly season, highly regarded young Belarusian goalie prospect Alexei Kolosov made two starts for the Phantoms. He is expected to compete for considerable playing time next season. It's likelier that Petersen enters the playoffs in the No. 1 role this spring.

Former Army goaltender Parker Gahagen was a very pleasant surprise for the Phantoms in 18 appearances this season (7-8-3, 2.59 GAA, .914 SV%). He was also excellent at the ECHL level in 14 games for the Reading Royals. The 30-year-old Gahagen is unlikely to appear in the Calder Cup playoffs but his role in helping Lehigh Valley avoid falling too far out of the playoff hunt during the most trying stretches of the season should not be overlooked. 

Phantoms PK vs. WBS Power Play

The Phantoms struggled on both ends of special teams during much of the latter portion of the season. Lehigh Valley had been a middle-of-the-pack club on the PK  but hit a rough patch over much of final month or so. 

The Phantoms finished the regular season ranked 24th the penalty kill at 79.8 percent. This was a significant drop from the roughly 83.5 percent pace that had been set entering the heart of the stretch drive. The Phantoms will need to re-solidify this area to prevail against the Penguins. 

WBS was not a good power play team this season. The Baby Pens finished in a three-way-tie for 25th at 17.2 percent efficiency.