The Lehigh Valley Phantoms will take on the Hershey Bears in the best-of-five Atlantic Division semifinal round of the 2024 Calder Cup playoffs. The underdog Phantoms will have their work cut out against the American Hockey League's top team during the regular season. The Bears narrowly missed out on setting a new AHL single-season points record but still easily finished with the best record in the league (53-14-5). The Bears earned a bye in the best-of-three divisional quarterfinal.

The Phantoms (32-31-9) finished in sixth place in the Atlantic Division, staking down the division's final playoff spot on the last weekend of the regular season. In the divisional quarterfinal, the Phantoms defeated the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in back-to-back games (2-1 in Wilkes-Barre on April 24 and 5-4 in overtime at the PPL Center in Allentown two nights later).

Following is a preview of the upcoming series. The schedule is as follows:

Wed May 1 at Giant Center (Hershey)
Sat May 4 at Giant Center
Wed May 8 at PPL Center
Sat May 11 at PPL Center - if necessary
Mon May 13 at Giant Center -- if necessary

Regular season series: Phantoms were a tough out

Due to their close geographical proximity, the arch-rival Phantoms and Bears played each other 12 times during the regular season. The Phantoms were 4-6-2 across the 12 meetings. It may not sound too impressive, but no other team managed as many as four wins against Hershey this season (albeit over smaller sample sizes of head-to-head games). Also, five of the 12 games were decided by a single goal.  

Oct 28 (away): Hershey 4 -  Phantoms 0
Nov 1 (away): Hershey 4 - Phantoms 3 (OT)
Nov 11 (home): Hershey 2 - Phantoms 0
Nov 12 (away): Phantoms 4 - Hershey 1
Dec 30 (home): Hershey 4 - Phantoms 0
Jan 7 (away): Hershey 3 - Phantoms 2 (OT)
Jan 13 (home): Phantoms 4 - Hershey 3 (SO, 1-0, four rounds)
Jan 31 (home): Hershey 4 - Phantoms 2
Feb 2 (home): Phantoms 4 - Hershey 1
Mar 3 (home): Phantoms 1 - Hershey 0 (SO, 2-1)
Apr 2 (away): Hershey 1 - Phantoms 0
Apr 12 (away): Hershey 4 - Phantoms 1

Roster reinforcements

After the Flyers narrowly missed out on earning the final Eastern Conference wildcard playoff spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Philadelphia assigned four players from their NHL roster to join the Phantoms: forwards Bobby Brink and Olle Lycksell as well as defensemen Ronnie Attard and Adam Ginning. Additionally, Belarusian goaltender Alexei Kolosov came to Allentown after completing the 2023-24 season with Dinamo Minsk. Later, after Denver won the Frozen Four championship in the NCAA, forward Massimo Rizzo was added to the Phantoms' roster on a tryout contract before his NHL entry-level deal kicks in for the 2024-25 season.

The Bears' roster has been bolstered for the upcoming playoff series, too. The parent Washington Capitals, afterass being swept by the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, assigned all of the following players to Hershey: forwards Hendrix Lapierre (1g, 1a in the Rangers series) and Ivan Miroshnichenko, defensemen Vincent Iorio, Lucas Johansen, veteran Dylan McIlrath (Hershey's captain) and Hardy Haman Aktell, and goaltender Mitchell Gibson

These are potentially impactful additions on both sides. In the Phantoms' first round series against WBS, all four of the late roster additions from the NHL roster made important contributions to the Lehigh Valley victory. Attard scored a key second period goal in Game 2. Lycksell had a pair of assists in the short series, while Brink and Ginning had one apiece. Brink's assist, on a Tanner Laczynski power play goal, temporarily tied the score of the latter game at 3-3 in the third period.

Keys to the series

While rest and practice time are often coveted commodities during the stretch drive and the playoffs, there is such a thing as having too much time off to stay sharp. Hershey last played a game on April 20: an 11-day gap between the final game of the regular season and the series opener against the Phantoms. Lehigh Valley will have had a three-night break by the time the opening faceoff drops to start the playoff series with Hershey.

Especially in a best-of-five format, the Phantoms must seize a potential window of opportunity in Game 1 to take charge before the Bears fully recover their timing. The Bears were the AHL's stingiest team in terms of preventing opposing goals. It wasn't just the Phantoms who found the sledding tough when trying to attack Hershey. As the team, the Bears allowed a league-low 151 goals. Goalies Hunter Shepard (27-4-3, 1.76 GAA, .929 SV%, five shutouts) and Clay Stevenson (24-10-2, 2.06 GAA, .922 SV%, seven shutouts) usually erased most of the scoring chances they faced. 

Apart from 5-on-5 cohesion, it's possible that the Phantoms could be more in sync on special teams to start the series. The Phantoms power play was in a horrific tailspin down the stretch of the regular season before breaking loose in the playoff series against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Lehigh Valley scored three power play goals in Game 2, spurring their comeback in the game. The Phantoms also notched a crucial goal at 4-on-4 to send the deciding game to overtime. On the penalty kill, the Phantoms were 6-for-7 over the two games against WBS. 

During the regular season, Hershey ranked 6th leaguewide on the power play (51-for-254, 20.1 percent) with four shorthanded goals allowed. The Bears ranked No. 1 on the penalty kill at 87.7 percent (235-for-268) and also scored 10 shorthanded goals.

Any way you slice it, this is a very tough matchup for the Phantoms. They'll have to set a positive tone right away and force Hershey to chase the game. Additionally, the Phantoms must do a better job walking the line in terms of playing with discipline. The Phantoms were the AHL's most penalized team in the regular season (297 times shorthanded), and the issue reared its head in Game 2 of the WBS series with the Phantoms frequently getting into penalty trouble -- a combined five minors -- over the first and second periods. Lehigh Valley killed off the first four penalties but the Penguins scored on their fifth to re-take a lead in the game. 

Key Players: Phantoms

The Laczynski line: The Phantoms' top line trio (Tanner Laczynski centering Lycksell and Adam Brooks) stepped up huge for the Phantoms in the first-round playoff series. Lycksell and Brooks, in fact, were arguably Lehigh Valley's top two all-around forwards down the stretch drive of the regular season.

Cal Petersen: In any playoff series, goaltending is often the single biggest factor in why a team wins or loses. There likely won't be much margin for error in this series for veteran netminder Petersen. After a very uneven first three quarters of the season both at the AHL level with the Phantoms and the NHL with the Flyers, Petersen generally played quite well down the stretch and was excellent in the playoff series against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He may need to elevate his game even further if the Bears are to upset Hershey.

The Ginning/Attard defense pairing: Look for the duo of Ginning (as Lehigh Valley's best shutdown defender when he's on top of his game) and the more offensive-minded Attard to play a lot of tough minutes against Hershey in this season. Additionally, veteran defenseman Louie Belpedio had a strong series against the Baby Pens including four assists in the two games. 

Brink's playmaking:In 13 regular season games for Hershey, Brink compiled 13 points (7g. 6a). He played into some tough puck-luck in the WBS series -- hit a post, generated several scoring chances for linemates that didn't end up in the net -- but his ability to find seams and create chances either for himself or for teammates --could be a big factor in this series. The same goes for veteran forward Cooper Marody, especially on the power play.

Key Players: Hershey

Apart from the team's high-end goaltending, the Bears boast a well-balanced attack and a mixture of youth and experience in their lineup. This is especially true with the reinforcements supplied by the Capitals added back into the Hershey lineup. Among the players who were not on the Washington playoff roster, these players all bear watching.

Mike Vecchione: The former Phantoms/Flyers forward has been something of a Phantom nemesis since leaving the Philadelphia organization. Statistically, Vecchione had 17 goals and 38 points during the regular season this year but he often seemed to step up in key situations against his former club.

Joe Snively:  Snively appeared in three NHL games this season for Washington but his primary value was as Hershey's leading point producer and top playmaking forward (14g, 45a, 59 points) in 69 games played.

Limoges, Dube and Frank: The Bears received a combined 81 regular season goals from former Penn State forward Alex Limoges (24g, 27a in 62 games), young French forward Pierrick Dube (28g, 20a in 66 AHL games, three NHL games for the Caps this season), and former Western Michigan standout Ethen Frank (29g, 47 points). Any of those three players would have led the Phantoms in goals with identical production and would have trailed only Marody for the overall points assuming identical production. 

Sgrbossa and Priskie: Two of the veterans who play important roles on the Bears, forward Mike Sgarbossa (36 assists, 43 points in 44 AHL games, 25 NHL games with the Capitals this season) and former Quinnipiac and Florida Panthers defenseman Chase Priskie (34 points, plus-15 in 69 games plays) were also reliable offensive producers for the Bears this season.Sgarbossa brings 26 games worth of previous Calder Cup playoff experience to the table despite the cancellation of postseason play during the pandemic.