Photo c/o 38 Photography
Most of the news surrounding the Lehigh Valley Phantoms over the past week has been the promotion of goalie Rob Zepp. Before he was called up to the Flyers, the Phantoms were awfully busy over the past two weeks. It was Anthony Stolartz, however, not Rob Zepp who stole the show on the actual ice for the Phantoms—more on that to come later.
The Phantoms opened up the weekend of December 12th at Binghamton in the first game of a back-to-back-to-back for the AHL club. Zepp got the call in net for the Phantoms and everything started off well including a Zack Stortini goal assisted by Zepp, himself. The tide turned about half way through the game when the Senators put up two goals within a few minutes of each other to take the lead. They added on a third goal on the power play in the third period and that was it. Zepp stopped 41 of 44 and Nick Cousins lead the team with seven shots en rout to the 3-1 defeat.
The Phantoms didn’t have much time to shake off the loss as they played host to the rival Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton Penguins. Once again the Phantoms took the early lead, this time it was Petr Straka for his sixth of the year. We had to wait a long time between goals in this one as there was no scoring until the Penguins tied it up with just over two minutes left in regulation. Those last two minutes and the seven minute overtime went scoreless as well and they had to decide it in a shootout. It took one extra round after each teams scored in two of the first three rounds (Straka and Taylor Leier hit, Jason Akeson missed) but Anthony Stolarz made the stop and Nick Cousins put in the game winner. Cousins was awarded the first star of the game but no one would have complained if the first honor went to Stolarz who stopped 44 of 45 in the victory.
The following night the Phantoms were back at it in Albany. With only one goal being scored in the first 45 minutes of play no one would have guessed the way this one finished. Down 1-0 almost half way through the third, Taylor Leier tied the game with his team-leading eigth goal of the season. Three minutes later Zack Stortini got his third of the year (Robert Hagg on the primary assist). Two minutes later the Devils evened it at twos on the powerplay. Two minutes later Andrew Gordon scored his seventh of the year without any helpers and just two minutes later it was tied at threes. This one would go to overtime, but the Phantoms would lose just under three minutes in. Zepp had a decent start saving 33 of 37.
After a few days off the Phantoms were right back out on the ice Wednesday the 17th hosting Binghamton, looking to avenge their loss the previous Friday night. This is the game you may have heard about. It started off with a Phantom clean face-off win, then a ‘d-to-d’ pass followed by a long outlet and entry into the zone and then a nice goal by Petr Straka from Steven Delisle. Then the Phantoms won the next face-off, went d-to-d, long outlet into the zone, then Andrew Gordon fed Jason Akeson for the quick 2-0 lead. Then a center ice face-off, win for the Phantoms, d-to-d, outlet, and Andrew Gordon flung it on net after he entered the zone and somehow it found a way in the back of the net. I’ve never seen anything like it in a hockey game. Mind you, the third goal was horrible, but I’ve never seen three consecutive goals scored on oddly similar plays, nor have I ever seen three goals in the first 36 seconds of the game. That was it for the first period, but not for the game. On the power play just two minutes into the second Nick Cousins scored his fifth of the year from Andrew Gordon and Robert Hagg. That goal lit off a string of powerplay goals to end the game, but it was too little too late for Binghamton. The Senators scored one powerplay goal at the end of the second and one more in the beginning of the third. Nick Cousins continued the trend with another powerplay goal and with time nearly running out Binghamton added one more powerplay goal to bring the final to 5-3 Phantoms. Zepp’s 41 saves on 44 shots was yet another solid performance from the veteran, and his last before his call up. Cousins had six shots to go with his two goals and Robert Hagg, Andrew Gordon and Brandon Manning each had a pair of assists.
The Friday night game started out slow for the Phantoms in their home tilt against Hershey. As a matter of fact the whole game was slow, with only 50 total shots being registered—however, a significant 32 of those shots came from the enemy Hershey Bears. There was no scoring until Jason Akeson found the back of the net halfway through the game. As far as non-empty net scoring goes, that was it. Stolarz stopped all 32 shots and Akeson added on an empty netter to seal the deal on a 2-0 victory.
Although Zepp was called up before the Saturday night game in Hartford, coach Terry Murray made it clear that Stolarz was getting the call in the back-to-back regardless of whether Zepp was there or not due to Stolarz fantastic play the prior night. After getting a 1-0 lead due to Zack Stortini’s fourth of the year, third of the two-week six game span, Stolarz kept everything out of the net until about half way through the game. After that the scoring was blank for the rest of regulation. It took 4:56 into overtime for Hartford to pot the game winner. Taking the “L” may sting but Anthony Stolarz has been playing absolutely lights out for the past few weeks. Stolarz’ goals against average (2.22) may only rank 13th in the AHL among qualified goalies, but his outstanding save percentage (.933), good for fourth in the AHL, shows you how good the rookie has been playing of late.
Right now the Phantoms sit tied for 8th in the conference with a game in hand on the 6th and 7th place teams. With a record of 13-10-4-1 they are in the heart of playoff contention. Taylor Leier and Andrew Gordon lead the team with eight goals each, Petr Straka trails them with seven and Nick Cousins is right behind him with six. Brandon Manning is pacing the team in assists, with 14. Robert Hagg and Nick Cousins follow him with eleven and ten assists, respectively. Manning also leads the team in points with twenty, Cousins and Andrew Gordon follow him with 16, and Taylor Leier and Robert Hagg follow up with 15 and 13.