For the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, two series down, two to go.
Coming off a five-game series win that included the longest overtime matchup in the AHL's 82-year history, the Phantoms now face their toughest playoff challenge: the Toronto Marlies, the league's best team in the regular season.
Lehigh Valley, the Flyers' top farm team, will meet the Marlies in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals starting Saturday in Toronto. The Marlies, the Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate, led the league with 112 points in the regular season, and the Phantoms were second with 104.
The Phantoms are 7-2 in the first two playoff rounds.
"I feel good about what they're doing, and they feel good about what they're doing," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said earlier this week. "Obviously, there's some unfinished business. Toronto is going to be tough, and Toronto is probably looking at it the same way."
The Phantoms, thanks in part to a 2-1 win over Charlotte in five overtimes, got past the Checkers in five games despite not having injured center Phil Varone, the league's MVP. The Phantoms were also missing injured defensemen Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin for some games in that series, and talented winger Nic Aube-Kubel missed the last three games because of a league suspension for a check to the head.
Other players have stepped up.
"We've got a deep team, which is why we've been able to battle through things with some guys out of the lineup," Hextall said. "Everybody has bought in, and they have terrific chemistry down there. Hopefully, they can keep it up. This type of experience for young players is huge, whether it's junior or the American League. Going through a long playoff run and getting playoff-tested is absolutely incredible for all their development."
Varone, who had a team-high 70 points in the regular season, and Sanheim might return Saturday. "We're hopeful they'll be back," coach Scott Gordon said.
Aube-Kubel will return, and Morin will miss the rest of the season and will need knee surgery, Gordon said.
Chris Conner (eight points), Oskar Lindblom (seven), Danick Martel (seven), Greg Carey (seven), and Mike Vecchione (six) have been the Phantoms' leading playoff scorers, and Phil Myers – who played 66 minutes in the five-overtime win over Charlotte – has anchored the defense.
Goalie Alex Lyon has carried Lehigh Valley in the postseason, going 6-1 with a 1.49 goals-against average and .959 save percentage.
Toronto is making its fifth appearance in the conference finals in the last 11 years, while the Phantoms are in the conference finals for the first time since 2005, when they were based in Philadelphia and won the Calder Cup.
The Marlies are coming off a four-game sweep of Syracuse and will be playing for the first time in 10 days when they host the Phantoms on Saturday. Barring another sweep, the Marlies and Phantoms will play the first five games in eight nights. The Marlies, who outscored their first two playoff opponents by a combined 33-21 , played an intrasquad game Tuesday, complete with referees, to stay focused.
The Phantoms went 0-1-1 against the Marlies in the regular season.
"They take away time and space as well as any team we will have played all year," said Gordon, whose team has been focusing on quick puck movement during practices. "That's going to be the biggest battle — to get through that lack of time and space by the proper reads to try to get through the tight coverage, starting from our zone."
Trevor Moore (nine points) and Dmytro Timashov (five goals) have been among the Marlies' playoff leaders, and goalies Garret Sparks (6-2, 2.22 GAA, .920 save percentage) and Calvin Pickard (1-0, 1.15 GAA, .949 save percentage) have been superb.
Notes. Phantoms defensemen Maxim Lamarche and Reece Willcox are each plus-8 in the playoffs. … James de Haas has played well since replacing Morin. … Gordon praised backup goalie Dustin Tokarski for keeping the team loose between periods of its five-overtime win over Charlotte: "It's a little thing, but he's trying to find a way to make an impact," Gordon said. "Everybody we've brought into the lineup [because of] an injury or was on the sideline has had an impact in giving the team success. And the guys who came up from junior have worked hard in practice as the scout team and done a good job. It's taken everybody, and the players deserve a ton of credit."
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the Flyers' top minor-league affiliate, will meet the Toronto Marlies (Maple Leafs affiliate) in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals. The winner will play for the AHL's Calder Cup against the survivor of the Western Conference final between Texas (Dallas Stars) and Rockford (Chicago Blackhawks).
Toronto won both regular-season matchups with the Phantoms, winning in Allentown, 5-1, and scoring a 3-2 shootout victory on its own ice. Toronto topped the AHL with 112 regular-season points, while the Phantoms were second with 104.
Saturday: at Toronto, 4 p.m.
Sunday, at Toronto, 4 p.m.
Wednesday: at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m.
Friday, May 25: at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m.
*Saturday, May 26: at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m.
*Monday, May 28: at Toronto, 7 p.m.
*Wednesday, May 30: at Toronto, 7 p.m.