Thursday, November 20, 2014

Positive result in first shootout as Phantoms nip Bears

by Rob Riches
Phanatic Hockey Writer
Twitter: @Riches61

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- Despite holding a 2-0 lead through much of the game, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms eventually needed a shootout on Wednesday to beat the Hershey Bears, 3-2, in East Division play.

Blair Jones was the lone Phantom -- and player, for that matter -- to score in the shootout, in his first game in the American Hockey League since being sent back to Allentown in place of Scott Laughton earlier in the week. Jones also added an assist on the game’s first goal, setting Andrew Gordon up with a one-timer in front of the net 3:21 into the first period.

“It felt so good to see the puck go into the net,” Jones said. “I’ve done it before in the past. I’m not entirely surprised, but I’m happy to help the team.”

Jones was penciled into Laughton’s previous role on the first line, and handled the adjustment well, according to head coach Terry Murray.

“He hasn’t played in a while,” Murray said. "In the NHL, you can do all the skating and all the practicing you want, but it cannot replace playing the game. He had a big play on the first goal, and played a significant amount of minutes. I thought he handled it pretty well.”

“He’s a lot different than Laughton on our line but at the same time, he’s on that offensive mindset,” Gordon added. The biggest adjustment was playing with a right-handed guy vs. a left-handed guy.”

The Phantoms (7-6-1) raced out to a 2-0 lead within the game’s first seven minutes after a Brandon Manning strike from the blue line for his fourth of the season, and dominated possession in the first stanza, finishing with a 20-9 advantage in shots. A Dane Byers tally on the power play with under three minutes in the second period cut their lead in half, and Kris Newbury’s goal 3 1/2 minutes into the third tied the game against his former club.

An old cliché says that the two-goal lead is the hardest to defend in hockey. The Phantoms became the latest example, and felt the game could have ended much sooner than 67-plus minutes.

“When you’re up 2-0, you play the way you played in the first period, and just want to end that game in regulation,” Murray said. “We’ve got a veteran team playing against us, we know they’re going to push, we know they’re going to keep coming.”

Conservative play throughout the third period led to overtime, and a subsequent move from 4-on-4 action to the open ice available with 3-on-3. Both teams had played in that situatio just once this season, and 2-on-1 scoring rushes dominated on both sides of the ice.

“It was an exciting look at what overtime may look like in the NHL someday,” Murray said. “If they’d like to see the video, I’d be happy to send it to them. To me, that would be a selling point.”

The Phantoms were also granted a 4-on-3 power-play opportunity in the overtime period, but failed to capitalize. That was part of an 0-for-5 night on the man-advantage, against a penalty kill unit that entered the game with the league’s fifth-best kill (at 88.1 percent). The Phantoms’ power play, which had been among the league’s best earlier in the season, fell to 13th in the league in clicking at only 17.1 percent.

Rob Zepp made 27 saves between the pipes, improving his record to 7-3-1 this season. Philipp Grubauer finished with 38 saves in regulation and overtime for the 8-6-1 Bears.

With the Phantoms facing back-to-back action against Worcester and St. John’s on Friday and Saturday, expect Zepp to split playing time with rookie Anthony Stolarz, who has been idle since allowing four goals in a Nov. 5 loss to the Sharks. Murray did not say which game Stolarz would play, but did emphasize the need to play him more.

“Stolarz is a young guy who needs to play -- he can’t sit on the shelf for three weeks,” Murray said. “He’s gotta be playing on a fairly regular basis. As a result of that, my decision will be to play him in one of these two games coming up.”

It may not have been the prettiest win for the Phantoms, but they still get the two points, which matters most. They now sit three points behind the Bears, and six points behind the first-place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Notes: Manning’s goal was his third-consecutive game with a goal. … Each game at PPL Center has been won in either the third period or overtime. … The Phantoms improved to 3-1 this season in games that go to overtime or a shootout. … Jones hadn’t played since Oct. 25, in a Flyers game against the Detroit Red Wings … Wednesday’s shootout was the first all season for the Phantoms. … Brett Hextall returned to the lineup after missing 10 games, recording one shot on goal.
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