On Saturday afternoon, after a very long layoff, the AHL playoffs start up again, and the Marlies are in the Eastern Conference Final facing the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. It’s time to learn who these guys are.

Unfortunately, they don’t actually wear that mask on their faces. And by the orange and black, you might guess this is the affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, and you would be right. Now where is Lehigh Valley, though?

Well … the truth is, it’s one of those names you throw on something to make it seem more regional than it is. Not as overblown as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, but nonetheless, not a place per se. The arena the team plays in is not in a valley. It’s in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Now why don’t they just say so?

Oh. You know, you do you, masked men, but I’d just own that if I were you. I’d make those uniforms rust coloured; I’d claim my rust belt heritage with pride, and I’d revel in it. I’d give out the man of steel award to the best player, and I’d call the bar the Rust Bucket. But, if you want to be people from the valley, okay.

Speaking of identity crises, you likely have noticed, if you watch the Flyers play, that Broad Street Bullies really only refers to some of their fans these days. And Radko Gudas. The same is largely true of the Phantoms. They do things like skate fast and score goals and oh, remember T.J. Brennan? Yeah, he’s a Phantom.

So this team from the valley is more like the Marlies than they are like AHL teams of old. Let’s get to know them:

Lehigh Valley Phantoms Playoff Roster

Chris Conner34LW94484000.8901136.4
*Oskar Lindblom21LW7437402102020
Danick Martel23LW943732010.782.222317.4
Greg Carey28LW93472820.780.892412.5
*Mike Vecchione25C93363200.670.222213.6
*Philippe Myers21D9235-1600.560.671910.5
T.J. Brennan29D914531200.561.33156.7
Alex Krushelnyski27LW9224-1200.440.222010
Colin McDonald33RW91341200.440.22195.3
Corban Knight27C91231400.330.44214.8
Maxim Lamarche25D91238200.330.22119.1
Cole Bardreau24RW903313200.333.56150
Phil Varone27C3022-1000.67050
Radel Fazleev22LW40223200.50.540
Tyrell Goulbourne24LW610121200.172911.1
*Mark Friedman22D91012610.110.67812.5
Travis Sanheim22D3011-1200.330.6730
*Mikhail Vorobyev21C50112400.20.850
Reece Willcox24D90118200.110.2220
*David Drake23D1000-1200200
*James de Haas24D20000200100
*Carsen Twarynski20LW2000-1000000
Samuel Morin22D300012000.6720
Steven Swavely26C30002000020
Nicolas Aube-Kubel22RW60000600170

The * in the first column denotes a rookie.

So, what do we see? Well, if you study this roster of guys who have played in the playoffs so far, you see a young defender. And then another. And another. Oh, and there’s another one. And if you’re a long-time Marlies fan, you are not even remotely surprised to see Brennan is one of the top defenders in points.

The Phantoms have a lot of rookies and young players, and yet they also have a couple of veterans providing offence. This is exactly what you want to succeed in the AHL, and it’s exactly what the Marlies have too.

One player is interesting to look at, the man up above, Danick Martel. The reason he’s interesting is that he’s sized about the same as Adam Brooks, and he, like Brooks, ripped up junior hockey and then hit the pros and couldn’t score like that anymore.

At age 20, Martel had a stupid 102 points in 64 games for Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. At that age, Brooks had an even more amazing 130 points in 66 games. In his first regular season in the AHL, Martel had 22 goals and 15 assists in 67 games. Brooks was not that good this year, at all, with only eight goals and 11 assists in 57 games. But the difference, when you drill down is all in goals, and sometimes, you just don’t get the scoring going right away. Brooks got most of those goals in the second half of the season.

As a template for how Brooks can grow in the pros, Martel, who has approximately repeated his stats twice more, is a good on.  He played four games in the NHL this year at 23, but his pro career is a slow and deliberate development, not a quick step to the NHL.

The funny thing about Martel is that he takes a lot of penalties, and Brooks does not. So in that way, Brooks not struggling to compete in the AHL in the same way. On the other hand, Martel will provide the Marlies power play with some sweet opportunities. Keefe noted the power play faced some “ups and downs” against the Utica Comets and the Syracuse Crunch. “We feel good about it, but it feels like a long time since we’ve been out on the power play, so we want to make sure we’re sharp and we’re ready to go against this opponent.”

The Marlies have spent much of their time off learning about the Phantoms through video review. The teams played each other only twice in the regular season, with the most recent game over four months ago in January. Video review has been an essential tool for preparation. “The coach has done a great job with the video and breaking them down,” said Trevor Moore about his upcoming opponent. Moore has scored three goals and earned six assists in the Marlies nine playoff games so far, placing him first in playoff points on the team. He’s more than ready to start the next round. “I’m kind of getting antsy,” he said before adding “eleven days off is a little much.”

The Goalies

The Phantoms don’t have the goalie strength of the Marlies. No one does, really. They do have the goalie with the top Save Percentage in the playoffs in Alex Lyon. Not all of that is just from that one game that took five hours. But his regular season numbers are not in the same class as the Marlies duo.

Right now, the Phantoms are using Dustin Tokarski as their number two, and he’s not any better. He’s kicked around as an NHL backup, faded down to AHL level, and he is AHL-average like Lyon usually is.

However, if Lyon keeps up his hot streak, look out.  The Phantoms are also about to get Carter Hart, the top goalie (by a huge margin) in WHL Save Percentage. Will they play him? Who knows, but he’s for sure their best goalie, just maybe not their best goalie now. That same tweet says they’re getting the OHL’s 42-goal-scorer Morgan Frost as well.

The Injury Report

The big story with the Phantoms is injuries.

The biggest injury problem is Phil Varone. He was the AHL MVP this season, and he finished second in the AHL in points. He is a player who looked a lot like Andreas Johnsson a few years back, but he simply never made the jump to the NHL. In the AHL, he is a big scoring threat. He’s also hurt, but is back at the latest practices, although he is not likely ready to return immediately.

The second biggest part of their team the Phantoms were missing is Travis Sanheim, and he is closer to coming back.

Sam Morin is reported to be out completely with knee surgery.

The break has helped the Phantoms a lot here. On the Marlies side, the injury to Andreas Borgman isn’t magically better, so they won’t have their full defence corps. Borgman has not skated since his new injury, and he was still a no show at team practice on Thursday. A representative of the Marlies confirmed there was almost no chance he would play in the first two home games this weekend.

The Regular Season

Lehigh Valley finished the regular season second only to the Marlies in points percentage. They had the league’s best home record (27-6-3-2), while the Marlies finished the season with the best road record of all-time (30-5-1-2). They scored more goals than the Marlies by six, and let in a lot more. They are a low penalized team, like the Marlies, and look, they’re twins okay? The main difference here is that the Marlies have better goalies and they draw a lot of penalties.

Both teams have power plays that succeeded at a sort of mediocre level, but the Marlies get to use theirs more. The Phantoms are okay at penalty killing, and the Marlies are amazing, and that’s the goalies again to some degree.

This series should be close, and if Lyon keeps rolling, very close.

One thing to watch. The Phantoms have not completely changed over to a modern AHL team. You notice that Nicolas Aube-Kubel fellow with six games and no points? He’s their hitter. And he was suspended three times this season for hits to the head. So everyone needs to watch out for the good old fashioned head hunter. He scored a lot in the regular season, but if he wants to spend the playoffs hitting and not shooting, that’s fine.

Speaking of hits, Mason Marchment says he’s “a little sore,” but ready to go for the next round. Marchment was on the receiving end of a brutal check at the boards by Mat Bodie of the Crunch in retaliation for a clean and legal hit by Marchment. Bodie was slapped with a two game suspension for clipping by the league. Thanks to the Marlies sweep of the Crunch, the second of those two games will be served by Bodie next season.

Both games this weekend are at 4 p.m.