PROVIDENCE, R.I. – It’s a billing fitting for an affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers this coming weekend in a Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed type of matchup on hand for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, who are stocking up to take on the Providence Bruins in a pair of measuring-stick games in Rhode Island.
The Phantoms are looking to continue their winning ways after taking their last three games and move into the playoff group in the Atlantic Division while stockpiling some major contributors, while the Bruins have been the team to beat in the AHL in the early going this season on a run of 7-0-0-1 in their last eight games and leading the league with 22 points and sit at 10-1-1-1 in 13 games played. Only the Toronto Marlies have had a comparable winning streak with the Hershey Bears not far behind as the Bruins have been one of the hottest teams in hockey.
The Phantoms keep on getting good news for this particular set of games, as they added veteran NHL forward Artem Anisimov on a professional tryout agreement on Tuesday to add to a heavy lineup for this set of games. Anisimov had previously been with the Flyers during training camp, taking a few preseason games having formerly played under new head coach John Tortorella, but was injured during camp and never got to don the Orange and Black during the regular season. With his skills, combined with the Flyers’ injury struggles to start the season, it’s clear he’s hoping to make a run that eventually lands him in the City of Brotherly Love in the near future. Alongside him is Flyers forward Patrick Brown, who was picked up off of waivers just over a year ago from the Vegas Golden Knights, as he makes his debut in a Phantoms jersey for the first time on a conditioning assignment. Brown played nine games for the Henderson Silver Knights during the 2020-21 season as his last action at the AHL level, having previously won the Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers during the 2018-19 season. He’ll look to make an impact during his stint in Lehigh Valley alongside Flyers prospect Tanner Laczynski, who the parent team swapped with Max Willman on Monday as another big add for the Phantoms ahead of action on Friday. Laczynski spent all of this season in Philadelphia but comes to Lehigh Valley to get some extended playing time and the opportunity to play a bigger role for Ian Laperriere’s group.
Lehigh Valley has been much stronger of late, winning three straight games by one goal including two close wins over the Laval Rocket as well as a tight win over division foe Springfield. Samuel Ersson’s play has been a big reason for his team’s success, leading his team to those three wins by only allowing five goals over 92 shots faced in that span. The Phantoms have found a combination of youth and experience contributing to their recent success, with young stars in the making like Elliot Desnoyers, Cam York, and Ronnie Attard finding the back of the net during this stretch alongside Cal O’Reilly, Louie Belpedio, and a healthy Cooper Marody. Lehigh Valley’s defense has come through for offense quite a bit in the early going this season, with eight goals between York, Attard, and Belpedio factoring in as major reasons for the team’s recent success. It’s a balance the Phantoms have struggled to achieve over the past few seasons, and with room to grow for other players, it’s a very potent mixture brewing in Allentown.
Meanwhile, everything that could go right for the Providence Bruins has gone right so far this season. The team has picked apart some of their upper Atlantic Division foes they see often each season, collecting seven of eight points so far with the Springfield Thunderbirds and five of six with the high-flying Bridgeport Islanders as early examples of their success. The Bruins are coming off of a pair of wins over the Charlotte Checkers and potted five goals in each game, but it ends up being a rare example of a game that wasn’t decided by a single goal as a final score for Providence. Ten of the team’s 13 contests have been decided by a single goal, with only three of those games not ending in the Bruins’ favor with only a single regulation loss to speak of, a 2-1 loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins back on October 23. It remains to be seen if it’s a sustainable streak for the Bruins, who have been without one of their top netminders in Kyle Keyser after he departed with injury during a November 5 game and has since left the crease to a fairly unknown quantity in Brandon Bussi, who was solid in five games a season ago after he concluded his time with Western Michigan University. He came up with 76 total saves while allowing just five goals against in the pair of wins against Charlotte this past weekend, propelling him to one of the top spots in the AHL as of this writing with a 1.84 goals-against average.
Providence has been led by forward Vinni Lettieri, who has neatly chipped in seven goals and 13 points in all of the team’s 13 games. The Bruins have a trio of rookies that take up the next few spots in scoring, with Georgii Merkulov, Fabian Lysell, and Luke Torporowski as the team’s top scorers, with 13 goals and 33 points spread nearly completely evenly between the three. Factor in Chris Wagner’s five goals and contributors like Oskar Steen, Joona Koppanen, and Connor Carrick to suddenly give the Bruins a point spread that is the envy of the American Hockey League at this stage of the season. It remains to be seen if the hot start is sustainable, particularly as Providence’s schedule diversifies a bit, but it presents an equally interesting matchup for them as they see Lehigh Valley for the first time to take on a new opponent to continue their recent run.
The matchups have a domino effect on the rest of the Atlantic Division in this early stage of play. The Bruins go into play with a four-point lead on second-place Hershey Bears, but it’s a close enough swing that losses for the Bruins combine with a couple of wins for the hot Bears to suddenly put a new team atop the division. Conversely, Lehigh Valley is looking to get out of a tie for last place with another recently strong Hartford Wolf Pack team that’s won two and collected five of six points and past a slumping Wilkes-Barre team that’s lost four straight. It’s a difference of 11 points between the top and bottom of the division with a lot of hockey still to be played, but the Phantoms are clearly eyeing this set of games as an early assertion that they are to be feared in the playoff race as there’s truly no team that’s out of the question so far this season. Both games in Providence are slated for 7:05 PM EST puck drops on Friday and Saturday night.
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