Phantoms earn crucial victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

Rhett Garnder scored what would turn out to be the game-winning goal for the Phantoms in their opening-round playoff game.
Rhett Garnder scored what would turn out to be the game-winning goal for the Phantoms in their opening-round playoff game. / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages

Getting the first win in a three-game series can be crucial. It gives a team the key edge going into the second game. The Lehigh Valley Phantoms did just that with a victory over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Wednesday night. The Phantoms will hope the series does not go the same way as last year's eventual loss to the Charlotte Checkers. Lehigh won the first game before dropping the final two.

With reinforcements back from Philadelphia ahead of the playoffs, the Phantoms looked like a much more complete team. And they played like one. Joel Blomqvist played well during the regular season for the Penguins. He had the second-best GAA (2.16) and fifth-best save percentage (.921) amongst all eligible AHL goaltenders. In his rookie season, Blomqvist helped the Penguins finish third in the Atlantic Division.

The Phantoms took control of the game in the opening period and never looked back despite a late push by the Penguins. Adam Brooks, who scored the second-most goals of his career during the regular season, got things started late in the first period. Skating wide of the net, Brooks carried the puck in and fired it toward the left side of the net right past the faceoff dot. At first, it appeared Blomqvist stopped the puck. The Phantoms believed they had scored as the puck was behind the goaltender when Brooks skated behind the net. Olle Lycksell also pointed toward the net to show the puck was in.

After a video review, the officials deemed that the puck did cross the goalline, giving the Phantoms the lead during a four-on-four sequence with 5:34 remaining in the first period.

The Phantoms carried that momentum into the second period where Rhett Gardner got on the board 58 seconds in. Cycling in the zone, Louie Belpedio fired a shot from the point that caused chaos in front. Cooper Marody took a whack at the puck before Gardner got the rebound to go into the open net.

That second goal would become important as the Penguins became desperate to put the puck past Cal Petersen. Petersen had a strong night for the Phantoms and was a key reason they were able to come out with the win. He stopped 21 of 22 shots and helped the team settle into the game. It was a tough year for Petersen in Philadelphia, but he has a chance to help a young Phantoms team go on a playoff run.

The Penguins did get on the board courtesy of Ville Koivunen. He scored the Penguins only goal with less than two minutes remaining in the second period. Taking the puck off the sideboards, Sam Poulin passed it to the front of the net where Koivunen was able to tip it past Petersen. It was Koivunen's first goal with the Penguins in his first game. He spent the regular season on loan with Kärpät in Liiga. Pittsburgh acquired his rights in the trade for Jake Guentzel.

The Phantoms will return home to play their first playoff game at the PPL Center since 2018. They did not receive a home game last season. So it is truly time to Ralley The Valley in Allentown. The Phantoms can sweep the Penguins with a victory and would move on to face the Hershey Bears, the defending Calder Cup Champions.