After sweeping their first-round series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Checkers are slated to face the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in the Atlantic Division Finals. To prepare for the impending series, here’s quick primer on who the Checkers are going up against.
The Checkers and Phantoms squared off eight times during the regular season and split the series, with each side logging a 4-4-0 record overall and a 3-1-0 mark on home ice.
Dec. 12 - Phantoms 6 @ Checkers 3
The Checkers and Phantoms' first meeting of the regular season didn’t come until December. The back-and-forth contest saw the Phantoms jump out to an early two-goal lead just three minutes in, but the Checkers roared back with a trio of strikes to regain the lead midway through the first frame. It would be all Lehigh Valley from that point, however, as the visitors pumped in four unanswered tallies – including two on the man advantage – to double up the Checkers for a 6-3 win. Alex Nedeljkovic finished the night with 32 saves on 37 shots, while the Checkers chased starter Dustin Tokarski less than nine minutes into regulation before John Muse came in in relief to stop all 25 shots he saw.
Dec. 13 - Phantoms 2 @ Checkers 5
The script flipped for the following night’s rematch. The Checkers racked up four unanswered tallies to start the contest, including two on the power play and a pair from the captain Patrick Brown. The Phantoms lit the lamp to end the second and start the third but that would be it for their rally effort as an Andrew Miller’s late empty netter sealed the 5-2 win. Jeremy Smith made 35 saves to nab the win while former Checker Muse took the loss for Lehigh Valley.
Dec. 29 - Checkers 1 @ Phantoms 3
The first meeting in Pennsylvania followed the same pattern, with one team recording each of the first three goals. This time it would be the Phantoms, who carried a 3-0 lead until midway through the third when Andrew Miller connected with Warren Foegele to break the shutout. That would be all the Checkers could muster, however, as Smith was saddled with the loss and Alex Lyon took the victory with 28 stops.
Dec. 30 - Checkers 5 @ Phantoms 2
The Checkers again rallied in the rematch despite falling in an early 1-0 hole. The Checkers racked up three straight goals starting late in the second to take the lead, but the Phantoms pulled back within one with under two minutes to play. Charlotte locked the home team down from there on out, however, and used a pair of empty netters from Andrew Poturalski and Patrick Brown to blow the game wide open. Nedeljkovic earned his first win against Lehigh Valley with 26 saves, while Alex Lyon’s 39 stops weren’t enough to avoid the loss.
Feb. 2 - Checkers 2 @ Phantoms 3
Returning to Lehigh Valley over a month later, the Checkers locked into a tight contest with the Phantoms. The teams traded tallies until the Warren Foegele knotted the score at two early on in the third. The game appeared to be headed to overtime until Cole Bardreau netted the go-ahead marker with three to play in regulation to clinch the win for the Phantoms. Nedeljkovic stopped 23 of the 26 shots he saw during the game while John Muse denied 38 shots and picked up the win.
Feb. 7 - Checkers 3 @ Phantoms 4
The Phantoms grabbed the first consecutive wins of the season series a few days later despite a strong push from the Checkers. Lehigh Valley scored early and often to hold a 4-1 advantage heading into the waning minutes of regulation, but a power-play strike from Aleksi Saarela gave the Checkers life and an Andrew Miller tally pulled the visitors within one with 31 seconds to play. Charlotte couldn’t finish off their furious comeback, however, and dropped the 4-3 decision. Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 23 shots and took the loss, though Callum Booth made his AHL debut in relief and stopped both shots he saw in 11 minutes of play. Alex Lyon notched the W with 21 stops.
Apr. 3 - Phantoms 1 @ Checkers 3
The final series in Charlotte kicked off with the Checkers taking care of the Phantoms late. The visitors jumped on top early and held that lead until Andrew Poturalski lit the lamp for Charlotte two minutes into the third. The Checkers’ push finally yielded the go-ahead tally thanks to Marcus Kruger in the final five minutes of play, before a Mike Ferrantino empty netter sealed the deal. Smith recorded the win with 21 saves on 22 shots while Tokarski was saddled with the loss despite 36 saves.
Apr. 4 - Phantoms 1 @ Checkers 6
The season series ended with its most lopsided final. The Checkers racked up three straight goals in the opening frame to take control and never ceded it, notching another two in the middle frame before the Phantoms were able to find the back of the net. Andrew Poturalski iced the game with a power-play strike in the third – his second of the game – and Callum Booth picked up his first AHL win behind 30 saves, with Muse collecting the loss for Lehigh Valley.
FIVE TO WATCH
PHIL VARONE (74gp, 23g/47a/70pts, +9, 48 PIM)
This year’s AHL MVP finished second in scoring and set a career high along the way. In his seventh pro season, the 27-year-old playmaker ranked fourth in the league with 47 helpers and put up six points (1g, 5a) in seven games against Charlotte this season. Varone recorded two assists in three games in the Phantoms’ first-round playoff series but missed Game 4 due to injury.
GREG CAREY (72gp, 31g/22a/53pts, +10, 32 PIM)
While Varone racked up the assists during the season, Carey had a knack for finding the back of the net. He led the Phantoms and tied for fourth in the league overall with 31 tallies while coming through in the clutch with a team-best six game winners. The 28-year-old enjoyed success against the Checkers during the regular season with six points (3g, 3a) in eight games, before notching four points (2g, 2a) in as many games during the Phantoms’ first-round victory.
NICOLAS AUBE-KUBEL (72gp, 18g/28a/46pts, +24, 86 PIM)
The second-year pro and junior teammate of Julien Gauthier ranked third on the Phantoms in scoring this season and led the team in penalty minutes. Aube-Kubel also tied for the most points by a Lehigh Valley player against the Checkers this season with six points (2g, 4a) in eight games, but went scoreless in the Phantoms’ first-round series against Providence.
T.J. BRENNAN (63gp, 14g/31a/45pts, +11, 75 PIM)
A three-time AHL All Star and two-time Best Defenseman, Brennan had a down year by his own lofty standards but still registered the fifth-most point by an AHL blue liner this season. The 29-year-old enters this postseason with 50 Calder Cup playoff games under his belt, including two runs to the conference finals with Toronto, and picked up three points (1g, 2a) in the Phantoms’ opening-round series.
OSKAR LINDBLOM (54gp, 16g/18a/34pts, +4, 10 PIM)
The 21-year-old Swede ranked second among team rookies in scoring this season while also appearing in 23 NHL games with the Flyers, plus four more in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Lindbolm was one of the reinforcements to join the Phantoms when Philadelphia was eliminated and registered three points (2g, 1a) in two games during Lehigh Valley’s first-round series.