Local Hockey: Adirondack Phantoms Off to a Strong Start
To say the Adirondack Phantoms have turned things around is a monumental understatement.
Last year, they not only stumbled out of the starting gate, but suffered one of the worst seasons in local pro hockey history, with a pair of 10-game losing streaks and two coaching changes before the Christmas break even arrived.
Head coach Joe Paterson righted the ship, after taking over mid-December, but it was too already late for the Phantoms to make the playoffs. This year, Paterson is at the helm right from the get-go, and the team’s healthy blend of veterans and prospects has gotten Adirondack off to a strong start, right where they want to be atop the AHL’s Northeast Division standings.
“It really helps having a knowledge of your players before the season starts,” Paterson said. “You know what they’re like both on and off the ice.”
Goaltending is one of the Phantoms’ best assets.
Michael Leighton helped lead the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010, before undergoing back surgery last fall. After recuperating, he spent most of 2010-11 with the Phantoms, one of the main reasons behind their midseason turnaround.
This year he got off to a 4-1 start with a sparkling 2.51 goals-against average and .918 saves percentage. Leighton’s backup is another net veteran, Jason Bacashihua, who went 23-16-3 (2.29 gaa) last year at Lake Erie.
Bacashihua, 1-1, picked up his first win of the young season by stopping 33 of 34 shots in a 3-1 win at Rochester on Oct. 23.
“We should have as good or better goaltending than anybody in the league,” General Manager John Paddock said.
So far, the Phantoms have proven they can win both at home and on the road. Heading into Week 4, they were 2-0 at the Civic Center and 3-2 when away from home.
“We want to make other teams feel like this is a tough building to come into; that they’re going to have a hard time getting points here,” Paterson said.
Offensively, the Phantoms are led by veteran Denis Hamel, Adirondack’s top scorer a year ago despite joining the team part way through the season. He’s off to another strong start with six goals and three assists in seven games.
However, this year he’s surrounded by a stronger supporting cast with players such as Zac Rinaldo, Tom Sestito, Eric Wellwood, Mike Testwuide and Harry Zolnierczyk shouldering the offensive load, too. Each of these young players is a year older, smarter, more experienced and tougher.
The Phantoms had already found the net 27 times in their first seven outings, averaging just under four goals per game, a key component of any winning formula.
In another big improvement over last year, Adirondack had converted 10 of its first 41 power play opportunities (24.4 pct), ranked seventh best in the 30-team league.
The AHL was restructured during the offseason with a new six-division format, three each in both the Eastern and Western conferences. Adirondack is now in the Northeast Division with Albany, Springfield, Connecticut (Hartford) and Bridgeport.
“Springfield could be really good,” Paterson said. “They’ve signed Alex Giroux who had some great years with Hershey. Martin St. Pierre is an experienced centerman who’s played in Europe and for Binghamton. When you look at their veterans, on paper they’ll be a lot stronger than they were last year.”
Under the new playoff format, eight teams from each conference will reach the postseason – three division champions plus five teams with the next best records.
The Phantoms are not only better on the ice, but their home, the Glens Falls Civic Center, has undergone a facelift, too, with a new sound system and two large video boards that allow fans to get an even better view of the action in addition to instant replays.
The front office has also taken a much more aggressive approach to marketing the team with a long list of promotions at almost every game.
Next spring, when the playoffs arrive, the Phantoms should be right in the midst of things, instead of on the outside looking in.