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Event Spotlight:
Syracuse Ends Phantoms' Season

Sunday, April 21, 2002

By Mike Williams
SJSports Special Correspondent

Down two games to none to the Syracuse Crunch in the opening round of the Calder Cup playoffs, the objectives for the Phantoms were quite clear on Sunday night. In order to avoid a first-round sweep, the Phantoms would have to beat Syracuse goaltender Jean-Francois Labbe. In order to win the best-of-five series, the Phantoms would have to beat Labbe three times in four nights.

But actually accomplishing that mission and beating Labbe, the winningest goaltender in American Hockey League history, would be Philadelphia's most difficult challenge of the season. Labbe has been a nemesis of the Phantoms for years and has twice led teams (Hershey and Hartford) to Calder Cup championships.

Labbe won the battle, as he and Crunch teammates defeated the Phantoms, 3-1, to sweep the quarterfinal series in three games. The Phantoms have been knocked out in the first round in two of the past three seasons.

Labbe made 27 saves in the win. The Crunch will take on the Chicago Wolves in the Western Conference semifinals.

Goaltending and special teams go a long way in the playoffs, and the Crunch had both in abundance on Sunday. Labbe made several key stops when pressured, and the Syracuse penalty kill stopped the Phantoms during a crucial five-on-three advantage late in the second period. The Crunch also notched two power play goals.

The contest started on a down note for the Phantoms. A shot from in close beat Labbe just 1:03 into the game, but referee Chris Lee ruled that Peter Vandermeer had interfered with Labbe. Lee also tacked on a goaltender interference minor on Vandermeer.

But the Phantoms were able to generate early pressure on Labbe, tallying five shots in the opening five minutes. The pressure paid off at 5:49, when Mark Greig's shot from the left circle rang off the goal post and found John Slaney standing to the left of Labbe. Slaney was able to deposit the rebound past Labbe to give the Phantoms a 1-0 lead.

The Phantoms were not able to sustain the momentum, however, and spent much of the opening stanza in fending off the Syracuse attack. Finally, with under two minutes to go in the first period, the Crunch struck.

Greig picked up an extra minor in a skirmish with Crunch defenseman Duvie Westcott. The Syracuse power play capitalized for a late goal. David Ling parked behind the Philadelphia net and banked the puck off Slaney's leg and into the net with 18 seconds remaining.

The Crunch continued to buzz around the Philadelphia net. Syracuse forwards peppered Little with shots through the first half of the middle period. Little twice was called on to stop point-blank shots.

Meanwhile, unable to produce much offense from the perimeter in the second period, the Phantoms resorted to crashing the Syracuse net. The tactic began to create pressure in front of Labbe, but also led to penalty trouble. Yves Sarault took the Phantoms' second minor for goaltender interference of the game at 10:37, moments after the Phantoms had struggled to sustain an attack during a power play.

But Sarault's penalty nearly allowed the Phantoms to build a 2-1 lead. Sarault stepped out of the penalty box as his penalty expired and swept up a loose puck at center ice. He broke in alone on Labbe, but the savvy netminder pokechecked the puck away to preserve the tie with 7:11 left in the period.

Crunch defenseman Derrick Walser was whistled for a penalty on the play. Fifty-one seconds later, Lee nabbed Andrei Sryubko on a tripping call that gave the Philadelphia a five-on-three advantage for 1:09.

The Syracuse penalty kill ranked fourth in the league during the regular season. The Crunch continued that success and shut down the Phantoms' power play.

Mark Freer whistled a shot from the high slot over the net early in the two-man advantage. Labbe followed up Freer's opportunity by stacking the pads on a Pavel Brendl chance from the right circle.

"It was the turning point in the game," Phantoms head coach John Stevens said of the failed power play.

The teams' work on the power play proved to be the difference. While the Phantoms failed to produce on the power play, the Crunch did not.

Peter Vandermeer took his third minor penalty of the game early in the third period. His penalty would hurt the Phantoms, as Walser fed a pass to Blake Bellefeiulle, who put the puck past Little for a 2-1 Syracuse lead at 4:28.

The third period was the difference throughout the series. Entering the third period in the three games, the Phantoms led once and were tied twice. But the Crunch outscored the Phantoms, 8-0, during the third period in the series.

"We played a very good 40 minutes, then we had a breakdown and they got a power-play goal. A bad bounce can hurt you when you have your back against elimination."

The third period saw little of the desperation that the Phantoms would be expected to show at such a critical point in the season.

Philadelphia managed just four shots - none of them serious -- on Labbe through the period's first 19 minutes as the Crunch sat a on a lead. The Phantoms struggled to penetrate the Syracuse trap, on several occasions barely breaking out of their own zone.

Stevens pulled Little for a sixth skater with 1:15 remaining in the third. By this point, the Crunch had completely clamped down on the Phantoms at the Syracuse blue line, and the Phantoms could do little to break through.

Then, a Philadelphia turnover in the neutral zone allowed Sean Pronger to scoop up a loose puck and send a shot sailing into the empty Philadelphia net with 34 seconds left, ending the season for the Phantoms.

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