A streak for the ages

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Eight years ago today, the Philadelphia Phantoms turned a somnolent start to their ninth American Hockey League season into something truly special.

After dropping two in a row, both on the road, this John Stevens-led club failed to lose for the next 36 days, rolling to a franchise-best 17-game winning streak that also stood as the longest in the AHL until Norfolk’s all-time run of 28 straight victories through the end of last season.

Armed with talent from the NHL with nowhere to go due to the lockout (Joni Pitkanen, Patrick Sharp, Dennis Seidenberg, Todd Fedoruk) as well as young kids who were not long for The Show (Ben Eager, R.J. Umberger, Antero Niittymaki, Freddy Meyer, Riley Cote), the Purple, Black and Orange were one of the few clubs which felt itnecessary to make a major move in the midst of a long stretch of success.

On November 14, after parts of eight years in the organization, forward Peter White (best known as son-in-law to Bob Clarke) was swapped to the Utah Grizzlies for Jon Sim. White totaled two goals and eight points in 10 games, but Sim came through with 61 points (35 goals) in his 63 games here.

As far as the schedule went: 13 games in the streak were decided by two goals or less, with six ending in either overtime or the newest professional gadget used on a try-out basis in the AHL, the shootout. A 7-0 mark in one-goal margins fueled the effort.

To say the 16th and 17th victories in the historic binge were sweet would be an understatement. They came in a home-and-home series with the rival Hershey Bears on November 26 and 27, and helped the Phantoms set a new league mark for games without a loss.

The Baltimore Skipjacks’ record of 16 wins in succession from 1984-85 was matched in the opener, in front of a raucous crowd of 11,064 at the Spectrum. Ben Stafford led the way with two goals and two assists, with Mark Murphy contributing three assists in a 4-2 thriller.

“The fact that we have gone without a loss (for 16 games) is a surprise to all of us,” said a sanguine Stevens. “Everyone is doing something to contribute, which is the major part of our streak so far. When you look at the American Hockey League, it’s been around for so long. The fact that we have tied this record is pretty incredible.”

Adding insult to injury for the club that calls the Land of Chocolate home, it was also Hershey’s 15th straight loss to Philadelphia.

At Giant Center less than 24 hours later, the record officially belonged to the Phantoms due to a 3-1 victory primarily taken on the play of backup goalie Neil Little, who dusted himself off and stopped 40-of-41 shots. Stafford, Murphy and Tony Voce provided the offense on the memorable night.

“This is a wonderful accomplishment and we can all be very proud of it, but it really hasn’t been in our discussions at all,” said Little about the record. “We truly do take it one game at a time and hopefully we keep it going.”

It was finally chance for Stevens to be a bit more expansive than usual while describing his club’s exploits: “It’s hard to do. Things have to go your way obviously, but this group has rebounded from some awful, dicey situations — down the last couple minutes of a game, pulling our goalie one time to tie a game and then win in overtime, we won a couple of games in a shootout — so they’ve really showed a lot of staying power. We’ve stayed mentally tough and have shown an ability to stay with it and get the job done.”

There were no more buttons to be pushed the next night at the Onondaga War Memorial, however, as a 2-1 loss to the Syracuse Crunch put the streak to rest. Karl Goehring, once a promising prospect at North Dakota, made 28 saves, only faltering on Umberger’s goal in the final minute of regulation.

It all started on October 22 in a home game against the Hamilton Bulldogs, a 5-3 victory keyed by third-period power-play goals from Sharp and Northeast Philly native and Boston College product Voce, and that was followed one night later in Hershey with a 3-2 result thanks to a goal from Voce at 1:09 of the extra session. That was the last time the Phantoms were below the .500 mark for the entire regular season.

Next up was Bridgeport at home four days later, an easy 5-0 decision fueled by 22 saves from Niittymaki and four second-period tallies. A trip to Southern Ontario followed, by shrugged off with a 4-1 win over Hamilton aided by goals 26 seconds apart from Randy Jones and Seidenberg.

The notches received their first cross-hatching on November 3, in the first of three consecutive home contests, a 4-2 dispatching of Cincinnati made possible by Ryan Ready’s lead score midway through the final period. Two days later, the Bears were spooked by a 4-1 count and Cincinnati bookended the homestand by falling away, 3-1.

A full weekend followed, as signs of the stress of a streak began to show with some narrow escapes.

On the 12th, Philly eked out a 3-2 shootout win over Wilkes-Barre Scranton as White lit the lamp — providing an appropriate capper to his final game with the Phantoms — while Umberger sent everyone home happy with his decider in the breakaway round. Broome County, New York proved to be welcoming to the visitors, who emerged with a 3-2 win over the Binghamton Senators the following day. Umberger’s second period goal and tallies from Sharp and Voce allowed Philadelphia to match its longest previous win streak, from December 6-27, 1997. The weekend was capped by an OT victory against Norfolk thanks to Stafford’s marker. Niittymaki made 22 saves, allowing two or fewer goals for the sixth straight start.

Binghamton (2-1 in the shootout) and Bridgeport (3-1) rolled away from Pattison Avenue next, then a pair of overtime wins at Albany and Providence by identical 4-3 scores suggested the tide may have been turning though the streak reached 14. In the former, Sim proved his worth with a three-point performance, including the deciding marker 90 seconds into the fourth period. In the latter, it was Sim again, beating Hannu Toivonen at 1:14 of OT at the Providence Civic Center.

Back home three days later, an improved and rested squad took it to the Baby B’s, winning 4-1 on the strength of Sim’s two goals, 20 stops from Niittymaki — who improved to 10-0 at home — and a goal with a helper from Umberger.

“We kept hammering down early on and the defense did a great job of keeping the puck in,” said Sim about his teammates, who took an early 3-0 lead and didn’t look back. “We have a great group of guys here and our line is really clicking. Everything is going well for us. We just want to get out there and keep doing the same thing. We are going to win a lot of games if we just keep playing the way we have been.”