Mason Carries Club To Huge Game 4 Victory; Series Tied 2-2

Mason, returning from injury, recorded 37 saves in a 2-1 win.

Mason, returning from injury, recorded 37 saves in a 2-1 win.

We see it all the time in the NHL playoffs: a hot goalie stealing a game, series, or even occasionally the Stanley Cup for his respective team.  And on Friday night in Philadelphia it was 25-year old Steve Mason stepping up to rob the New York Rangers of what would have been a crushing 3-1 series lead.  Instead the series stands tied 2-2 following the crucial 2-1 victory.

The game started off in familiar fashion as the Rangers jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead on a 1st period goal by Dominic Moore.  But the Flyers, desperate for a home win, turned to a man who had not started a playoff game in five years, since he was a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  And Mason answered the call, shutting down New York for the final 55 minutes of the contest.

It certainly wasn’t an easy game as the orange and black were outshot (38-25) and out-chanced by a wide margin.  But the goalies were the obvious difference.  Lundqvist, though solid, was clearly playing second fiddle as he made 23 saves on 25 shots.  He allowed the tying goal to Matt Read in the first period, then was beaten for the game-winner by a Jakub Voracek deflection in the second.  From that point on it was the Mason show as he beat back a barrage of Ranger shots, including a diving stick save on Ryan Macdonagh to preserve the win.

The match-up continues on Sunday at noon (on NBC) as the series shifts back to New York for game 5.  If the Flyers want to pull out a series victory they would be wise to provide their starter with a little more support in the next few contests.  Mason cannot be expected to replicate his sterling .974 save percentage, but he should atleast allow his teammates more leeway than Ray Emery (who started games 1 through 3).

Notes:

  • Claude Giroux still has not scored a goal during the 2014 postseason.  Despite his play not showing up in the score sheet much during the series, the captain was not invisible during game 4.  He played solid two-way hockey and was able to draw a penalty that led to Voracek’s game-winning goal.  Still more is expected of the captain going forward.  But atleast he made good on his guarantee that the Flyers would tie this series up.
  • Speaking of stars not showing up, the Flyers have quite a few of them.  We aren’t seeing enough out of Hartnell, Lecavalier, Timonen, Simmonds, and Schenn.  Still, with the series tied at 2-2, it’s important to note that we still have not seen the Flyers play their best hockey.  If their goaltending can keep them competitive then their deep forward group should be able to grind out a few goals.
  • The Flyers aren’t the only club with key players not playing to their potential.  Rangers star Rick Nash has been essentially invisible through 4 games.  The guy has too much size, skill, and speed to stay silent, however, so the Flyers better be prepared for #61 in game 5.
  • Defenseman Nick Grossmann was lost during the second period after he went awkwardly, feet first, into the boards in the Flyers zone.  He limped off the ice and missed the rest of the game.  It remains to be seen whether or not he will miss Sunday’s game.  If he is indeed out then coach Craig Berube must choose between Erik Gustafsson and Hal Gil.  Gustafsson is the favorite to fill the void.

 

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Flyers End Two Game Skid

Lecavalier bounced back in a big way after his 4th line demotion.

Lecavalier bounced back in a big way after his 4th line demotion.

Following two sub-par efforts against the LA Kings and the New York Rangers the Flyers entered Friday’s match-up badly in need of two points to keep pace with the rest of the Eastern Conference.  Their opponent, the suddenly inept Toronto Maple Leafs, entered the game having lost six straight contests.  The Leafs, tied for the final wildcard spot in the East, had a lot to prove.  But it was the orange and black who appeared to be the more desperate team.  Behind solid efforts from Vinny Lecavalier, Claude Giroux, and Steve Mason the Flyers pulled out an important 4-2 win.  The victory kept the team within one point of the 2nd place Rangers while still having two games in hand.

Here’s a closer look at the action:

  • After spending most of the season on the 2nd line alongside Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, head coach Craig Berube decided Vinny Lecavalier needed a wakeup call.  So the longtime vet was returned to his natural center position, only on the 4th line.  Vinny was clearly upset with the move but he managed to channel that anger into one of his best performances in months.  Alongside linemates Zac Rinaldo and Adam Hall, Lecavalier was a constantly attacking the Leafs porous defense.  Although the 4th line did not manage any points 5-on-5, Vinny put in a rocket one-timer on a 5-on-3 Powerplay for his 16th goal of the season (and the Flyers opening goal).  It’s unclear whether Berube will use this game as somewhat of springboard and put the 14-year vet back on the 2nd line or keep him in his natural center spot on the 4th.  The Flyers need another big effort Sunday afternoon when they take on the deep and dangerous Boston Bruins.
  • Steve Mason managed 32 saves on 34 shots and frequently bailed the Flyers defense out.  His yearlong numbers may not reflect it but Mason may be the teams most consistent performer.  He will enter Sunday’s matinee with a record of 31-17-6 with a 2.53 GAA and .916sv% (with 4 shutouts).
  • Claude Giroux continued his tear as he notched 3 points (1 goal, 2 assists).  The Flyers first line (Hartnell-Giroux-Voracek) was the only one that remained unchanged last night and that was clearly a good decision.  Giroux now has 78 points (25 goals, 53 assists) after managing just 7 in the seasons first 16 games.
  • Zac Rinaldo had an especially good game.  In 11:32 of ice time the diminutive but deadly forward drew a pair of Leafs penalties, registered five hits, and won multiple puck battles.  Those outside of Philadelphia may not understand the value of the pugnacious Rinaldo, but he’s clearly an important piece of the puzzle.
  • Former Flyer James Van Riemsdyk scored another goal against his former team.  Just 4 seconds into the the 2nd period, JVR took a Tyler Bozak pass, carried the puck into the left face-off dot in the Flyers zone, and launched a quick shot over the shoulder of Steve Mason.  The talented power forward now has 29 goals and 29 assists this season.  He actually tied an NHL record for the fastest goal from the start of a period.
  • Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf continued his horrendous campaign.  He was seemingly on the ice for every nice offensive play the Flyers made last night.  It’s amazing how far his stock has fallen over the past two seasons, especially for a player wearing the “C” and making $7+ million.  It appears as if 28-year old could be trade bait this summer, though I don’t know what team would trade for that contract (the Flyers?).
  • Scott Hartnell continued his bounce back campaign with an important Powerplay deflection in the 2nd period.  There have been many who have chastised GM Paul Holmgren for giving Hartnell a long-term contract following last season’s debacle, but he’s clearly regained his chemistry with Giroux and Voracek.  Hartnell, 31, now has 49 points (20 goals, 29 assists) in 2013-14.
  • Though he hasn’t produced many points since his recall, winger Tye McGinn continues to outplay the injured Steve Downie.  McGinn, who is younger and cheaper, provides the same sandpaper in his game while also bringing more offensive ability.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Downie become a healthy scratch when he finally recovers from his last concussion.  McGinn took Lecavalier’s place alongside Simmonds and Schenn last night.

With the important victory the Flyers now stand with a record of 39-27-7 (85 points) and hold the third spot in the Metropolitan division.  That is somewhat misleading however as the 2nd place Rangers only have 86 points with two more games played.  Up next, the Flyers will need to bring their “A” game to knock off the Eastern Conference leading Bruins on Sunday.  The game starts at 12:30 and will be televised nationally on NBC.

 

Olympic Break Report Card: Part II

Wayne Simmonds has been an absolute star this season.

Wayne Simmonds has been an absolute star this season.

Forwards:

  • Claude Giroux:  Much like the Flyers early season start, Giroux began the 2013-14 campaign with infuriating inconsistency.  But since December 11th no player in the NHL has put up more points.  He’s provided clutch goals, improved his defensive lapses (especially since Berube took over behind the bench), and continued his domination as a special teams performer (PP & PK).  In 59 games so far the Flyers captain has managed 57 points; a vast improvement from the team-wide scoring drought that was once led by Giroux.  If he continues his torrid pace of the past few months there’s a good possibility he can carry this club back to its rightful place in the playoffs. “B”
  • Wayne Simmonds: If there’s a player that embodies “Flyers Hockey” it’s #17.  The man is a relentless power forward who is as quick to drop the gloves as put the puck in the net.  He’s become an integral part of the leadership in the locker-room- as indicated by the “A” found on his chest in Kimmo Timonen’s absence.  And his relentless forecheck and ability to protect the puck down low has been a boon to his linemates, Brayden Schenn and Vicent Lecavalier.  Overall, Simmonds is heading towards a career year (59 games, 18 G 24 A, 85 PIM) and his “fight for every inch” approach is an excellent example for the other young guys on the squad.  Simmonds 6-year extension signed last season, while ridiculed at the time by the uninformed, looks like an unbelievable bargain going forward ($3.975mil/yr).  “A”
  • Jake Voracek:  Much was expected of Voracek following the lockout shortened season in which he propelled himself amongst the NHL’s elite playmakers.  But, much like Giroux, things did not start out the way Jake or Flyers management would’ve wanted.  There is still inconsistency in his game, but when Voracek is moving his feet there are few who are more dangerous in the world.  Down from his almost PPG pace of a season ago, Voracek’s stats are slowly getting back to respectable levels (59 games, 15 G 25 A).  With the Voracek-Giroux-Hartnell line re-uniting, and clicking, it’s only a matter of time before this excessively talented winger breaks out. “B-“
  • Scott Hartnell:  It’s been amazing to watch the transformation of the relationship between the fanbase and Hartnell over the past several years; during his career-high 37-goal, All-Star campaign, the red-headed power forward could do no wrong.  But then a series of events, including breaking his foot, leading to poor production, coupled with an expensive new contract ($4.75mil/yr), led to many Flyer faithful turning their back on this former fan favorite.  People need to understand that Hartnell will never again approach the 40-goal mark, but if you look at his production objectively (based on his past career) it’s easy to see that he’s having a very respectable campaign.  Also, with Hartnell, it goes beyond goals.  The guy is a great teammate, leader, and community organizer.  He’s a charitable individual, although his opponents probably wouldn’t describe him as such.  Following last seasons debacle (32 games, 8 G 3 A), “Scotty” has bounced back nicely (55 games, 15 G 22 A).  Once again it’s those folks who expect too much from this important cog who seem to be disappointed with his play.  If you expect his regular 20+ goals and 150 PIM’s then #19 is right on target.  “B+”
  • Brayden Schenn: Since his arrival in Philadelphia there has been a faction of Flyers fans who could just never welcome the former 5th overall pick.  Afterall, he was the key piece of Mike Richards trade and many expected the 20-year old to fill those shoes right away.  But as most hockey experts will tell you, players develop at their own paces.  Now, Schenn’s first two campaigns weren’t unproductive, but the sting of the King’s Cup victory with Richards at the helm made thing’s that much harder on the young forward.  This season, however, the 22-year old kid has finally started to show the promise we all expected on a more consistent basis.  He’s played a majority of the season alongside Wayne Simmonds and they’ve been somewhat of a dynamic-duo.  Throw in the experience of a Vinny Lecavalier and things can only improve for this Schenn brother.  With 15 goals and 17 assists, Schenn has already surpassed his career highs, and at 22, the sky is the limit.  “B-“
  • Sean Couturier: The stats don’t jump out at you- 9 goals, 19 assists- but Couturier’s game goes far beyond his offensive production.  This is a 21-year old kid who has been frustrating the oppositions best players, night-in and night-out, since entering the league as a 19-year old rookie.  Just ask Evgeni Malkin, one of the best in the world, the kind of impact “Coots” can have on your game.  He’s already an ace penalty killer, can log Power Play minutes, and just makes smart decisions in all three zones.  And playing alongside a smart player like Matt Read only improves the kids game.  Much like Schenn, the sky is the limit for Couturier. “B+”
  • Matt Read:  This guy is one of the most cerebral players I’ve ever seen in a Flyers uniform.  Not only does he have dynamic speed and offensive instincts but it’s almost as if he never makes the wrong decision.  He’s easily been one of Paul Holmgren’s greatest pickup, and it was as a college free agent out of Bemidji State.  Like Couturier, Read kills penalties, puts in PP time, and goes all out in all three zones.  And with 15 goals and 11 assists he’s on pace for his typical offensive production.  “A-“
  • Vincent Lecavalier:  I must admit I was adamant during the off-season that this was an excellent pickup but Lecavalier has yet to live up to his contract.  Now it’s important to note that before he suffered a severe back issue he was essentially the Flyers only offensive weapon.  But since his return, he’s been slow to re-adapt to the speed of the game.  Over the past week-plus he’s started to show some of the burst that was clearly missing when he immediately returned from IR.  His stats (46 games, 12 G 11 A) still aren’t up to snuff but the Olympic break should do wonders for his back and 33-year old legs.  Expect a much more productive second half from this wily vet.  “C-“
  • Steve Downie:  When Downie was first acquired from Colorado for Max Talbot he brought Couturier and Read back to life.  He was a catalyst and appeared to have turned a corner in his controversial career.  But maybe that was simply a mirage, because after his first month in Philly, Downie reverted back to his thug-like ways.  He found himself taking needless penalties and unable to keep his temper under control.  And on top of that, his offensive game appeared to disappear.  Now he’s been in and out of Craig Berube’s doghouse.  Lately, however, he’s shown a little more self-control and has worked his way back onto a line with Couturier and Read.  He’s a free agent after this season and unless he turns things around quickly his days in orange and black are numbered.  “D+”
  • Adam Hall:  Rarely do fourth-line journeymen become such integral parts in a hockey team, but Adam Hall has proven (atleast in my mind) that he deserves another short-term contract extension.  First off, on a team that’s pretty terrible in the face-off dot, Hall has a godsend.  He’s winning well over 60% of his draws and has become the go-to guy on important defensive zone draws.  He kills penalties, hits like a rock, and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves.  He’s even contributed a few important goals in the offensive end.  He’s a man who knows his role and does it very well.  “A-“
  • Zac Rinaldo:  Almost all Flyers fans love Rinaldo; ALL opposing fans hate him.  But that just shows the man is doing his job to a T.  In my humble opinion, there’s no one in the entire NHL who, pound for pound, can hit like Rinaldo.  If your head is down you’re in for a devastating shot from this little fireball.  And the proof is in the pudding on how important this kid is to this organization- when he was out injured, the Flyers were lifeless and couldn’t win a game.  As soon as he returns, BAM, the orange and black start playing with energy again and win 5 out of 6.  He draws penalties, is responsible defensively, hits, fights, and even kills the occasional penalty.  No matter what opposing fans say, Rinaldo is part of this club’s present and future.  “B”
  • Michael Raffl:  To me, Raffl is poor man’s Matt Read.  He doesn’t have the offensive  acumen of  Read but he’s still got some skill.  He’s unbelievably responsible in his own zone, kills penalties, and even helped to reignite Giroux and Voracek when they were slumping.  He needs a  little work on his finishing ability, but 15-20 goals isn’t out of the question in the near future for this talented youngster.  Much like Read, he was an under the radar pick by Holmgren, but I think it’s safe to say the 24-year old Austrian will be receiving a contract extension this summer. “B+”

Coaching:  There were plenty in the NHL community (and Philly) who felt as if Peter Laviolette should’ve lost his job after last season’s debacle.  But Holmgren and Snider decided to give him one more chance.  Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision.  “Lavy” is a very good coach but it seems that after 3 or 4 seasons his message goes stale.  Enter Craig Berube; “Chief”.  The former Flyer tough guy who’s top-10 all-time in penalty minutes.  And although he doesn’t want his club playing undisciplined hockey, Berube’s playing style appears to have rubbed off on this club- as evidenced by their NHL in penalty minutes.  But Berube has also done a solid job of instilling a clearer defensive approach to the game.  No longer do we see the constant attack mentality of Laviolette; it’s now more of a “take what they give you” offense.  And it’s certainly turned this team around.  The defense, though average, is now a legitimate, team-wide priority.  Goaltender Steve Mason isn’t left out to dry nearly as much as Bryzgalov was (not that Bryz was anything but average anyway).  And there’s an emphasis on the forwards doing their part on the back-check.

The Flyers have turned it around under Berube and now hold playoff position in a tight Metropolitan division.  That, in itself, is quite an accomplishment considering the 1-7 start.  Berube is a prime candidate for coach of the year and if the orange and black end up in the playoffs he’d deserve it. “B+”

 

Flyers Prepare For Crucial Showdown in San Jose

Simmonds notched his 100th goal Saturday in LA.

Simmonds notched his 100th goal Saturday in LA.

Following last weeks dominating 5-0 performance over a short-handed Red Wings club in Philadelphia, the Flyers knew a daunting task stood in their way of solidifying a playoff spot before the impending Olympic break: a California road trip.  Years ago, taking on the likes of the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks would’ve been a cakewalk; but times have changed.  It’s now a murderers row of the NHL elite.  And tonight is the final stanza against a struggling, but dangerous Sharks squad.

Many pundits gave the Flyers no chance heading into Thursday’s showdown with the league-leading Anaheim Ducks, and despite the loss, the orange and black showed they’re no pushovers when it comes to battling the elite.  They ended up losing 5-3, but that score in somewhat misleading in how competitive the game really was.

Next up was a Saturday matinee with the LA Kings, arguably the best defensive team in hockey.  Fortunately for the Flyers, this Kings club seems impervious to scoring goals and it showed.  Los Angeles absolutely dominated ice position and shots on goal (almost a 3 to 1 margin), but Steve Mason put together a stellar performance.  And despite the Flyers managing only 13 shots on Olympian and former Conn Smythe winner Jonathon Quick, they managed to get two past him.

Wayne Simmonds, making his first return to LA since the Richards trade, was all over the ice.  And #17 fittingly scored his 100th career goal and eventual game winner.  Simmonds, who has become a huge part of the Flyers future, was even wearing the “A” on his jersey (in place of an injured Timonen), showing just much he’s grown into an integral piece of this organization.  Giroux added a late Power Play goal with around two minutes remaining to secure the much needed win.

Tonight the Flyers move on to San Jose to take a very dangerous team.  The Sharks boast plenty of skill both up front and on the blueline; not to mention in net with Antti Niemi (who most will remember beat the Flyers in the Stanley Cup as a member of Chicago).  With a packed Metropolitan division it would be a huge boon to take two out of three on this gauntlet of a west coast road trip.  If the orange and black play defensively the way they have over the past week then there’s a significant chance Philadelphia can continue gaining ground in the extremely tight Metropolitan.

Just a few tidbits:

  • Since Zac Rinaldo’s return the team appears to be playing with a whole new level of energy.  Critics can say what they will about the young agitator but he’s shown in two games that he can absolutely throw the opposition into a tizzy.  He’s already had two (CLEAN) devastating hits.  And his enthusiasm appears to contagious as the rest of the squad has followed suit.
  • Kimmo Timonen was held out of Saturday’s game for precautionary reasons, but it’s very possible he’s back in the lineup tonight.
  • Erik Gustafsson (in my humble opinion) has been the Flyers best defender since his return.  He’s managed to fend off Meszaros for the final spot while playing speed, savvy, and skill.  It’s obvious that when he has confidence that he can be a solid contributor from the back-end.
  • Hopefully Steve Mason’s past few performances (including two shutouts) will quiet the critics who lamented his new contract.

 

Tune in tonight at 10pm to see the Flyers visit the Sharks in an important game for both teams.

 

Will the Hotstreak Continue?

simmonds scoring

Wayne Simmonds has been a major catalyst for the Flyers turnaround.

Just half-way through the season and this year’s Flyers campaign has been an absolute roller-coaster ride.  There was was the 1-7 start; the firing of Head Coach Peter Laviolette; and the7-0 and 7-2 embarrassments against Washington and Chicago, respectively.  But despite a series of events that would make a lesser team fold, this club has persevered.

Claude Giroux, dreadful enough the first two months to keep him off the Canadian Olympic squad, has risen like a phoenix and put the team on his back.  Jake Voracek, who couldn’t get out of his own way, is now one of the most dangerous puck-possession players in the NHL.  And Wayne Simmonds who had just 5 goals at the end of November, all of a sudden has 14.  It’s been a season of turnarounds, but the Flyers are hoping their current trends don’t reverse.

We’ve seen Sean Couturier blossom, Matt Read continue his consistent play, and Steve Downie prove that he’s more than just a goon.  Hartnell has gone from fan favorite to scapegoat and back again.  Kimmo Timonen was too old.  Vinny Lecavalier was par fast his prime.  Mark Streit the same.  And yet, we see a successful hockey team; nay, a thriving group of guys who were too old, too slow, and washed up to succeed in Philadelphia, where thin-skinned athletes go to die.

All we heard coming in was that Steve Mason couldn’t survive in Columbus, how is he going to survive the gauntlet that is the Philadelphia media?  Well let’s take a quick look at his statistics: 18-10-4, 2.35 GAA, .922sv%…  Those are not the numbers of a struggling netminder, searching for some way keep the puck out; no, those are the results of a man, once washed up (much like these Flyers), making a return to stardom.  Mason’s career success is a microcosm of the entire Philadelphia season: down in the dumps, nowhere to go, and out of the ashes an unlikely re-emergence.  These are the 2013-14 Flyers.

Since that 7-2 thrashing at the hands of the defending Cup Champ Chicago Blackhawks, the orange and black are 10-2-1, second in the Metropolitan division, and beating on all takers.

Is it a fluke?  Is this the team that couldn’t score 3 goals for more than a month?  Or are we seeing the birth of a legitimate contender?  They say to make a playoff run what you need is a hot goalie… check.  Someone who’s won it before… check (albeit a much younger Lecavalier).  And obviously the talent… many believe it’s there; we’ve seen it in wins against the Pens, Detroit, Phoenix, and Vancouver.  But we’ve also seen the demons in games like in Chicago, against the Caps, and just recently in Columbus.

We’ve seen the absolute best and the unadulterated worst from the 2013-2014 Flyers, but they have found a way to fight through inconsistency. When guys go down to injury, it’s next in line and they step up.  It’s a mantra of “rolling with the punches” that is getting them through this season.

The Flyers currently stand at second place in a packed Metropolitan division and it remains to be seen whether they can hold on to that precarious position.  They seem to have the luck, the talent, and, most certainly, the perseverance to overcome such obstacles.  Win or lose, Saturday’s match-up against a hot Lightning squad should provide a solid barometer for where the Flyers stand in the NHL landscape.