Olympic Break Report Card: Part I

Kimmo Timonen takes part in his fifth Olympic tournament.

Kimmo Timonen takes part in his fifth Olympic tournament.

Just over a week ago there were many Flyer fans in panic mode; their beloved orange and black had just lost four straight games, bringing the division to a six-team deadlock, and clouding the clubs future before a crucial West coast swing.  Now, with the Olympic break on hand, the team is singing a whole different tune.

Winners of four straight (5 of 6), including today’s 2-1 win over Calgary, the Flyers head into their forced hiatus with a solid grip on a playoff position.  Steve Mason’s new contract jitters appear to be a thing of the past, while backup Ray Emery came up with a stellar 32-save performance against a pesky Flames team this afternoon.  The offense is clicking, the defense is battling, and organization is on the upswing.  The only thing slowing this red-hot team down now is current, forced hiatus.

While five Philadelphia Flyers (Timonen, Meszaros, Raffl, Voracek, and Streit) head off to Sochi, the rest of the guys will take some time off for some much needed rest and relaxation.  So while the professionals take care of business on and off the ice, here is a breakdown of how our boys in orange and black have done over the first few months:

Netminders:

  • Steve Mason:  While many casual observers will tell you that #35 has had an up and down campaign, those who have watched every one of Mason’s starts would point to his questionable defense as the reason for his fluctuating statistics.  Over the entirety of the season no player has been more important to Philadelphia.  His statistics (23-14-5, 2.49 GAA, .918SV%, 3 SO’s) are impressive, but become all the more awe inspiring when considering the defense he plays behind every night.  With a new 3-year extension “Mase” should provide the stability this organization has been looking for since Ron Hextall was in his prime. “A-“
  • Ray Emery: When Emery re-upped for his second tour of duty in Philadelphia he was coming off an amazing Cup-winning campaign with arguably the best team in hockey, the Chicago Blackhawks.  So no one realistically expected him to replicate the 17-1 record he recorded in 12-13, but they also didn’t expect him to struggle so much early on.  The Flyers defense is nowhere close to as talented as Chicago’s so that is certainly a contributing factor, but overall, early on, Emery just wasn’t good enough.  But lately the 10-year vet has turned it around and provided a calming influence.  His stats (6-9-1, 3.03GAA, .897SV%) still aren’t up to snuff, but he’s certainly getting better.  And he’s a solid insurance policy in case (god forbid) anything happens to Mason. “C”

Defense:

  • Kimmo Timonen:  Much like the rest of the Flyers blueliner’s, Timonen’s season has not been all that he has wanted.  Close to 39-years of age, it’s obvious the longtime vet isn’t what he used to be; he can no longer chase down quicker opponents or fight through injuries that used to roll right off his back.  But with age comes experience and savvy; and you’d be hard-pressed to find many defenders who understand the game as well as this old Finn.  This may very well be Timonen’s last NHL season, but he’s the type of player who could will himself through 3 or 4 more campaign’s, whether his legs are working or not.  “B-“
  • Braydon Coburn:  Since the departure of Matt Carle, via free agency, Coburn has easily filled in as the fanbase’s de-facto whipping boy.  Standing 6’5”, with a cannon shot, and legs like a gazelle, far too much is expected Coburn.  Sure he makes his fair share of turnovers, finds himself out of position too often, and even deflects the puck in his own net sometimes (several times this season), he’s still an unsung hero on a 30-win hockey club.  Coburns outlet passes are crisp, his puck-carrying is usually impressive, and without his recovery speed the Flyers might not currently be in playoff position.  So with a player like this, you have to take the the good with bad.  And 29 other GM’s would agree.  “B”
  • Nicklas Grossmann:  There’s nothing, and I mean NOTHING, flashy about this big Swedes game.  With Grossmann it’s all about keeping his man in front of him and then forcefully forcing him into the boards.  He’s a crease-clearing, shot-blocking, body-checking machine.  And that’s it.  If you expect more, you’re expecting too much.  And that’s where I think Flyers fans get disappointed in the 6’4” Grossmann.  He’ll take the occasional penalty, make a mistake here or there, but it’s all about simplicity with this guy.  And I see no problem with having him as a key cog in the Flyers top-6. “B-“
  • Erik Gustafsson:  When it comes to “Gus” there are two main problems: health and confidence.  When he’s playing with both he looks like a young Kimmo Timonen.  When he’s on the shelf or self-conscious he’s more like Bruno Gervais.  Luckily for the Flyers brass and this young man, 2014 has been solid campaign.  In 26 games so far this season he leads the club with a +/- of 11 and has 10 points.  He’s shown speed, quick decision-making, and a physicality that truly rounds out his game.  Gustafsson’s development has been a godsend on this defense-needy roster.  “A-“
  • Luke Schenn:  For most Flyers fans it’s painful to look up north and see James VanRiemsdyk thriving in Toronto (as they were traded for eachother), but there’s still hope in Schenn’s game.  Despite looking stellar at the end of last season, Schenn entered the 13-14 season in a major funk.  He looked out of place, slow, and indecisive.  But over the past month or so, the other Schenn has started to come around.  At just 24 years or age there’s still time for #22 to become an important cog in Philadelphia system.  Don’t give up on this kid just yet.  “C-“
  • Andrej Meszaros:  On the surface Meszaros’ stats look impressive (especially considering the time he’s sat out), but he’s truly a one-dimensional defender anymore.  Before his series of injuries, Mez was a physical two-way force.  Since his return he’s been an offensive shell of himself.  16 points in 35 games is stellar for a defenseman, the issue is that defense is no longer one of Meszaros’ interests.  He’s been abysmal around his own crease and can easily be pushed around by stronger competition.  With an expiring contract, GM Paul Holmgren should be actively pursuing a trade partner for this blueliner.  “C+”
  • Mark Streit:  Along with Vinny Lecavalier, Mark Streit was one of the Flyers main off-season acquisitions.  The Former Islanders captain was billed an offensive-defender with a penchant for defensive mistakes- and that billing fits him to a T.  Streit started off the season terribly.  He wasn’t producing points while simultaneously giving up plenty.  But recently his play has been a revelation.  He’s now up to 8 goals and 21 assists in 59 games, leading all Philly defenders.  He’s still prone to the occasional mistake, but the Swiss blueliner is now a key cog, especially on the 2nd Power Play unit. “B”

Next post we’ll take a closer look at the main strength of this team, the forward corps.

 

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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.

 

Giroux Dazzles in Comeback Victory

Giroux scores the game-winning, goal of the year.

Giroux scores the game-winning, goal of the year. (Click to view)

The Flyers entered Thursday nights game looking to extend their 8-game home winning streak while also attempting to go over .500 for the first time in 2013-14.  Standing in their way was the battered and bruised Blue Jackets; a team sitting just below them in the Metro division standings.

Unfortunately, despite dominating the opening period, the orange and black found themselves trailing 1-0.  The second wasn’t much kinder as Columbus jumped all over the Flyers sloppy play to take a 3-0 lead into the second intermission.  But something clicked in the final stanza as quick goals by Jakub Voracek and Braydon Coburn (separated by just a minute) put the club within striking distance at 3-2.  In a momentary lapse of judgement, Scott Hartnell and his fellow linemates committed a cardinal sin as they stopped playing in their own zone after the puck appeared to go out of play and hit the safety netting.  The refs missed it and the Blue Jackets took advantage, scoring from point blank range to make it a daunting 4-2 deficit with under 10 minutes remaining.  But, on this night, the Flyers were not going to be denied.

Led by their Captain, Claude Giroux, the team rallied in a mesmerizing display of skill and determination.  Erik Gustafsson got things rolling as he joined the rush and netted a Wayne Simmonds rebound into a wide open net, cutting the lead in half.  A few minutes later Voracek led a rush into the Jackets zone, threw a weak shot on net which deflected off Raffl’s skate, hit the goal post and bounced back into netminder Curtis Mcelhinney.  It appeared as if Mcelhinney would just cover the puck but Giroux came flying in and forced the puck into the net, tying the game at 4-4.  But the Flyers star wasn’t done yet.  With just under two minutes remaining, Giroux took an errant Mark Streit shot, spun around a Jackets defender, and launched an incredible back-hander over Mcelhinney’s shoulder, just under the cross-bar for the game-winning goal.  It was a shot that only a handful of NHLer’s would even attempt, let alone score on.  And just like that the Flyers capped an amazing and unlikely comeback with the 5-4 win.

Let’s take a closer look at the win:

  • With the win, the Flyers moved into playoff position and sole possession of third place in the Metropolitan division.
  • Although Steve Mason allowed 4 goals again it’s hard to fault him entirely.  All the goals came as a result of defensive lapses by the gys in front of him.  He probably could’ve stopped one or two, but all that matters is the team won.
  • The first line (Voracek-Giroux-Raffl) continued its domination since being put together.  It’s clear that Raffl’s speed and defensive awareness fit much better than Hartnell’s grind it out style.
  • It was nice to see the defense-corps get involved at the offensive end as Coburn, Streit, and Gus all made huge contributions.

The Flyers continue their home and home series in Columbus on Saturday night.  A win would give them a little more breathing room in the extremely tight Metro division.

Orange and Black Get Back on Winning Track

Sean Couturier puts the winning goal past Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec.

Sean Couturier puts the winning goal past Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec.

When most hockey players are just hitting the ice for their respective morning skates, the Flyers and Jets were playing a meaningful, morning matinee.  Coming off two straight losses, in which the bad habits that plagued this seasons’ start returned, Philadelphia desperately needed to pick up some points against an inconsistent Winnipeg squad.  And they did just that, in somewhat dominating fashion.  After controlling the first period (13-2 shot advantage), the Jets pushed back in the third and the tilt came down to the wire; fortunately, Steve Mason was one save better than Ondrej Pavelec, and the game ended 2-1.

Here are some highlights:

  • Sean Couturier may have had his best game of the season.  He was key in killing off six Winnipeg power-plays, while also potting a short-handed, game-winning tally (and coming oh so close on another). The kid is a talent.
  • Steve Mason handled 25 of 26 shots to continue his spectacular campaign.
  • Scott Hartnell finally got a lucky bounce as the puck found his stick immediately as he exited the bench and he potted it in wide-open net to open the scoring.
  • Zac Rinaldo’s speed is becoming a nice asset on the Penalty Kill, as he’s able to pressure the opposing squad and make it back to the defensive zone easily.  His development had to contribute to Holmgren’s decision to move fan favorite Max Talbot in favor of Steve Downie.
  • Andrej Meszaros replaced Erik Gustafsson in the linueup but wasn’t any more effective.  Both have their faults but I personally believe Gus brings far more upside and has shown more in his limited appearances this season.
  • One of the biggest issues holding the Philadelphia Flyers back from contention is their apparent inability to be selfish.  There have been far too many examples this season of a player having an opportunity to shoot, and instead passing up the chance in an attempt to setup a teammate.  Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek have especially been guilty of this selflessness.  Both have elite play-making skills, but sometimes what’s best for the team is to just throw the puck on net.
  • It’s good that the Flyers got these two points as over the next few weeks they take on the likes of Nashville (Saturday), Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Montreal, and Washington (twice).

Tune in Saturday night at 8 p.m. to see the Flyers (11-12-2) take on the the Predators (13-11-2) in Nashville.  However, the Preds come in to the game without the services of Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne, Kevin Klein, Filip Forsberg, and Patric Hornqvist- all out.  Unfortunately, this team, still desperate for points, can’t underestimate their short-handed competition.

 

The (Very Little) Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

dejected Giroux

Not much has gone right for this talented Flyers squad in an 0-3 start.

Coming off a lockout-shortened debacle the Flyers front office decided that they would aggressively attack the root-causes of their issues.  They acquired a Stanley Cup winning goaltender to replace their Russian nightmare.  They added two former captains (Vinny Lecavalier and Mark Streit) to bring skill, leadership, and a winning-attitude to a franchise suffering through the recovery of a season filled with failure.  Normal expectations for the Philadelphia Flyers were restored, and yet here we sit, three games into the 2013-14 season, win-less, listless, and lost.

Sure it takes time to build an identity, but, right now, this franchise looks like they don’t care; like these games don’t matter.  It has been an embarrassment.  And who would have that thought that not even a week into the season that this talent-laden club would be at a crossroads?

So let’s dig a little deeper into this fiasco.  Let’s take a nice long look at the “Good”, the “Bad (really the Average)”, and, of course, the “Ugly”:

The Good:  And believe me, this is the shortest category of this Flyers squad.  FIrst off, a few players.  Vinny Lecavalier, the headline free agent acquisition this summer, has been a machine (despite the pedestrian production).  He’s been all over the ice, winning key faceoff’s, and capitalizing on the teams few offensive chances.  Next up, Matt Read.  Usually when a player receives a shiny new contract their play tends to drop off, but that has not been the case with #24.  Read has a been a catalyst offensively and a stalwart defensively.   Zac Rinaldo has been the other consistent producer.  His hits wreak havoc on the opposition and provide a jolt for the good guys.  Also, unlike early in his career, Rinaldo now draws more penalties than he commits,

The Penalty Kill, physical play, and shot blocking have also been significant and visible positives.  But goaltending has been the biggest surprise. It’s only been three games but Mason/Emery already look far more reliable that Ilya Bryzgalov ever did.

The Bad (and by that I mean Average): #1 on the list: Mark Streit.  Talk about hit or miss.  This guy can dazzle with an offensive maneuver and then make a backbreaking turnover the next second.  There needs to be more consistency from the former Islanders Captain.

Up front Brayden Schenn, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, and Sean Couturier have all shown flashes of their immense combined ability.  But, as of yet, the offense has been unable to break out of their collective slump.  This was supposed to be the strength of the team, it cannot continue to be anemic.

One of the biggest issues with the offense is the clubs inability to sustain any semblance of a fore-check.  In order for Laviolette to remain at the helm, the orange and black must greatly improve their ability to control the puck down low.  Otherwise, Lavy will not last another two weeks behind the bench.

The Ugly (and I mean U-G-L-Y):   One of the Flyers biggest issues so far has been the ineffectiveness of the Power Play.  If this franchise is not scoring on special teams they are not going to score because their 5-on-5 production has been god awful.  Something has to give; there’s far too much offensive talent on this team to be unable to put up more than a goal or a two every night.

Overall, the teams defense has been horrendous, and that’s putting it nicely.  Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn have both been appalling, but especially Mez.  It is absolutely time to see if Erik Gustafsson has what it takes to be a full-time NHL-er, because, as a Flyers fan, there’s only so many times you can watch a player bungle a play before losing you, yourself, lose your sanity.  And Meszaros has this writer at this point.  Inserting Gus would also help to improve another serious issue with this club: it’s inability to move the puck out of the defensive zone.

It’s only three games into an 82-game season and the Philadelphia Flyers have already managed to panic an entire city.  I’d be lying if I said things were looking bright right now, however, it is not totally bleak.  There have been positives and some of the issues are easily fixable.  But if the orange and black do no start playing to their potential then there were will be major changes coming; not necessarily personnel-wise, but head coach Peter Laviolette and General Manager Paul Holmgren could be inching closer and closer to the guillotine.