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.

 

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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+”

 

Third Line Leads Huge Comeback in Detroit

The Flyers 3rd line, led by Couturier, dominated the Wings on Wednesday night.

The Flyers 3rd line, led by Couturier, dominated the Wings on Wednesday night.

When you think about the Flyers success (or lack-thereof) in Detroit over the past two decades, it should come as no surprise that things looked pretty bleak when the good guys trailed 3-1 late in the second period.  After all, this organization had pulled off just one victory at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit over the past 24 years; and the Flyers haven’t exactly been comeback kings this season.  But Matt Read managed to cut the Red Wing lead to just one (3-2) with a late second period goal, and the orange and black never looked back.  The Flyers came out firing in the third and were able to pull out their most unlikely victory of the season, 6-3.

Let’s take a closer look at this surprisingly high-scoring affair:

  • The number of penalties called were completely disproportionate, but it was actually the Flyers who managed to take advantage of their few opportunities.  Philly finished 3-3 on the PP, while Detroit only managed to go 1-7.
  • The “third line”, if we can still call them that, had an absolute monster game.  Sean Couturier led the way with two goals and two assists;  Read finished with a goal and two assists;  meanwhile, Steve Downie finished with a goal and an assist.  But, quite possibly, the best part about this line is the way they play the two-way game.  All three forwards are defensively responsible, especially Couturier (whom Pierre McGuire compared to Patrice Bergeron during the broadcast).  It’s easy to see that Berube trusts these guys to shut-down the oppositions most dangerous players when it matters most.  And the offensive production is just gravy.
  •   Wayne Simmonds continues his strong play but still can’t seem to get out of his scoring funk.  He came out pointless once again despite being one of the Flyers most active and dangerous forwards.  Sooner (hopefully) or later the puck will start going in the net for the hard-working power forward.
  • It was nice to see Claude Giroux continue to fire the puck, especially when on the PP, as he managed to net the game-tying goal.  For those who’ve seen my past post’s, one of my biggest complaints about this squad has been their aversion to take the best available shots, but that wasn’t the case tonight.
  • Much-maligned first-line wingers, Scott Hartnell and Jake Voracek, both had a productive game.  Hartnell managed to score on one of his vintage one-timer’s from Giroux on the PP; while Voracek was noticeably active, despite being held off the score-sheet.
  • Steve Mason wasn’t his usual dominant self, but he still came up with some huge saves when the team needed him most.  There were plenty of close calls, but #35 still hasn’t allowed more than 3 goals as a Flyer (knock on wood) and we certainly hope that trend continues.
  • I’m not going to complain about the officiating, as the Flyers certainly deserved most of the penalty calls, but there seemed to be some inconsistencies when it came to the play of the Red Wings.  Maybe it’s just my “homer vision”, but I thought Detroit got away with quite a lot.
  • This was just the Flyers second win at Joe Louis arena since 1989.
  • The orange and black now find themselves tied with the Rangers for 3rd in the Metropolitan division with 28 points, and trail Washington for 2nd by just two points.

The Flyers will look to continue climbing up the standings on Saturday afternoon (2 p.m.) in Dallas against a dangerous Stars squad. Tune in.

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.

 

Where Does Steve Downie Fit In?

Talbot and Downie

Maxime Talbot (left) and Steve Downie (right) switch places in an early season swap.

When the Flyers drafted Steve Downie in the 1st round back in 2005, he entered the organization as a reckless, rough-and-tumble pest, with an underdeveloped offensive game. As he returns to the Flyers 7-8 years later, he appears to be more of a finished product; and that’s certainly a good thing. Downie wasn’t brought in here to replace Maxime Talbot as a key defensive forward, no, he’s here to jumpstart the likes of Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek.

Downie, 26, has one 20-goal season and has spent a lot of his time in Colorado playing with the likes of star forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. In fact, he enters Philadelphia with 7 points this season (which would be tied with Lecavalier for first on this team). Think of Downie as a younger Steve Ott or Scott Hartnell- a mucker with the necessary skills to compliment the playmakers up front.

When the trade first went down, I personally wasn’t a fan; afterall, Max Talbot is a warrior and an ace penalty killer. But the more I thought about the deal, the more I liked it. This isn’t the 20-year old, undisciplined Downie we saw during his first go around. This is a more polished Downie with the ability to provide space for Giroux, Lecavalier, and Voracek, etc., while also putting up some points himself.

Also, if Downie is a complete failure then the Flyers can simply allow him to walk after the season (as he’s a potential UFA). No one knows exactly how this trade will turn out, which team “won”, but tonight’s game against Washington (minus Ovechkin) should provide some important insight. So tune in people, it’s time to see if Steve Downie is the answer to our prayers. He’s no Thomas Vanek, but he can certainly provide a spark.