Out with the (Beloved) Old, In with the New (Unknown)

Flyers defensive stalwart is currently battling blood clots in his right leg and lungs.

This Flyers defensive stalwart is currently battling blood clots in both his right leg and lungs.

Throughout his miraculous 24-year professional hockey career (eight overseas), the diminutive Kimmo Timonen has battled countless ailments, sprains, fractures, contusions, and lacerations, just to name a few; but he has always come out on top.  Nothing has ever stopped the 5’10” 194-pound warrior from giving his all to complete the task at hand.  That is, until the news hit the presses on Tuesday afternoon that Philadelphia’s longtime beloved Finn may, in fact, be human after all.

After years of forcing his undersized frame through superhuman tests of endurance, strength, and determination, the 39-year old’s body can no longer match the youth of his spirit.  And in a surprising turn of events, it appears as if #44’s playing days may have come abruptly to an end.

It wasn’t a bone-jarring blow that did him in; nor a sacrificial torso donation made in an attempt to slow, divert, or altogether stop a vulcanized piece of rubber destined for the twine behind his goalie; no, this appears to have been nothing more than a spontaneously occurring episode of the human body gone amok.

Who would have thought that a professional athlete, in peak physical condition, would be subject to such an arbitrary, and yet dangerous, affliction such as multiple blood clots?  But that is the situation that both the Flyers and their linchpin defenseman find themselves in going forward.

Most importantly, are these multiple blood clots life-threatening? career-threatening?  Season-ending? Too many questions, little or no answers.

But despite Timonen’s salubrity, or lack thereof, the 14-15 NHL season will go on and that brings us to the question of what now to do with the Flyers already thin D-corps?

Welcome Back to the Metropolitan Division, Mr. Michael Del Zotto

Still just 24, the Flyers hope MDZ can recapture his former glory.

Still just 24, the Flyers hope MDZ can recapture his former glory.

 

I have long been one of the local Philadelphians who believe that the 24-year old, former Rangers defender Michael Del Zotto would be the perfect reclamation project for town often glorified for its comeback stories.  And with one of the clubs top-4 blueliners facing career-threatening health concerns, it didn’t take long for General Manager Ron Hextall to bring in the enigmatic young player on a 1-year, $1.3 million deal.

Del Zotto, or “MDZ” as he is commonly referred, burst onto the the NHL scene as a 20-year old rookie during the 08-09 season, as he posted 9 goals and 28 assists and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team.  Just two seasons later he became an even more integral part of the Rangers dynamic defense crew as he managed 10 goals and 31 assists.

Stacking up statistics of that magnitude before the age of 23 would fast track most young defenders to stardom but a series of setbacks and miscues sent MDZ from blossoming star (mentioned alongside names like P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson) into John Tortorella’s doghouse, Alaign Vigneault’s bottom pairing, and finally, after being dealt to Nashville, a regular on Barry Trotz’s list of healthy scratches.

It was a precipitous and unceremonious fall for the former first round pick, but if there’s one team in the NHL that can utilize Del Zotto and revitalize his career it’s probably these Philadelphia Flyers.

How the Blue Line Looks to Shape Out Now

Though the Flyers lose a ton of experience and leadership without Timonen in the locker-room, his time on the long-term injury reserve may actually be somewhat of a blessing in disguise.  I would never wish injury on any player (especially something as serious as this), but it was clear towards the end of the 2013-14 season that Kimmo had lost more than a few steps.  He was an absolute liability against the smaller, quicker forwards in the Rangers series; and it cost the team dearly. I was an advocate for letting him walk during free agency.

Now I’m not implying that a player (MDZ) with a career +/- of “-9” is the answer to all the Flyers defensive ills but Del Zotto brings a skill set that the Flyers blueline has sorely missed over the past several years.  Far too often this team has found itself pinned deep in their own zone because of a lack of mobility on the part of the defenders, but that should be no issue with Del Zotto.  He is essentially a fourth forward on the ice (which can be a double-edged sword).

Without Timonen’s lack of mobility the Flyers will now have Streit, Coburn, MacDonald, and Del Zotto, all mobile defenders who are capable of creating forward momentum with crisp and accurate outlet passes.  That will leave Nicklas Grossmann, Luke Schenn, and Nick Schultz as the steady, stay-at-home types.

One major issue that Head Coach Craig Berube will face without Timonen going forward is how the powerplay functions.  It’s probably a safe assumption that Mark Streit (10 goals 34 assists) will assume the role as #1 PP QB, while the likes of MacDonald and Del Zotto will battle to run the second PP unit.

And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a youngster such as Union College hero/offensive dynamo Shayne Gostisbehere, slick Swede Robert Hagg, or steady two-way Phantom defender Mark Alt challenge for a spot out of training camp.

Although it’s never ideal to suffer potential career-ending injuries, it can be important to look at the bright side of these negative episodes.  After all, it was the New York Yankees removal of star first baseman Wally Pipp in 1925 due to a headache that led to the implementation of the mythical Lou Gehrig.  And the rest is history.  Of course no one should have any misconceptions about Michael Del Zotto overtaking Kimmo Timonen on the list of Flyers greats; but sometimes new blood is a necessity.

 

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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.

 

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.

Matt Read Leads Gutsy 2-1 Victory Over Rangers

Matt Read2

Read put up a goal and an assist in just the Flyers 2nd win.

When you’re desperate for points, staring at 1-8 in your first nine games, it doesn’t have to be pretty.  And this one surely wasn’t.  But it was the type of tilt that the orange and black just haven’t been able to pull out, until tonight.  Could this effort be the catalyst for a turnaround?  It’s far too early to make a definitive statement like that, but you can’t understate the importance of two points, especially over a struggling, Metro division foe.  Again, it wasn’t pretty, but it was necessary.

Here’s a closer look into the victory:

  • Matt Read was a beast in all three zones tonight.  He picked up the Flyers initial goal off a great short-handed takeaway.  Then, he followed that up with another steal, and subsequent game-winning assist; this time in the offensive zone.  In between, there were plenty of other great two-way plays by #24. These are the type of hard-fought performances we expect from the Bemidji State product.
  • Braydon Coburn picked up the game-winning goal off a booming slap-shot from the point (his 2nd of the season).  But the defender continued his streaky play in the defensive zone.  He could have easily been the goat as he redirected Brad Richards goal for New York.  And, unfortunately, followed that with several dangerous turnovers.  But, in the end, we’d trade those close calls for game-winning goals any day.
  • Steve Mason continued his stellar Philadelphia career with 30 saves.  He looks unbelievably confident handling the puck and came up with some huge saves.  And fortunately, two goals was just enough support tonight.
  • Max Talbot is a true warrior.  He took a grizzly, face-first plant into the boards, courtesy of Benoit Pouliot, and still managed to return in the third.  The dangerous looking play resulted in a 5 minute power-play, but the Flyers could not capitalize.  They’re just 1 for their last 25 on the man-advantage.  But the most important thing is the health of Talbot.
  • The top-line of Raffl-Giroux-Lecavalier had a few chances, but still seemed a little out of sync.  Eventually someone will fit on Giroux’s wings.  My money is on a return of Voracek and/or Hartnell at some point soon.
  • Even without Lundqvist, and with the Rangers coming in at 2-5, there’s a lot to feel good about after this game.  Biggest positive: Health.  They didn’t lose any key pieces and came out with two points.  Biggest Negative: The PP.  It’s kind of hard to believe that a power-play with so much talent could look so listless, but the Flyers do.

The Flyers (2-7) season continues with a 7 p.m. match-up Saturday night on Long Island against the other New York hockey team (3-3-3 record).

 

Rangers Down Flyers 3-2

Newly minted Flyer Vinny Lecavalier was extremely active in a 3-2 loss.

Newly minted Flyer Vinny Lecavalier was extremely active during the 3-2 home loss.

In the fourth installment of Flyers preseason hockey, the orange and black were unable to post a comeback in  tight contest with hated division foe, the New York Rangers.  After playing four games in just three days (two split-squad games Monday) the club is now off until next Tuesday, when they take on the New Jersey Devils.  Despite a 1-3 record so far there have been quite a few developments to take note of:

  • Longtime Tampa Bay vet, Vinny Lecavalier, was very visible throughout the night.  Playing on a physically imposing line with Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds, Lecavalier was able to give the “Rags” defense fits (despite not showing up on the score sheet).  It’s safe to assume #40 will be a welcome addition in Philadelphia.
  • 24-year old Austrian import (via Sweden) Michael Raffl did not look out of place amongst the surrounding NHLers, despite making a huge jump from a lower international league.  While it was originally thought that Raffl would have to spend some time with the Phantoms before working his way to the big club, it now appears as if he has an inside track at the 3rd line winger job.
  • Steve Mason, despite allowing 3 goals (again), actually looked rather sharp.  It’s clear that his ability to handle the puck will be extremely beneficial in taking pressure off his defensemen this season.
  • Young forward Jason Akeson continued to flash offensive ability, but he was also guilty of committing several turnovers.  Eventhough he’s displayed some rapport with both Voracek and Giroux (last season), it appears as if he’s headed back to the AHL.
  • 6’6” defender Sam Morin continued his impressive play this preseason.  Despite being barely 18 years of age, the first round pick has shown impressive poise in the defensive zone.  Morin has also displayed a keen awareness with the puck offensively, something he was not known for in juniors.  Eventhough he’ll almost assuredly spend another season in the OHL, he’s not making the Flyers decision an easy one.  Also, of note, Morin signed his 3-year Entry-Level Contract today.
  • One of the most pleasant surprises of the evening was the play of Sean Couturier.  Coming off a horrendous sophomore season (15pts in 46 games, -8 +/-), Couts showed just how much he’s worked on his game in the off-season.  His skating is visibly improved; as he was flying through the neutral zone all night.  And he looks as if he’s added some much needed muscle to his frail-looking, 6’4” frame.  This kid, with a boatload of talent, certainly looks poised for that breakout campaign.
  • 6’7” veteran defender Hal Gill continued his steady play.  Not overly flashy, Gill overcomes his lack of foot-speed with savvy instincts and positioning.  Eventhough the Flyers have an overflow on the blueline (9 players on one-way contracts), Gill is giving GM Paul Holmgren something to think about.  Most Flyers fans would probably feel better with Gill on board as the #7 defenseman, rather than Bruno Gervais, who’s proven to be a liability defensively.

Record-wise the Preseason hasn’t been kind to the Flyers, but these games are more about players developing a rhythm, young kids getting a chance to show what they’re made of, and grizzled vets proving they still have something left in the tank.  There have been a lot of positives to take from these first four games.  And with the October 2nd season opener creeping closer and closer, there are a few guys fighting for their proverbial lives.  We’ll continue to see who makes the cut when Fly Guys return to action next Tuesday against the Devils.