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.

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Sans Lecavalier the Flyers Drop Another

Amid news that Vinny will miss 3-4 weeks, the Flyers go down in Ottawa.

Amid news that Vinny will miss 3-4 weeks, the Flyers go down in Ottawa, 5-4 (SO).

It was a back-and-forth, high-scoring affair, in which the Flyers could’ve used another veteran scoring presence; unfortunately, it was announced earlier in this grueling road trip that Vincent Lecavalier will miss atleast 3 more weeks with a fracture in his lower back.  The longtime vet had already been absent through the past week with what was initially thought to be a minor, day-to-day back strain.  And his absence has left a major void on what was a dangerous 2nd line.

Brayden Schenn and Austrian rookie Michael Raffl have attempted to step up in #40’s place, but haven’t been all that effective.  Although Raffl did finally net his first goal of the season tonight to open the scoring.  The Flyers also got goals from Jake Voracek, Luke Schenn, and Kimmo Timonen but it wasn’t enough.  Ottawa stormed back from 1-0 and 3-2 deficits to overtake the Flyers in a shootout, 5-4.

Here’s a closer look at the tough loss:

  • Mark Streit had an absolutely dreadful game and was essentially responsible for 3 Senator goals.  A terrible pinch, poor defensive coverage, and an interference penalty put his teammates in an unenviable position that they just couldn’t recover from.  Many criticized his acquisition during the off-season for just these kind of performances.
  • Luke Schenn, despite having a goal and an assist, also kicked in the Ottawa goal that put the Sens ahead 4-3.  If he had not attempted to block the shot, Mason would’ve had the easy save.  There have been far too many times this season where the Flyers blueliners have put the puck in their own net.  Sometimes a defender just needs to allow his netminder to make the save, instead of screening or deflecting a shot.
  • Jake Voracek seems to really enjoy playing the Sens as he scored his 3rd goal of the season against Ottawa (4th total).
  • The ice surface in Ottawa was absolutely horrendous.  The puck did not stop bouncing the entire game, which led to some sloppy plays at both ends of the rink.
  • Not sure if this is just the homer in me, but it appeared as if the refs allowed the Sens to get away with murder.  They could’ve been called for far more than the two minor penalties they were charged with during the game.
  • Steve Mason did all that he could to pull out a victory for this club.  Unfortunately, he didn’t receive much help.  Especially from his defense.

The Flyers finish this brutal road-trip with a tough match-up against the Cup Champion Blackhawks in Chicago on Wednesday at 8.  It is NBCSN’s Wednesday Night Rivalry game, so tune in.

NHL Off-Season Part II: Winners

The Stars added serious depth down the middle.

The Stars added serious depth down the middle with the additions of Horcoff (left) and Seguin (right).

During the NHL off-season it’s often easier to pick out the teams that didn’t accomplish their goals, as opposed to those who completed their summer shopping lists.  Usually you can’t tell who the “winners” are until the product is visible on the ice.  But, since I already picked a few clubs that I thought fell short, here are those who landed on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The Winners:

The Flyers-  Additions: Vincent Lecavalier, Mark Streit, Ray Emery

Okay, I know, there’s an obvious bias here.  However, I don’t think picking the Flyers as winners falls entirely in the “homer” category.  After all, this franchise made its usual splash this off-season.  But it wasn’t just the stereotypical binge-spending we’ve become accustomed to in Philadelphia; no, these were savvy additions.  GM Paul Holmgren surely wanted to erase the sour taste left by last summers failures and subsequent debacle of a season.  First, the blueline desperately needed some tweaking.  So the club brought in former Islanders Captain, and power play specialist, Mark Streit.  Now, he won’t necessarily improve the Flyers defensive zone coverage, but he will replace that puck-moving element they lost with Matt Carle’s departure.  The 4-year term is questionable for a 35-year old defender, but, atleast in the short-term, it’s a good move.

Next, the Flyers replaced the rapidly declining Danny Briere with longtime Lightning stalwart, Vinny Lecavalier.  Lecavalier will bring much-needed size (6’4”) and scoring ability (383 goals) to the second line.  And a 1-2 punch of Giroux-Lecavalier at the center position could become the envy of the league.  Finally, the most important upgrade was the addition of Flyer retread Ray Emery to alleviate the “loss” of Bryz in net.  Emery was stellar (17-1-0, .922sv%, 1.94GAA) for the Blackhawks last season.  And he and Steve Mason, in my mind, are a significant upgrade over the streaky production that Bryz brought to the crease.

Some may be underestimating the Flyers after last seasons debacle, but this club has clearly improved.

Dallas Stars-  Additions: Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, Shawn Horcoff, Sergei Gonchar, Valeri Nichuskin (draft), Dan Ellis

If the Stanley Cup was awarded for off-season performance, the Dallas Stars would be the clear favorites.  This is a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since a surprise run to the Conference Finals in 07-08, but they’ve made serious strides during recent months.  The first stellar move was the hiring of former Red Wings director of amateur scouting, Jim Nill, as General Manager.  Nill immediately put his fingerprints on the franchise by acquiring Russian defender Sergei Gonchar and drafting Russian sensation Valeri Nichuskin.  Gonchar is often credited with helping to develop Evgeni Malkin’s North American game while in Pittsburgh and Nichuskin has that type of elite ability.  Nill then pulled off the stunner of the off-season by acquiring enigmatic forward Tyler Seguin (and Rich Peverly) from the Boston Bruins.  Although controversy swirls around Seguin’s partying ways, he has as much talent as anyone.  He, Peverley, and Horcoff (acquired from Edmonton) could form a solid trio at center for the Stars.  Besides the off-season acquisitions, Dallas also has talented holdovers Jamie Benn (age 24) and netminder Kari Lehtonen (29).  You can never tell how certain additions will mesh on the ice, but on paper, the Dallas Stars have the look of a darkhorse contender.

Detroit Red Wings–  Additions:  Daniel Alfredsson, Stephen Weiss

Although the Red Wings lost some key players in Valteri Filppula (Tampa Bay), Damien Brunner (UFA), Danny Clearly (UFA), and Ian White (UFA), they probably gained more skill with the additions of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss.  Alfredsson, the longtime Senators captain, surprised everyone when he opted to sign in Detroit instead of Ottawa.  Eventhough he’s 40 years of age, he should fit in seamlessly with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.  And Stephen Weiss, 30, will be the perfect second-line center in a deep forward group.  Although Weiss struggled a season ago (4pts in 17 games), he had scored atleast 42 points in his last six full NHL seasons, including two 60pt seasons.  With an interesting mix of youth and experience, the Red Wings should be dangerous competitors in their first season in the Eastern Conference.

Nashville Predators-  Additions:  Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom, Matt Hendricks, Seth Jones (draft)

seth jonesNormally legitimate contenders, the Predators suffered through one of their worst seasons in franchise history in 2012-13.  They lost a top-pairing defenseman in Ryan Suter to Minnesota and their offense was absolutely abysmal.  But, despite steering clear of headline names, Nashville was one of the most active teams this summer.  They brought in veteran center Matt Cullen and former Blackhawk speedster Viktor Stalberg to add a little offense.  Stalberg, one of the fastest skaters in the league, should add a dynamic element that this team sorely lacked a season ago.  But, probably the most important addition to the Preds franchise in years, was 4th overall pick Seth Jones.  Projected by most experts as the top prospect in this years draft, Jones,18, is expected to fill the massive void left by Suter.  He and captain Shea Weber could form a truly stellar top-pairing on the blueline.  GM David Poile also added forwards Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks to bring a little grit to the Preds forward group.  As long as All-Star netminder Pekka Rinne has a bounce-back campaign, Nashville should rebound in a big way in 2013.

The 2013-14 will be a huge campaign for these four franchises, amongst others.  The true winners of the off-season won’t become clear until the actual contests begin.  Some teams that look like surefire Cup contenders in August aren’t even in the playoff picture come April.  Some new additions will propel their respective squads to untold heights, others will drag their organizations down to cap hell.  It’s a crap-shoot that will only reveal the results with time.  But, as of right now, the Flyers, Red Wings, Stars, and Predators look like they’ve won the off-season odyssey, if only by a nose.

Up next in the Off-Season Series: Breakout Candidates.