Coming off an exceptional Stanely Cup Final run in 2010 that left them two wins short of glory, the Philadelphia Flyers were poised to make a return with a deeper defensive corps and experience from a deep run on their side. In the first half of the season, the Flyers were among the best in the league, actually holding down the top spot in the league for some time. They were beating some of the best teams in the league, and some of them pretty handily. They were getting strong defensive play, surprise goaltending from their rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and Claude Giroux, Ville Leino, and Danny Briere were continuing their hot streak after an amazing playoff run. Fast forward to the end of March, and the Flyers still have a chance to lock up the #1 seed even after coasting through the second half of the season. After failing to beat some teams who were out of the playoff picture along with some divisional opponents, the Flyers finished the season as the #2 seed to face the seventh seeded red-hot Buffalo Sabres. This match-up had the hottest team from the first half of the season (Philly) playing the arguably hottest team in the second half (Buffalo). After a few games of musical goalies and physicality, the Flyers emerged victorious in a Game 7 demolishing of the Sabres. The Flyers apparently righted the ship, and were playing good hockey again. Until of course, they were utterly dominated (albeit Game 2) and got swept in the second round by a hungry and focused Boston Bruins team. So why did this team come up VERY short of its intended goal?
Goaltending and Team Defense
Sure, it’s easy to point fingers at Boucher, Bobs, and Leighton for our loss. They each let in some soft goals during the season/playoff run. But the defense playing in front of them for these playoffs was less than stellar compared to their regular season domination. Touted as one of the deepest blue lines in the league, the Flyers were man-handled by the Bruins forecheck and had trouble tracking down the quick Buffalo forwards entering the zone. Not only were the blueliners lackluster in their execution, but the forwards as well. When the Flyers were playing Laviolette’s system as it should and were constantly applying back-pressure to the forwards entering our zone, we were hard to score on. The defense held their ground and it made the lives of opposing scorers harder. But when they didn’t our defense was forced to come up with plays or our goalie had to stand on his head. In the regular season, everyone can take a shift or two, and in some cases even a game off and still get away with it. In the playoffs, there aren’t 82 games. Lose four and you’re out.
The main question to address this problem is can we win a Stanley Cup with this set-up? How much longer can Timonen and Pronger contribute at a high level? Who will create our 3rd pairing with O’Donnell likely not coming back? Those are hard to answer, but I do know one answer: We NEED an upgrade at goalie for the next year or two until Bobrovsky can evolve into our starter. The kid needs time, and showed he can become a good goalie. The intangibles are there, his athletic ability and work ethic are there, he just needs some help with fundamentals. That includes his angles, tracking the puck through traffic, playing the puck outside the crease, and adjusting to the North American game/language/culture. I have faith in Bobs, but we need someone to help him along the way so he isn’t learning in a trial by fire. I’ll have more on the goaltending situation in the coming days.
The bane of the Flyers’ existence down the stretch besides winning games was the powerplay. The unit that spent most of last year in the top five/top ten area fell into the bottom half of the league this year, and it didn’t get much better during playoff time. Obviously, the absence of Chris Pronger was huge, but how many times could they try the delayed drop pass and carry in the neutral zone before they could figure out another way to fix it? Fixing the powerplay, like anything in hockey, requires you to simplify the game and earn your chances. Get pucks in deep, forecheck, get any open shot and take it, crash the net; rinse, repeat. The Flyers failed to score on many opportunities on the man-advantage. In the playoffs, scoring or not scoring on the powerplay can win or lose you games. This year, it definitely cost us some games.
Besides changing the strategy and set-up of the powerplay, I believe the Flyers could also do right by adding a right handed shot on the point. As of now, Nick Boyton is the only right-handed defenseman we have on our current roster, since Matt Walker is buried in the AHL at the moment. Whether that means adding a forward on the left point or another defenseman, it will add another dimension to our powerplay. I like Richards on the point when we don’t have suitable/healthy defenseman to cover, but I’d rather have a righty. We were constantly setting up one-timers from the point in the middle-to-right of the ice, making our powerplay predictable. A new wrinkle could add variety and force opposing penalty killers into some tough situations.
This correlates to all of the flaws in their game, and is in my opinion, the main culprit. There are a lot of things going around currently about locker room drama, relationships between Coach Laviolette and players/Richards. I don’t put too much stock into the media’s attempt at garnering readers, but there usually is some truth to rumors. The Flyers were a different team at the end of the season. Besides only picking up Boyton off of waivers and trading for Versteeg, the team was virtually the same as it was when it started. You could sense that the team was used to getting away with lackluster play in the regular season and hoped to just “turn it on” by the time playoffs came around. They elevated their game for sure, but did they really think that was the way to go about winning a championship? Team leaders needed to step up and hold the team accountable for their play. I will never know what goes on in that locker room, but whatever it was; it wasn’t working.
I had this sense of defeat in the Boston series in the first game when they got crushed at home, and as soon as they lost the heart-breaker in game two. After they went back to Boston, it seemed like they didn’t want it. Whatever the goalie carousel did to their psyche as a team or the loss of Pronger (again), something was different about this team. Paul Holmgren will assess the situation and either address the problem verbally or weed out players he may deem as counter-intuitive to the team’s goals. I’m not sure what the deal is, but this hopefully will blow over soon.
What to Look Forward To?
The Flyers are still a few steps away from the Cup, and bearing any major re-tooling and meltdowns in the off-season, they should be back in contention as one of the best teams in the league next season. They still have a young group of core forwards, good defensemen, and a hopeful goalie in Bobrovsky. If the defense can stay healthy, the goaltending situation addressed/improved, and the team’s focus intact, we should enjoy another season of Flyers hockey. The main thing for Flyers fans to look forward to, is the emergence of their young stars. Claude Giroux finally got his first season underway in the ’09-’10 campaign and exploded in the playoffs. The confidence in his game grew quite a bit, and he became one of the team’s best forwards at both ends of the ice. He continued his tear this season, and led the team in points in the regular season. His presence on the ice became known at all times, even with a few shorthanded goals in the process. Even though Giroux’s development is just as important, he will be over-shadowed by his slightly younger counterpart.
The “Giroux Effect” would work in turn for the next hopeful young star of the Flyers, James Vanriemsdyk. After a shaky rookie season and benching during last year and even this year, he solidified his play down the stretch and became an animal in the playoffs. Like Giroux, his confidence grew and he was ready to do what he had to in order to help the team be successful. Even though he was running people over and generating a plethora of chances in the first round, nothing sums up his performance this post-season better than game two of the second round. He literally took over the game himself, and even won the crowd over who ditched the “Let’s Go Flyers” chants for “J-V-R, J-V-R!” chants. When you have that much orange on your side, you know you have to be doing something right. If these two guys can improve on their performances next season, there should be a lot of fun hockey to come.
This season wasn’t all that bad. It was one of the funner regular seasons in recent memory, and if it ended with a better result, we’d probably look on it more fondly. The disappointing ending was a culmination of things and leaves a sour taste in our mouths. To make it worse, it was around this date last year that the Flyers made history and completed the comeback in Game 7 versus in the Bruins. It sucks. But the good thing about sports; there’s always next year. Next blog I will look at the goaltending situation and the possible options I believe the Flyers have/should take. Until then, enjoy Detroit and San Jose’s Game 7 tonight, and Go Tampa next round (need Gagne’s name on a Cup!).