Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Tough Start

Last night, with the Phillies idle and football nowhere to be found, I finally got a chance to take in my first full Flyers game of the 2008-09 season. And, just like the first two games of the season, the Flyers lost.

However, last night's game wasn't nearly as frustrating as the first two, where they gave up 4 goals in the first period to the Rangers and 5 goals in all against the Canadians. In their first road contest of the season out in Pittsburgh, the Flyers actually played some pretty strong defense, especially when you consider they were taking on the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

From my eyes, it was pretty even game throughout. The first period, the Flyers looked to be in control early while Pittsburgh made a nice push toward the end. And the animosity between the teams from last season clearly boiled over. Just 5 minutes in, Riley Cote and Eric Godard dropped the gloves and had at it. Both players got some nice shots in, and it was a typical Cote fight: No one really won; both got some good shots in.

But the second period completely belonged to the Penguins. Right off the faceoff, Pittsburgh took it to the Flyers, getting chance after chance, and if it wasn't for Antero Niittymaki, the Flyers would have found themselves down 4-0 or more.

The Pens did finally open up the scoring when Brooks Orpik fired a wrister that found its way past Niittymaki in the far top corner of the net.

Just 42 seconds later, Michael Zigomanis put Pittsburgh up 2, and the Flyers looked dead in the water.

The Penguins were putting the pressure on, and the Flyers looked to have no answers. Save for the Upshall, Carter, Knuble/Asham line, no one was doing much for the Orange and Black. Well, not until the final minute of the period anyway.

With just 44 seconds left, Scottie Upshall found Jeff Carter down low in a 2-on-1 with Aaron Asham on his left. Carter looked like he was trying to get the puck to Asham, but it went off Hal Gil and past Fleury to bring the Flyers within a goal.

Then, just 21 seconds later, Daniel Briere won a faceoff, got it back to Braydon Coburn who sent it across to Kimmo Timonen on a set play. Kimmo fired at the net, and Simon Gagne, who is smoking early on, made a great redirection to tie the game going into the 3rd, picking up his 3rd goal in just the 3rd game of the season.

With two goals in the final minute, it looked as though the Flyers had stolen the momentum. But the third proved to be a stalemate, as both teams clamped down and both goaltenders were strong. So overtime it was, and much like the game, it was pretty evenly played. Both teams had chances, but it looked as though the game was going to go to a shootout.

But, with 11 seconds left, this happened:

Briere and Lupul both misplayed the puck, which led to Pittsburgh's control, a long pass by Orpik to Pascal Dupuis and a rip by Dupuis that beat Niittymaki. Just like that, the Flyers are off to their worst start in franchise history, losing the first three games of the season for the first time ever.

And while that might be a little depressing, it is only three games, and they were against three of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. And in all three games, the Flyers were right there with chances to win. So I think they'll be all right.

However, there are some things early on I don't particularly like, at least from last night's game. Number one is the line combinations. There's just something about having Richards, Briere and Gagne together that I don't like. I know they've played very well together early on, but that line lacks the physicality and defensive prowess to match Richards' individual strengths in both those areas.

And the drop-off on other lines is evident. Not on all of them, mind you. In fact, last night, the Carter-Upshall-Knuble/Asham, Stevens switched Knuble and Asham throughout, line was the best line for the Flyers last night. Steve Downie was nowhere to be found, which I found discouraging considering he played so well in the preseason before he got hurt.

If I had it my way, the lines would look like this:

1. Briere-Gagne-Knuble: A trio that was dynamite early last season before Gagne went down with the concussion.
2. Richards-Lupul-Hartnell: Another line that played strong together for the majority of last season, and a line that has three players who are physical, good defenders and can all score.
3. Carter-Upshall-Downie: Carter and Upshall clearly have great chemistry, and I think promoting Downie to that line could really help him break out. And if that doesn't work, put Asham there like last night and move Downie back to the 4th line.
4. Metropolit-Cote-Asham: Fourth liners all around.

Actually, I have to say, I'm not a fan of Glen Metropolit early on. He looks slow, turns the puck over and really hasn't had much of an impact. However, it's early, so I won't pass too harsh of a judgment yet.

As far as defense goes, well, things are a little rough back there. It would nice to get Timonen and Coburn back together to put that shutdown pair out there, but it's tough with the youth and injuries. However, until Parent and Jones come back, I guess the pairings from last night work well. Steve Eminger hasn't brought much to the table early on, but Andrew Alberts played pretty well last night in his first game as a Flyer, and he adds some much-needed size to the blue line.

Timonen and Coburn are exactly what they are—All-Star caliber defensemen. Ossi Vaananen has looked up and down to me, and Luca Sbisa clearly has the potential to be a star in this league. He does make some rookie mistakes, but he's 18 years old. His speed, puck handling and confidence, not to mention the penchant he's shown to throw his body around, should provide the Flyers with another top defenseman in the near future.

When Jones and Parent come back, the defense, thin at the moment, will become a deep part of the Flyers. So, despite the worst start in franchise history, there are 79 more games left, and this team certainly has the talent to make another run to the playoffs. And I expect them to do just that.

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