Wednesday, December 24, 2008

No Place Like Home for the Holidays

It's no secret, the Flyers are scorching hot … especially at home. Over their last 12 home games, the Flyers are 10-0-2. That's 22 points out of a possible 24 in case you're counting. In their last 10 games overall, the Flyers are 7-1-2. Not bad for a team that started out the season with six straight losses, huh?

With last night's 6-4 victory against Ottawa, the Flyers pulled to within 2 points of the Rangers for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, thanks to a tremendous choke job by New York last night, with 3 games in hand. The Rangers jumped out to a 4-0 lead against Washington last night, and then gave up 4 unanswered to go to overtime, 3 of them in the third period. Then, less than a minute into the OT, the Caps finished the job, scoring their 5th straight goal to hand the Rangers the overtime loss at home. They must be taking their cues from the Mets.

Meanwhile, the Flyers were completely undressing the Senators … at least in the play. Somehow, some way, with the Flyers completely dominating every phase of the hockey game, the Sens stayed in it. It looked exactly like the Flyers-Caps game from last Saturday, with the Capitals completely owning the Flyers through 2 periods, yet falling 7-1 in the end.

But the Flyers simply wouldn't let Ottawa steal this one, no matter how hard the Sens tried. After surrendering the first goal, Matt Carle fired one off a face-off win that somehow got through Alex Auld to tie the game. And before the period was done, the Carter line came through yet again, as Joffrey Lupul lit the lamp.

But those pesky Senators wouldn't go away. On a two-man advantage, Danny Heatley slammed one home on a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play, tying the game. But the red hot Jeff Carter countered with a power play tally of his own to regain the lead—his league-leading 26th goal of the season.

Andres Nodl gave the Flyers a 2-goal cushion with his first NHL goal heading into the third. It looked like the game was over. But Danny Heatley picked up his second goal of the game less than halfway through the final period, and you could feel the momentum, which had been with the Flyers the entire game, begin to shift. The Flyers began to sit back a little on defense, giving Ottawa room to work, and the Sens began to fire away. Minutes later, the game was tied, and I was pissed.

The Flyers had completely dominated the play … from shots to chances to time in the offensive zone to hits … everything. Yet here we were, all tied. Shit. I was so angry I almost thought about flipping to the Sixers for a moment. Then my senses got the best of me.

I was rewarded 4 minutes later when Simon Gagne continued his resurgence, showing no ill effects of last season's devastating concussion.

Gagne made an incredible individual play. After the Senators controlled the puck off the face-off in their own zone, Gagne pick-pocketed Daniel Alfredsson, an incredible feat in its own right, and fired one toward the net that somehow went in. Mike Knuble provided a strong screen in front, and the puck trickled past Auld to recapture the lead for the Flyers. From there, Mike Richards added a empty-netter to finish off the 6-4 win in the final game at the Wachovia Center for some time. It was glorious.

And while last night's game was clearly about offense—and the Flyers' offense has been incredible all year—I'd like to give some love to the defensemen. As a six-man unit, these guys have been tremendous since a slow start. We all knew how incredibly good and underrated Kimmo Timonen is from getting to watch him for a full season last year. Simply put, the guy is one of the best defensemen in all of hockey—offensively and defensively. His calming influence back there and heady, intelligent play cannot be overstated.

And that play has rubbed off on the rest of the defense. Early in the season, Ossi Vaananen did not impress me one bit. He looked unsure of himself and mistake-prone. Since, he's been nothing short of tremendous. Pairing with Timonen has helped, no doubt. Suddenly, the Ossi is doing it all—hitting, blocking shots, erasing passes and jumping up on the rush. He looks confident, quick and decisive. He looks like a a top-shelf defenseman.

Add in the incredible addition of Matt Carle, who is playing with last year's breakout star on the blue line, Braydon Coburn, and the Flyers have two completely shutdown defensive pairs. Carle has done nothing but impress since coming over from Tampa Bay. Sure, he let a couple guys get behind him in Montreal last week, but besides that, he's been superb. Carle has tremendous offensive instincts, smart defensive positioning and can flat out fly. Pair that with Coburn, who has taken another step defensively this year, and these guys are no fun for opposing forwards.

And then there's Andrew Alberts and the recently returned Randy Jones. Jones has been impressive in his two games coming back from injury, and Andrew Alberts has been a big, bruising force since coming over from Boston. These guys don't give much of a drop-off from the top two pairings. Plus, the Flyers still have Luca Sbisa, the 18-year-old who showed he certainly belongs, and Lasse Kukkonen, a do-it-all guy.

The blue liners have picked up their game, and the offense has continued to roll all the season long. Add in the tremendous forechecking game the Flyers have going right now, and this team looks tough to beat. If they can keep it up, this will be a team that no one wants to face come playoff time … and at some point they'll be getting Daniel Briere and Scottie Upshall back. Scary.

BallHype: hype it up!

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