Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday Night Ice

Believe it or not, the Philadelphia Flyers begin their quest to put last season's embarrassing first-round playoff loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at 7 o'clock in Carolina. That's right, on the second day of October, the NHL begins play for real.

This isn't the same Flyers team from a year ago. Far from it. While core players like Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter are still in town, there's been what can certainly be considered a slight overhaul. Gone are reliable forward Mike Knuble, talented scorer Joffrey Lupul, young defenseman Luca Sbisa and both goaltenders, Marty Biron and Antero Niittymaki. In come highly regarded (and highly priced) defenseman Chris Pronger and talented yet controversial goaltender Ray Emery, who headline this new-look Flyers squad, along with veteran Ian Laperriere and rookie James vanRiemsdyk. This is a new team with a very new look.

Last year's team showed a maddening level of immaturity, routinely scoffing off bad games as "just one game, or just a bad stretch," showing no urgency, no concern. It was a team that took things for granted, and some players are admitting as much:

"I think we were just too comfortable last year with all the taps on the shoulders we got all over Canada and the U.S. about our play and making it to the third round" the previous season, said Briere, who appears to be fully recovered from groin and abdominal injuries that limited him to 29 games in 2008-09. "As a team, you have  got to learn from that. I've been part of teams before that kind of the same thing happened. So you have to learn and come back strong. I think this year we'll definitely be ready."

"Discipline is going to be the big thing," Timonen said. "We can't take six, seven, eight penalties every game. That was a problem last year. That has to change. If you look at the good teams and how they win, they don't take penalties."

Last year's team entered camp "thinking everything was going to be easy because we were one of the top four teams at the end," Gagne said. ". . . We got caught up in that. I don't want to say guys took it for granted, but we thought we were going to go back [to the conference finals], for sure. That's why I think we had a slow start; we weren't ready to work right away."

Now, the Flyers sound determined to shake off that laisez-faire attitude and come out with an edge. Chris Pronger is notorious for hating to lose. He's already said that teams like Detroit don't accept a loss as just one game. They don't accept losing period. And that's the mentality he's bringing to this Flyers team, to this young locker room. His addition cannot be overstated.

As much as Flyers fans loved to point to Biron and Niittymaki as the weak point of the team, such was not really the case. That unfortunate label belonged to the defense as a whole. Routinely, the Flyers gave up incredibly too many prime scoring chances, even to teams not known for their offensive firepower. The defense was too soft, too sloppy and just not good enough. To try and offset that, John Stevens separated his top defensive pair from 2007-08, pairing Kimmo Timonen with Ryan Parent and Braydon Coburn with Matt Carle. The result was no true shutdown pair, though Timonen and Parent still played well. Coburn had a down year, at least compared to the season before, and Carle was too inconsistent, taking too many chances offensively. And the third pairing, Randy Jones and Andrew Alberts, was nothing more than adequate at best.

But now, all that has changed. The Flyers have been tremendous defensively in the preseaon, and the main reason is Pronger. With his Norris Trophy pedigree, he's allowed Philadelphia to reunite Timonen and Coburn, forming again what looks like a premier shutdown pair, and Pronger's influence on Carle has already shone through. That duo has looked dynamite so far, giving the Flyers perhaps the most talented top two defense pairings in the entire NHL. Timonen-Coburn and Pronger-Carle look like top-flight shutdown defense pairs. Unlike last season, the Flyers now have a two pairings that can match up against Crosby and Malkin, not to mention Ovechkin and the rest of the league's best. Suddenly, a team weakness has become perhaps its biggest strength. And we all know that offense gets the glory, but defense wins the championships. There was never more evidence of that than last year's Flyers, who had goal-scorers by the bushels, but not enough defense to go around.

That's not to say the offense is lacking on this squad. Yes, the Flyers lost some scoring punch with Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul departing, but there's still plenty of offense to go around: Simon Gagne, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell all had tremendous offensive seasons last year. Danny Briere has always been productive when healthy, and now he's in the best shape he's been in since coming to Philadelphia, primed to play a full season and put up the numbers that brought him to Philadelphia in the first place. Claude Giroux is so scary talented that he may be able to make up for the loss of Lupul and Knuble all by himself. He's that good. And rookie James vanRiemsdyk was drafted No. 2 overall precisely for his scoring ability. Add in training camp surprise Mika Pyorala along with a solid fourth line and the Flyers should have no problems scoring.

And the best part of all is that all four of their lines play strong defense too. Richards and Gagne have long been lauded for their hard work on the backcheck, and Pyorala, who will start the season alongside those two, made his mark defensively in Europe. Jeff Carter's line a year ago became a trusted line against the opposition's top line, showing the improved commitment of Carter and Hartnell, who will be joined by Briere to form a very talented trio. The third line consists of young phenoms Claude Giroux and James vanRiemsdyk along with veteran Arron Asham, and if you have any questions about this line's defensive prowess, just watch Giroux in action and tell me he won't rub off on the rookie:

The fourth line also provides a trio that the Flyers won't be afraid to roll out in any situation: Ian Laperriere, Dan Carcillo and Darroll Powe. Powe came out of nowhere last season to prove he belongs in the NHL. Laperriere is a warrior veteran who has been through it all. And Carcillo, while wild and undisciplined at times, is a talented tough guy who can both throw fists and score goals. Add in this team's fantastic special teams — both killing penalties and scoring on the power play — and the Flyers seem primed to make a realistic run at the Cup.

Of course, there's always the wild card that his the Flyers' goaltending situation. Letting Biron walk, the Flyers have entrusted their No. 1 spot to the troubled Ray Emery. It's a move that many people around the league are questioning and one I questioned myself. In fact, in most previews, people are saying the Flyers' goaltender situation will be their downfall.

Here's the thing … are people simply basing this on Emery's reputation and not really looking closely at him now, at 27 and coming back from Russia? Because I know I did. I wanted no part of a guy who was beyond immature and inconsistent, even with all the talent in the world. But here's the thing: Emery has come to Philadelphia and done nothing but play absolutely brilliant in the preseason. His numbers bear that out: 1.78 goals against average and .943 save percentage. If he can play anywhere near that level during the season, especially in front of a now strong defense and talented offense, this can be a very special year for the Flyers.

And there's reason to believe Emery will keep his level of play up. For one, he's done it before, in 2007 when he led the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup finals. Secondly, the guy has all the physical tools in the world, which he has displayed time and again this preseason. He's quick, agile, lightning fast, and has shown excellent positioning. And lastly, he has something prove. The guy has a chip on his shoulder. He wants to show the NHL, the world what he's capable of. He wants to shed his maligned reputation. He's not taking playing in the NHL for granted anymore, not after a stint in the dreary Russian atmosphere. And lest we forget, he's working on a one-year contract, meaning he's playing for that next one. As horrible as it might sound, how many times have we seen players come out motivated and determined, having their best seasons in contract years? All that put together leads you to believe Emery will be focused, determined and ready to go. He seems like he has matured, and in a locker room with Chris Pronger, I don't see him even getting the opportunity to step out of line.

Of course, none of this guarantees the Flyers anything. They still need to go out and put it all together, put their money where their mouth is. Talk is all well and good in the preseason, but it's another thing to go out and do it when it matters. This is still a team that took entirely too many penalties last season, and they'll have to cut down on those if they really want to make it far in the playoffs. It's still a team that didn't address another major weakness, faceoffs. They were dreadful in the circle last season, and they didn't go out and get a dominant faceoff guy, despite my urging them to do just that. Now we have to hope Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Claude Giroux and Darroll Powe spent the summer working on them and have improved the way Sidney Crosby did last season. This is all to say there is still plenty of work to be done and plenty to prove.

But this season, it finally seems like the Flyers have just about everything in place to get it done. This team isn't looking to the future, waiting for Richards and Carter to develop. They are stars now. They are ready. They're all ready. Now it's time to go out and prove it.

Update: Blair Betts is signed, giving even more depth and a guy who can win faceoffs for the fourth line, which is awesome, because Betts is an excellent penalty killer as well, meaning Richards and Carter can get a little more rest. With Betts in the fold, that means my wish of Arron Asham being the extra forward has come to fruition. The lines tonight will be as follows:
Richards-Gagne-Pyorala, Carter-Hartnell-Briere, Giroux-JVR-Powe, and Betts-Carcillo-Laperriere.


BallHype: hype it up!

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