It's no secret that I did not want the Flyers to sign Ray Emery. Not even a little bit.
With his checkered past and the Flyers' troubles in the net, I certainly didn't want them to take a chance on a crazy man, especially with the calm, cool and collected Marty Biron manning the post over the past few seasons. Sure, Marty wasn't spectacular and wouldn't carry you on his shoulders, but he was solid and steady … and not crazy. At least I knew what to expect from Biron. Emery, on the other hand? No one knew.
I'm happy to say that so far this season, I've been dead wrong. The Flyers clearly did their homework on Emery, and the former Ottawa goaltender who came to Philadelphia via Russia is proving he still has the talent and athleticism to dominate the league. Through the first 17 games, the Flyers are 11-5-1. Emery has started between the pipes in 16 of those games, and thus far, he's posted an 11-4 record with a 2.22 goals against average and .923 save percentage, plus one shutout to boot. In the last 7 games alone, the Flyers are 6-1, in large part because of the play of Emery. In those games, he's surrendered 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 3 and 2 goals, good for an excellent 1.71 goals against average.
And last night may have been Emery's best game to date. Against the hated Devils, a team that notoriously has given the Flyers fits over the years, Emery stopped 33 of 35 shots in a 3-2 Flyers victory, good for a .943 save percentage and first star of the game. And the second goal he gave up with just one second left on a mad scramble, making his night all the more impressive.
He, along with an inspired performance by Scott Hartnell, was the main reason the Flyers were able to top the Devils and snap their hated rival's 9-game road winning streak to begin the season, preventing New Jersey from tying Buffalo's record of 10 straight road victories to start a season. In the first period, especially early on, the Devils were dominating the play. They were outworking the Flyers and generating plenty more chances. But they couldn't find the back of the net, because Emery was on top of his game, smothering every shot, anticipating every play and flashing his quick glove routinely. No matter how great the scoring opportunity, the Devils couldn't get one by Emery. He was in one of those zones, seeing the puck almost before the shot was even taken. It was something to marvel.
With Emery holding down the fort, the Flyers struck first when Martin Brodeur made the first mistake, turning the puck over to Arron Asham, who flipped the puck to Claude Giroux, who in turn made a perfect backhand pass to Darroll Powe for the tick-tac-toe goal. On the other end, Emery stopped all 14 shots the Devils fired, and the Flyers never looked back.
Just 44 seconds into the 2nd, the Flyers made it 2-0 on a power play goal by Hartnell, who was creating chances and giving the Devils fits all night. It was perhaps the best all-around game I've seen Hartnell play as a Flyer, and that includes his two hat tricks from last year and anything else he's done.
Last season, Hartnell developed a terrible habit of committing untimely and stupid penalties, hurting the Flyers plenty of times by putting them a man down. Sometimes it was a lazy play, other times an undisciplined one. Either way, he committed far too many penalties for a player of his caliber, and it drove me mad. For all the good he did scoring goals and setting up Jeff Carter for his breakout season, he did plenty of stupid things to offset that. So far this season, he's cut down on those stupid mistakes, dumb penalties, and just gone out and played hockey. And last night was his best game yet. Not only did he stay out of the box and score a goal, but he sparked the Flyers in the first period when it was evident they were being outworked. He busted his tail all game long and played better than any other skater on the ice. And he created chance after chance, evident by his team-high 6 shots on net. It was nice to see him use that head buried beneath all that hair.
For good measure, rookie James van Riemsdyk, who's simply been superb so far, scored what turned out to be the game-winner in the 3rd, beating a distraught Brodeur. In a weird twist of fate, it was Brodeur left searching for answers and looking visibly upset, while the Flyers' netminder, Ray Emery, was calm, cool, collected and dominant last night. I could get used to that sight.
If the defense can continue its improved play — and you'd have to think they will with the addition of Chris Pronger — and Emery and Hartnell can remain consistent and play the way they did last night, this team certainly has a chance to do some great things. I'll admit it, I was wrong about Emery. Clearly, his banishment to Russia seems to have helped him mature and correct his ways, and he's playing like a motivated, talented goalie out to prove to the NHL that his early success in Ottawa was no fluke. So far, he's been razor sharp, and the Flyers just may have found the goaltender they've been searching for.