Thursday, December 31, 2009

Connect Four

Don't look now, but the suddenly streaking Flyers have won four games in a row, all on the road, after last night's 6-0 beatdown of the Rangers in the Garden, jumping all the way from 14th place a mere week ago to 8th in the Eastern Conference. Finally, this team is starting to resemble the one from the first few weeks of the season, the one we all expected to see.

Ten days ago, the Flyers started out so flat against the Rangers at home that Peter Laviolette took a timeout in the first minutes. The Flyers responded, dominating the rest of the way, but they still lost 2-1. Clearly, Philadelphia remembered that and wasn't going to allow that to happen again. Just 54 seconds in, Blair Betts scored his fourth goal of the season to put the Flyers on the board, driving hard to the net and banging home a rebound off an Ian Laperriere shot. It was a message sent loud and clear by the former Ranger Betts and his teammates: No more fucking around. Time to play some hockey.

From there it was all Flyers. Danny Briere and Claude Giroux made it 3-0 before the first 15 minutes had even been played. And it was all Flyers the entire way. They outshot the Rangers 11-5 in the opening period, chasing Henrik Lundqvist from the game. Then they ousthot the Rangers 18-5 in the second, lighting the lamp twice more, both goals coming from Simon Gagne. And while the Rangers did finally muster up some shots in the 3rd, oushooting the Flyers 12-2 in the final 20 minutes, the play never really tilted in their favor. In fact, even though the Flyers didn't even get a shot a goal for the first 8 minutes and 30 seconds of the third period, they still outscored the Rangers 1-0, because on that first shot of the final period for Philadelphia, Gagne scored, his third straight goal, good for the natural hat trick.

It was a good, old-fashioned beatdown and clearly a statement game for the Flyers. Yes, they've gone on this four-game winning streak by beating the Lightning (11th in the East), Carolina (15th), the Islanders (13th) and last night the Rangers (10th), not exactly the cream of the crop, but the most important thing is the Flyers have played incredibly well in all those games, with the exception of letting the Canes back into it. And last night was the best of the bunch. They put together three solid periods of hockey, and most importantly, they found a way to score goals. A lot of them.

The Flyers got superb contributions from all four lines, with three of them scoring goals and all of them playing hounding defense. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter continued their awakening, each dishing out two assists. Danny Briere had a beauty of a goal, waiting out Lundqvist by deking about 15 times before stuffing the puck home, and added an assist. Claude Giroux scored the third goal of the game and assisted on the last one, firing a picture-perfect pass to Gagne all alone. And Simon, well, what a difference this guy makes. At times, it's easy to forget just how damn good Simon Gagne really is. He's been here so long that we probably don't appreciate him as much as we should. To be fair, his time missed due to injury over the years hasn't helped, but when he's healthy and on the ice, there aren't many forwards in the league with more complete games than Simon Gagne. He's a tremendously underrated defensive player, backchecking with the best of them, and his scoring touch is something to marvel. Since he's returned, he's played incredibly well, and he's helped raised the game of a previously slumping Richards. And last night against the division rival Rangers, who were two points ahead of the Flyers heading into the game, all he did was post a natural hat trick to kill any hopes of the Rangers showing life. Oh, and he assisted on Giroux's goal for good measure. Let us never take for granted just how good Simon Gagne is, no matter how many times he gets hurt.

But offense wasn't the whole story. No. The Flyers played smothering defense last night too. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the Flyers completely dominated the puck, putting forth the relentless, aggressive forecheck that Laviolette expects form his players. All four lines were playing the majority of the game in the Rangers' zone. Richards-Gagne-Giroux scored four of the six goals and were running circles around the Rangers. Carter-Hartnell-Briere probably supplied the most sustained chances, Betts-Laperriere-Carcillo continued to be one of the most hard-working lines in hockey, and Powe-van Riemsdyk-Asham pounded the Rangers, working the cycle offensively and applying the forecheck with reckless abandon. If ever there was a player made for Laviolette's aggressive forecheck system, it's Darroll Powe. His impact on this new system has been evident. It's not a coincidence that this four-game winning streak has coincided with his return.

And all four of those lines backchecked like hell to keep the Rangers at bay. Add in the countless blocked shots by the Flyers, led by Kimmo Timonen, and it was total domination. Laviolette reunited Tiimonen and Coburn, and that duo was brilliant, highlighted by Coburn's save as Leighton was wiped out in the corner thanks to a collision with Hartnell. Pronger and Carle looked exactly like they did at the beginning of the season, which is to say a frontline, shutdown duo with some scoring punch. And Oskars Bartulis played perhaps his best game of the season, visibly stepping up his came to cover up the rookie mistakes of Danny Syvret with Ryan Parent on the shelf.

Then of course, there was Michael Leighton. Yes, the Flyers limited the Rangers to just 22 shots. And yes, Leighton had only faced 10 shots through two periods (5 in each). But when called upon to make a big save, Leighton did just that. He stopped all 22 pucks fired his way, and he made a couple of real dandies. Like sliding across to thwart a rebound attempt and gloving down a dangerous bid from the NHL's leading goal scorer, Marian Gaborik.

Photo courtesy of Enrico

In these last four games, Leighton has surrendered just six goals. For all you math wizards out there, that's a 1.50 goals against average. Pretty damn good. And not too shabby for a guy who was playing so horribly for the worst team in the conference that he was waived. Admittedly, I wasn't expecting much from Leighton. I watched him play a few times with Carolina, and to be perfectly frank, he sucked. A lot. He always looked out of position and frantic back there, and his terrible numbers (over 4.00 gaa) told the story. When he took over against Florida after Brian Boucher injured himself making a save, he looked like the same goaltender: out of position, frantic, out of place. Truth be told, I thought he looked that way at times against Tampa Bay too. But after the Flyers won, and then won again, you could see his confidence grow and you could see exactly why Leighton is in the NHL. He's a big body, sure, but he's also lightning quick from post to post. He displayed that a few times last night. And with the Flyers clearing everything in front of him and getting to just about every rebound that had been eluding them prior to this win streak, Leighton has looked more and more like a capable netminder. So much so that no one would be surprised if the Flyers decided to change their mind and start Michael Leighton tomorrow (or Saturday or whenever the weather permits) in the winter classic over Boucher, who is slated to come back and start. It's been a nice turnaround for Leighton, and when Ray Emery returns, the trio of Leighton, Emery and Boucher may afford Philadelphia some nice trade bait.

One thing's for sure. It's nice to have him right now, and it's even better having the full complement of forwards in front of him. Oh, and winning four in a row is pretty nice too, especially when the fourth is a 6-0 whooping of the Rangers, with the ex-Ranger Betts scoring what amounted to the game-winner.

BallHype: hype it up!

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