Wednesday, January 20, 2010

60 Percent of the Time, He's Awesome Every Time

Jeff Carter is a very good hockey player. Last year, he had a breakout season, scoring 46 goals, becoming an All-Star and growing into a very good penalty killer to boot. When he's on his game, he can be downright awesome. But there have been times over the past two seasons, early in this one especially, where Carter seems timid, disinterested or just plain off. Almost underachieving to a degree.

That was actually the book on Carter heading into the 2007-08 season. In his 2005-06 rookie campaign, Carter showed a ton of promise, scoring 23 goals, including six on the power play and two short-handed, and notching 19 assists all while finishing as a +10. He was part of a young Flyers core that had come up through the ranks together — Carter, Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger, Scottie Upshall — winning a Calder Cup with the Phantoms and bursting onto the scene. But then, in the Flyers' disastrous 2006-07 campaign, Carter epitomized the team's struggles. In 62 games, he finished with 14 goals and 23 assists, only five points less than in his rookie season in far fewer games, but he was also a -17 and failed to take the next logical step for a player who displayed so much talent.

And that carried over into 2007-08, the year the Flyers rebounded and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. Early in the year, Richards regained his form and carried a club with the help of some key additions: Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul, to name a few. The Flyers looked like the real deal, but Carter was cast more in the background than to the forefront, as the Flyers had expected. That is, until Mike Richards went down to injury late in the season. Then, suddenly, Carter turned into the best player on the team, taking his game to a new level. He won faceoffs, scored big goals, helped defend the opposition's top line and basically did everything the Flyers were asking of Mike Richards at the time. Jeff Carter became a bona fide NHL star-in-the-making.

After the season was over, the Flyers had to make a choice between keeping Carter or Umberger, who had a phenomenal playoff run but had been in and out of then-coach John Stevens' doghouse all season long. Really, if you looked at the season as a whole and at what Carter had done in Richards' absence, it was a no-brainer. The Flyers had to keep Carter, and they did. He validated that with a tremendous 2008-09 season … but at times, Carter didn't look like the same player who was without question a man on a mission the year before. He shied away from contact, cruised through some games and really faltered down the stretch with the rest of the Flyers. Sure, he had an excellent season and scored a ton of goals, but he didn't look as determined on a nightly basis as he did in that late run the year before. Some nights, he looked like the best player on the ice, no matter the opponent. Others, he was arguably the worst skater out there. Again, he sort of epitomized the Flyers last season: up and down, inconsistent.

Admittedly, even during the Flyers' struggles this year, Carter has been really good more times than not. Often, he's been the Flyers' best player. But I still haven't really seen the same guy from two seasons ago, the guy who would completely dominate a game from start to finish, both offensively and defensively. The guy who almost singlehandedly held the Flyers together before Richards returned and the team made an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference finals. That is, until last night.

Against the Blue Jackets with his old buddy R.J. Umberger in town, Carter turned his game up to another level. He was all over the place. Each time he stepped on the ice, he stood out. He made plays. He dominated. It was on par with watching the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, any of the game's greats. When they step on the ice, they just stand out above the rest. Carter has shown flashes of that before, but never was it more noticeable than last night. And he wasted no time to announce he was ready to play.

Just 58 seconds in, on his first shift of the game, Carter stole the puck away from a group of three Blue Jackets, darted behind them and buried a nasty backhander to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead.

From there, all he did was play his best hockey of the season and stand out as the best player on the ice each and every shift. Every time he was on the ice, something good happened for the Flyers. He created scoring chances, scored two goals, added an assist and caused Columbus all sorts of problems. But even more impressively, the thing that made this performance stand out above the rest was the fact that Jeff Carter, notoriously a player who has shied away from the rough stuff, from the physical play, was laying hits, jumping into scrums and showing a mean streak many Flyers fans weren't sure he even had. He played with an edge. He played with a swagger. And he played his best hockey in two years … and that includes last season.

It was more reminiscent of the guy who carried the load when Richards was injured two seasons ago. He was doing the dirty work, sticking up for himself. He looked determined, relentless, angry even. If he can find a way to play that way every night, this Flyers team becomes that much better. If he can truly add that physical, almost mean component to his game and go out with that same intensity on a nightly basis — the way the Ovechkins and Crosbys and even Richards do — then we have on our hands a star and a team that can do some serious damage. Carter was doing everything last night — winning faceoffs, throwing checks, scoring goals. Hell, he even broke out an Eric Lindros staple, shooting the puck right off a faceoff to score his second goal.

Now all he has to do is find a way to play like that, with that same intensity, desire and mean streak, every single night, instead of just doing it some of the time. Because that Jeff Carter is an unstoppable force, the kind of player the Flyers expect him to be, and the kind of player that can transform a mediocre team fighting for a playoff spot to a team that can do some serious damage in the postseason.

Last night was a good start. Now all he has to do is keep it up, night in and night out.

A few more notes from last night …

-How much motivation is it for R.J. Umberger taking on his former team? He was one of the lone bright spots for Columbus last night, scoring their first two goals and almost netting a hat trick. It kind of makes you long for the days before the salary cap, when the Flyers wouldn't have blinked twice about spending the money to keep him and Carter.

-Claude Giroux is just filthy. His blind, backhanded pass right to Arron Asham's tape on Asham's goal was just ridiculous. Human beings shouldn't be able to do that. Makes sense, because I'm pretty sure Claude isn't human. It's nice to have him on a line with Richards and Gagne, but as he showed last night, he's much more comfortable and capable as a center. Flipping him and Powe is a seamless transition. Powe fits well with his aggressive forechecking on the Richards-Gagne line, and with Claude centering JVR and Asham, he's bound to wrack up the assists, as his great playmaking skills come to the forefront more from the center position.

-Danny Carcillo is good. Real good. I know many a Flyers fan was upset when Paul Holmgren traded Scottie Upshall for Daniel Carcillo, myself included, but I have to tell you, that deal is turning out quite nicely for the Flyers. Yes, Carcillo can at times fly off the handle and do something crazy, but he has been, for the most part, awesome for the Flyers. This season, he's done much more to draw penalties than to put the Flyers shorthanded, does a great job as an enforcer/agitator, quickly has won the fans over and shown some incredible skill. It's why some people compared his talent to the likes of Milan Lucic as the two were coming up. And here's the thing … as much as I and damn near every fan loved Scottie Upshall and the energy he brought, Daniel Carcillo may actually be a more skilled, more complete, better player.

I know that sounds weird, because when you think Upshall, you think speed and skill, and when you think Carcillo, you think, to an extent, goon. But I watched Scottie Upshall damn near every game he played as a Flyer. He was good, aggressive, fast and made plays. But he wasn't the most skilled player in the world, and believe it or not, he took his fair share of dumb penalties too. Now I've watched damn near every game Carcillo has played as a Flyer, and I have to say, while nowhere near as fast, Carcillo has a much better shot, many more offensive moves and just as good if not better vision on the ice than Upshall did. Basically, he's more skilled … plus bigger, stronger and able to throw down. This is not to put down Upshall in any way. I loved that guy and was sad to see him go. But Carcillo is the better player. He just is. And he's fitting in just fine here in Philadelphia. Well done, Holmgren.

-Seriously, Jeff Carter needs to play like that every night. He was amazing last night.

BallHype: hype it up!

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