Friday, January 8, 2010

Coming Around the Bend

Yesterday, I asked if the Flyers were actually turning the corner or just benefitting from a soft schedule and came to the conclusion that last night's contest out in Pittsburgh would do a lot to determining just that. Well, if last night's 7-4 victory is any indication, the Flyers are finally rounding into form. Even with the Penguins slumping of late, it's no small task to go into Pittsburgh and defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions, especially when you are a Flyers team that has struggled with Sidney Crosby and his mates over the years.

No, the Flyers didn't play their best hockey last night. Actually, they were outshot 39-39, won 10 less faceoffs than the Pens and gave away the puck entirely too much in their own zone. You could say it was actually a sloppy performance by the Flyers, at least defensively. But the thing that was so great to see was how easily and quickly the Flyers lit the lamp. Scoring was supposed to be this team's modus operandi. Not another team in the league was supposed to boast as much scoring depth. However, the Flyers have struggled to score goals the majority of the season. Finally, they're starting to come out of that, and they emphatically stated their case as a high-powered offense last night, chasing Flyer killer Marc-Andre Fleury from the game after scoring four goals on their first 15 shots.

James van Riemsdyk followed up one of his best games of the season with an even better one, earning first star of the game status with two seemingly effortless breakaway goals that looked virtually identical. On the first, JVR got in behind the defense and was one-on-one with the athletic Fleury. He toyed with him so easily it wasn't even funny, dipping the shoulder, making the move and taking advantage of the exposed five-hole, sliding the puck with grace right through Fleury's legs. On his second, he used the same move, this time going from left to right instead of right to left, beating backup netminder Brent Johnson through the five-hole again. The nonchalantness of both goals made them all the more impressive. The kid can flat-out play. And score. And now he leads all NHL rookies in even-strength points. Not bad. Oh, and big props to Arron Asham as well. Both of Riemer's goals were assisted by Asham, and both of them were fantastic passes. The first, Asham won a battle/race on the boards and laid out a perfect pass to the middle of the ice to a wide open JVR, right in stride. On the second, Asham saw van Riemsdyk streaking behind the defense and sent a long stretch pass. It was deflected, but still got there, and JVR deposited it right between Johnson's legs. That line of Powe, Asham and JVR is quickly becoming my favorite on the team.

Though to be fair, all three lines produced quality scoring chance after quality scoring chance. Jeff Carter netted two more goals, Danny Briere added two more helpers and played a really spectacular all-around game, threading passing between defenders, taking hits to make plays and jumping all over the puck, and Mike Richards continued his resurgence, scoring a goal and adding an assist. Matt Carle fired an unstoppable shot and added two assists, and Chris Pronger had another multi-point night, scoring a goal and added a helper. In all, 11 Flyers registered at least one point, including Oskars Bartulis (assist), Simon Gagne (assist), Darroll Powe (2 assists) and Kimmo Timonen (assist). And truth be told, the Flyers should have had another goal, as Simon Gagne clearly scored shorthanded, only the officials didn't see it because there wasn't one in even close to a good position to see it, and the war room screwed it up big time.

That, my friends, is clearly a goal. Yet it wasn't, because the officiating sucked last night. Now, I'm not one to routinely call out officiating on this blog, though I do like to complain about it incessantly when I see it as I'm watching. But last night the Flyers were getting shafted so often — not in penalty calls, but in other ways. Let me explain. For starters, that was just atrocious officiating on Gagne's goal/no goal. The thing was in the net. There is no disputing this. Maybe there wasn't a great camera angle, but the laws of physics, plus the replays of Johnson shoveling the puck from out of the net as his entire body is in there, prove it was a goal. And the ref should have been in position to see it anyway. Awful.

Also, later in the game, Jeff Carter had a clear breakaway. He was called offsides. He was not offsides. It wasn't even that close. His back skate was clearly behind the blue line as he received the puck. Replays confirmed this. He was onside. The refs blew it dead and took away a clear breakaway for Carter, one of the best goal-scorers on the team. It was bogus.

Third, there were at least three occasions where Evgeni Malkin jumped into the circle on faceoffs. At least three. Not a single time did the linesman toss Sidney Crosby from the faceoff circle. Not once. Over the past few seasons, that has been a point of emphasis for linesmen, tossing centers when their team commits an infraction before the puck is dropped. It's become a routine call. Hell, linesmen normally annoy me to no end by tossing guys for much less, way too often. But because it was Malkin and Crosby, nothing. Just a simple whistle telling the players to get back in place, no one tossed. Did I mention this happened at least three times? That's a big deal, believe it or not. Each time, the Flyers were in their defensive zone. The Flyers are not good at winning faceoffs. Sidney Crosby is one of the best in the game. Getting him tossed is huge for Philadelphia. But he never was, even when Malkin was clearly violating the rules. Call me a nit-picker if you'd like, but I'm a faceoff snob. That was bullshit.

To be fair though, I think the officials did do a good job calling penalties evenly and fairly. But they still made some blatantly horrible mistakes.

As did the Flyers on defense. Good Lord. Part of the reason the Flyers acquired Chris Pronger was specifically to deal with Sidney Crosby. Mission failed. Crosby netted two more goals last night, and I'm pretty sure it's safe to say he is officially the greatest player against the Flyers off all time. The guy just kills Philadelphia. Every damn game. Last night was no exception. Every time his line stepped on the ice, I feared for the Flyers' lead. It's not even that I'm not stunned when Crosby scores against the Flyers, I expect him to score … a lot. He's incredible. And kudos to Dan Bylsma for getting the Crosby-Malkin-Guerin trio on the ice routinely when rookie defenseman Danny Syvret was on the ice. As good as Syvret played the night before, he played equally as awful last night. He looked completely overmatched, overwhelmed and awful. Crosby threw him down with ease on one shift, and Syvret never recovered. He looked like a lost puppy out there, and he made some killer turnovers.

Actually, all of the Flyers did on defense. They must have given the puck away in their own zone nearly a dozen times in the first period alone. They were terrible with the puck. Just terrible. They certainly weren't doing Michael Leighton any favors. Yet Leighton did plenty of favors to bail out his defense. While giving up four goals may not sound all that great, Leighton was fantastic last night. He made some truly spectacular stops, game-saving saves and prevented the Penguins from ever getting closer than within two after the Flyers took a 4-2 lead. Sure, he gave up some rebounds and lost track of the puck on a few occasions, but he really came up with some dandies that kept the Pens at bay.

In all he stopped 35 of the 39 shots he faced and continued his excellent play since becoming a Flyer. With the word that Ray Emery may rejoin the Flyers as early as tomorrow, ti creates an interesting scenario for the Flyers. Who is the odd man out? Right now, you'd have to say it's Brian Boucher. Leighton has played so well that the Flyers have no choice but to keep rolling with him. And Emery was signed to be the man in net, and before he was ailing, played really well to start the season. Hence, the man in the mask who may be left in the cold is Boucher. Either way, it's a nice problem to have. Though having, say, a clear-cut, top-flight goaltender would be even better. Either way, Leighton has been playing like one of late. And last night, he was a key reason the Flyers were able to top the Penguins and continued coming around the bend.

BallHype: hype it up!

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