Friday, January 29, 2010

The Inexcusable

A 3-1 lead with 20 minutes to play turned into a 4-3 loss, no overtime necessary. That's what happened last night at the Wachovia Center, and it's an inexcusable loss at this point in the season. The Flyers, after falling behind 1-0 due to the insane speed of Evander Kane and a complete lack of coverage in front of the net — not to mention an indefensibly horrible missed open net by Scott Hartnell — rallied in the second period, completely dominating, especially my favorite Flyer of them all, Claude Giroux, who scored the first goal on a ridiculously awesome individual sequence.

Minutes later, he found himself on a 2-on-1 with Arron Asham, fed him a perfect pass and Asham buried it to give the Flyers the lead. In a matter of a few shifts, Giroux's brilliance led the Flyers back to take the lead, and he was looking like the hero of the night. Everything was on about his game. Everything. In the opening period, he showcased his immense skill as well with an absurd toe drag into a shot that Johan Hedberg somehow saved. It was Claude's night. That much was clear.

Though the birthday boy wasn't about to be left out. Yesterday was Dan Carcillo's 25th birthday, and the fan favorite did not disappoint. No, he didn't drop the gloves or even lay a big open-ice hit. Instead, he just continued his transformation from goon to goal scorer, netting his seventh of the year on sheer hustle and determination. Ian Laperriere threw the puck toward the net as Carcillo was driving hard toward Hedberg. The birthday boy beat the goaltender and defender to the puck, poked it up and into the net. 3-1 Flyers, one period left to play. Things were looking good. The Flyers hadn't lost all season in regulation when leading after 2. They had owned the Thrashers in their history and had only lost once ever at home against Atlanta in regulation. With a two-goal lead and a strong defense, this was two points in the bag.

Then someone stole the bag … or the Flyers gave it away. Not sure which is more appropriate. It began with a lackadaisical effort off a defensive zone draw just 29 seconds into the final period. Mike Richards won the faceoff back to Matt Carle, but Carle couldn't control. The puck found its way right to Ilya Kovalchuk's stick, all alone with a down and out Ray Emery. Kovalchuk buries that 100 times out of 100, no matter who's in net. 3-2. Here's the problem I have with the play — why wasn't Blair Betts out there to take that faceoff? I know Mike Richards won it, and won it fairly cleanly, but he also didn't do Carle or Emery any favors by drawing it back toward the goal. He should have pulled it back the opposite way, clear from harm's way. Plus, Richards is an OK faceoff guy, but he's certainly not the team's best. Hell he's not even the second best. Check out the numbers. Blair Betts is the best faceoff guy for the Flyers, winning 53.2 percent, and Jeff Carter is second at 51.6. Richards is at 50.5 percent.

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Faceoffs are extremely important. That's why I urged the Flyers to go out and get a dominate guy in the faceoff circle this offseason. They didn't get anyone on my list, but they did get Betts, who is very good at it.

With a two-goal lead and just 20 minutes left to play — and some extremely important points on the line in a jam-packed Eastern Conference — it's absolutely necessary to win defensive zone draws. Back when Ken Hitchcock was coach, he used to send Keith Primeau out for every single defensive zone draw in the final period of important games, especially with a lead, because Primeau was the team's best faceoff guy. As a result, the Flyers rarely lost those draws and rarely blew leads. Peter Laviolette should be doing the same thing, and in a game like last night's, with vital points on the line, he should have had Betts out there to take every defensive zone draw in the third period. Regardless, it was a poor job by Carle mixed with some bad luck, having the puck go right to Kovalchuk. It also didn't help that Simon Gagne didn't take Ilya out of the play, like he's supposed to. All around piss-poor job.

But the goal to tie it was exponentially worse. With a one-goal lead in the final period, it's a mortal sin for a defenseman to let a player leak behind him. Yet there we were, just a few minutes after Kovalchuk made it a 3-2 game, with Oskars Bartulis and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen allowing Rich Peverley to sneak between and behind both of them. Caught off-guard, Pavel Kubina sent a ridiculous outlet pass from his own zone right to the tape of Peverley, springing him for the breakaway, and Peverley made no mistake, beating Emery five-hole. Honestly, it was one of the greatest outlet passes I've ever seen a defenseman make. And that's coming from a guy who gets to watch Chris Pronger spring transition plays with tremendous outlets every game. Kubina's was the best I've seen since Eric Lindros threw a pop fly to Kevin Haller at the opposition's blue line.

Great pass, but horrific coverage and awareness by Bartulis and Tollefsen. It was so egregious that I would honestly healthy scratch one of them the next game. Well, I would if Danny Syvret and Ryan Parent weren't still hurt. That's how bad of a breakdown that was. And I wouldn't mind Emery coming up with a big save there. Now, in all fairness, that goal — in fact every goal — was not Emery's fault. He was left out to dry on a breakaway. But my roommate said it best … when was the last time Emery came up with a huge, absurd, game-changing save? When's the last time he stopped a breakaway? When's the last time the Flyers have had a goaltender that can stand on his head any given night? Sure, there have been isolated games for Flyers goalies over the years in which they stole a victory here or there. Brian Boucher had a great run as a rookie. Robert Esche had his good days. Roman Chechmanek too (in the regular season, dude SUCKED in the playoffs). Even Marty Biron and Antero Niittymaki had great moments. But when's the last time the Flyers have had a goalie that you can expect to win you some games, expect to make some outstanding, ridiculous saves he has no business making? It's been a while. A long while. As in a young Ron Hextall while. That's a problem. Now I'm not saying Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo or Ryan Miller would have made that save on Peverley last night. But you almost would have expected them to, expected them to keep their teams on top with an awesome save when they needed it most. With Emery, I didn't have that feeling, and honestly, I haven't had that feeling with a Flyers goaltender in a long, long while. That's extremely irritating.

But not as irritating as watching the Flyers completely self-destruct in the third period. After scoring three unanswered in the 2nd period themselves, they allowed three unanswered by Atlanta. And the most maddening part is that the man who was the hero heading into the third turned into the goat by game's end. Claude made a few brilliant plays in the first two periods. Then in the third, he turned the puck over at Atlanta's blue line, leading to a breakout by the blazing fast Evander Kane, who then recreated the exact same score from the first period, using his ridiculous speed to race around the defense, around the net and feed the puck out front to — you guessed it — a wide-open Jim Slater to bang it home and put the Flyers away. I mean, it was an exact replica of the first goal:

Notice how no one covered Slater yet again, showing the Flyers had not learned their lesson whatsoever. And notice Giroux, trying to make up for his deadly turnover, getting out of position and weakly trying to lay down in front the passing lane … instead of marking Slater or Colby Armstrong like he's supposed to. It certainly didn't help that Matt Carle skated right into Emery, taking him out of the play, and then couldn't recover to get back in position and nullify Slater either. Again, all around terrible play.

As a result, the Flyers went from distancing themselves a little bit from the bottom playoff half stack, pulling to 57 points and closing in on fifth-place Ottawa, to dropping down to 7th, as the Thrashers leaped Philadelphia to take hold of the 6th spot. Pathetic. Completely and utterly pathetic. And inexcusable. In such a tight race and just 30 games remaining, you can't afford to piss away points. But that's exactly what the Flyers did last night. It was disgraceful, and every single player on that ice should be ashamed of themselves.

BallHype: hype it up!

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