Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Goaltending Like It's 2000 and Bombs Away

If there's been one overriding concern about the Flyers goaltending situation since Michael Leighton established himself as the No. 1, it's what the heck happens if he goes down? Leighton has played so well that Peter Laviolette has been loathe to take him out of the net, even for just one night, meaning backup goaltender Brian Boucher has been glued to the bench. How can you expect a guy to play when he never sees the ice?

Well, we're about to find out. At least for a little while. In the Flyers' 4-3 shootout loss in Nashville last night, Leighton went down with a high ankle sprain in the first period. That's not exactly a great injury for a goaltender to have. As we all know, high ankle sprains are tricky injuries — they can heal in a week or nag for months. Considering a goalie has to be on his feet often and push off to go post to post, you have to think a high ankle sprain is a pretty big deal. Skating puts a lot of pressure of your ankles with stopping and turning and pushing off, and I would think that becomes intensified for goaltenders. Who knows how well Leighton will recover? There's a chance he won't be able to get back to form.

That means Brian Boucher, a guy who has played in just 20 games this season and started only 14 — and none in a long while — will be vital here down the stretch. Whether or not he is forced between the pipes only temporarily or not, it's evident Bouch will need to play much, much more than he has of late. With an injury like this, Leighton will need time to heal and may need some days off even when he returns. Now more than ever, the Flyers need Brian Boucher to recapture that magic from 2000.

Remember that? I sure do. Sure, it was a decade ago and I was only 15 going on 16, but I remember it like it was yesterday. A 23-year-old Boucher took the reigns from remarkable free agent bust John Vanbiesbrouck (an aside, Bieser spent his entire career killing the Flyers: he was awesome against them when he was in Florida and terrible for them when he came to Philadelphia) down the stretch, starting 33 games in all during the regular season and posting a truly awesome 1.91 goals against average with a .918 save percentage and four shutouts. He led the Flyers all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals against the hated New Jersey Devils, where he made this save:

I was there at the Meadowlands to witness it live. Sadly, we all know how it ended, but it was through no fault of Boucher. He was incredible all season long and continued that success in playoffs. Unfortunately, he never could reclaim that magic and has bounced around the NHL since. Ten years later, the Flyers need Brian Boucher to step up again. Now 33, he can draw on a bevy of experience to help the Flyers along during this important stretch run before the playoffs, but the question is can he? He had a very solid year last season in San Jose, playing the role of spot starter behind Evgeni Nabokov, posting a 2.18 goals against average and .917 save percentage in 22 games, 20 of those starts. That's proof he can still be effective in stretches.

This season, however, hasn't been quite what he or the Flyers envisioned. Boucher was brought in to be the backup with Ray Emery and expected to fill the role he did so admirably in San Jose. When Emery got hurt, Bouch played pretty well in a couple games before he himself got injured. Enter Michael Leighton, and ice time has been hard to find. And when he has gotten it, he hasn't exactly instilled the most confidence. His numbers are very pedestrian: 2.77 goals against average, .899 save percentage.

The good news for the Flyers is Boucher has had success in this form before. It first came a decade ago, and then he did a similar job last season, albeit it to a much lesser extent. Now he'll have the chance to get a little playing time, to get a little more comfortable and shake off some of that rust. Hopefully he can do what he did last season and hold down the fort. And who knows, maybe he has a little magic left. Regardless, it's time for Boucher to step up. Michael Leighton already has. Now it's Bouch's turn, at least for a little while.

He performed admirably last night. After giving up a goal on the first shot he saw, which was really another defensive breakdown, not his fault, he stopped the next 24 shots he faced.

Unfortunately, his teammates couldn't lift him to a victory. Despite dominating the majority of the game, outshooting Nashville 45-30, the Flyers needed another furious third-period comeback just to send this thing to overtime. Thanks to sloppy defensive play yet again, the Flyers broke down and let up three goals in the first period. Not good. What is good is that Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne continued to be red hot, and Chris Pronger is showing exactly why the Flyers traded a lot of talent for him.

Not only is he eating up ice time like a machine, he's leading the Flyers in +/- at +22. He's bringing some much needed discipline and leadership this team that lacked that last season. And lately, he's been incredibly clutch. Last night, he snuck in on the power play and scored his 10th goal of the season to tie the game with less than six minutes remaining in regulation. It was Pronger's 50th point of the season, courtesy of a great feed by Richards. It may become something of an annoyance in a few years when Pronger is an old man and Luca Sbisa, Joffrey Lupul and those draft picks are still young and talented, but right now, Chris Pronger is living up to every expectation. If only the Flyers could say the same on the season. Still, they managed a point last night and sit in 7th with 77 points, just two points out of 5th and games in hand.

After the Flyers game, yes, I did tune in to the NIT to watch UNC take on William & Mary. The Tar Heels did manage to win 80-72 to avoid even further embarrassment in an already embarrassing season, thanks in large part to Deon Thompson's monster game (20 points on 9-13 shooting, 8 boards, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block) and Tyler Zeller's efficient 13 points on 5-6 shooting, not to mention two huge steals and slams to seal the victory.

But forget all that. I want to talk about William & Mary. Taking a look at this team, it was hard to believe they are a serious Division I men's basketball squad. The Tribe looks more like a bunch of guys you'd see running pickup games at the gym or local playground, if not a taller version. Not that William & Mary was a tall team, especially in comparison to UNC.

To make the pickup game comparison even more complete, being the smaller, less athletic team, William & Mary employed the same technique smaller, less athletic pickup teams have employed since the dawn of time: Bomb away. And bomb away William & Mary did. Of their 62 shots last night, an astounding 43 of them were from beyond the arc. That's the exact same strategy Arkansas Fred and I used to employ at the IM Building at Penn State, the same strategy silver fox and I have been using since high school. Gotta play with 1's and 2's so we can bomb away and stand a chance. All 1's and we're screwed.

Well, that's what it was like for William & Mary last night. If they were going down, they were going down gunning. So they just kept shooting and shooting and shooting from deep, and it almost worked. William & Mary led late and stayed close until the end, before Goliath eventually squashed David.

But man oh man did W&M senior guard David Schneider put on a show.

The guy scored a game-high 21 points, with 8 assists and 5 rebounds. But more importantly, he kept William & Mary in it with his hot shooting. Schneider took 15 three-pointers, more than anyone, and made 7 of them. And down the stretch with the game tight, he couldn't miss. I thought he would carry W&M to the upset, he was so scorching hot. It was a remarkable performance, something to truly marvel.

It was like watching that one kid on the court that you know you can't leave open. If he can get his shot off, it's going in. That was Schneider in the second half last night, bringing a smile to the small, unathletic pickup players everywhere. And best of all, he did it while still allowing the Tar Heels to win. Well, best of all for me anyway. Not so much for him.

BallHype: hype it up!

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