Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Something About Lavvy

So I'm watching the Flyers the last night, and after about the first four minutes, when the Flyers were controlling play, the lowly Islanders started taking it to the Flyers. The same Islanders that have fallen all the way down to 14th in the East, their 60 points only better than Toronto's 54 in the conference. The same Islanders that had lost the last 14 times to the Flyers. The same Islanders that are thin on the blue line and prone to mistakes. Your father's Islanders, these are not.

Yet there the Flyers were, playing to keep their hold on the sixth seed, getting outworked, outhustled, outplayed by the sad-sack Islanders. Somehow, some way a team whose playoff hopes are a long shot at best clearly wanted it more than the Flyers. New York went up 1-0 in the first on a rebound stuff back by rookie John Tavares, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft. Michael Leighton made the initial stop, but then had absolutely no idea where the puck was — hardly a new occurrence by the Flyers netminder despite his good play. Turns out, the puck squirted through his legs and was sitting right up against the post. No one picked up Tavares, which is just insane considering all the hype the youngster has received — even with his late-season slump — and Tavares calmly put in in the empty net. Sloppy coverage, sloppy play, no desire.

This thing was getting ugly. Really ugly. When Kyle Okposo ripped one by Leighton midway through the second to put the Isles up 2-0, I grew disgusted. Completely and utterly disgusted. I quickly turned over to the Sixers game to catch the score … but there was no relief there. Watching a Pacers-Sixers game these days is more painful than this:

So I flipped almost immediately back to the Flyers, despite the fact you could just sense the Islanders wanted this one more. I was ready to go on a diatribe about how pathetic this team is to drop a game at home against an opponent like this just nights after a lackluster effort against Toronto, overtime loss to Buffalo on two god-awful giveaways/misplays, and an embarrassment of a loss against the Panthers, who have just four more points than the Islanders. Chris Pronger looked out of sorts, committing some uncharacteristically terrible turnovers. No one could connect on a pass. And the Islanders seemingly got to every loose puck. Flat doesn't even really begin to describe the way the Flyers were playing.

Then, about a minute and half after Okposo put the Islanders up 2-0, Jeff Carter answered. Danny Briere continued his great play of late, setting up in his office behind the net and finding Carter, who ripped a quick shot by Dwayne Roloson. With that, the Flyers suddenly had life. It took them a while, but that goal seemed to really wake them up. Mike Richards was all over the place, like he's been since getting back from Vancouver. Even injuries to Lukas Krajicek, James van Riemsdyk and Dan Carcillo, all of whom returned, that messed up line combinations and defense pairs couldn't slow Philadelphia down. It was as if you could see the light go on and the Flyers collectively say, "Enough of this shit. Time to win."

Last year, when the team stumbled down the stretch and gave away home ice advantage to the eventual Stanley Cup champs, this is the type of game the Flyers would lose. Come out sluggish against an inferior opponent and fail to fight back. It happened all too often in the final months. But this isn't 2009 anymore, and the Flyers don't want to take anything for granted the way they did last season. So they stepped it up a notch and completely took over.

Claude Giroux worked his magic to tie the game off a great feed by Richards on the power play, and suddenly the ice that was tilted in New York's favor early on was reversed to an absurd level.

The defense sured itself up, cutting down the turnovers. The forwards upped the ante on the forecheck, going in with aggression every shift. And the d-men didn't hesitate to jump in the play. It was a full on blitz, and it was only a matter of time before the Flyers would strike. Then, with 7:28 remaining, Scott Hartnell got creamed by Trevor Gillies late, earning a boarding. On the ensuing power play, Simon Gagne continued his renaissance, netting the game-winner on shot that deflected off Mark Streit's stick and past Roloson.

The Flyers held on … and even more impressively, did it without taking any stupid penalties. That's been one of the more quiet recurring themes for this team this year. Almost every game it feels, the Flyers found themselves taking a costly penalty late the game, whether they're trying to protect a lead, locked in a stalemate or trying to pull off a comeback. But that didn't happen last night, and the Flyers defeated the Islanders for the 15th straight time.

More importantly, the Flyers found a way to win a game that had all the makings of a disappointment. The Flyers came out sluggish and were getting completely outplayed. But then they looked themselves in the mirror and did what their coach has asked them to do: be aggressive. That's basically where the difference occurred. Peter Laviolette wants his players to go full speed at all times, to forecheck as hard as they possibly can, to jump into the play and never stop skating. He demands it. And his demeanor has been rubbing off on this team of late.

It's something John Stevens could never do. He never showed any emotion, never showed any fire, and the players took suit. They weren't demanded to work as hard as Laviolette clearly makes them work. The players weren't held as accountable. Last year, all we heard from the Flyers down the stretch was that it was one game, one loss, one bad stretch, no big deal. They'll be able to turn it on come playoff time. But they never could. The losing was a big deal. The slump was much bigger than they would admit. And never did Stevens come out an make his players accountable for that. Laviolette does.

You can see him on the bench actually coaching his players, sometimes scolding them, other times encouraging them. Last night, the announcers relayed the story that Laviolette makes his players do extra skates when someone takes a dumb penalty and an inopportune time. He makes consequences for players' actions. And this team that seemed to lack the desire in 2009 is suddenly starting to take pride in the way it plays. When a player makes a mistake, when guys don't look like they're competing hard enough, someone steps up, someone speaks up, someone takes responsibility for their actions. It's refreshing to see.

Certainly this team is still too inconsistent for anyone's liking. While they have been hot since the calendar flipped to 2010, they've had some lulls and dry spots. But unlike last season, the Flyers look more like a team that learns from its errors, picks up its play when they need to. They aren't stringing together losses any longer. They aren't brushing off bad play as just an off night. They're gelling and making a strong second-half push. That's what last night's game showed me. That they know when they're playing bad, and they won't stand for it. Not this time around. So when they're looking flat, they'll find a way to correct it.

Look no further than the captain for that. Maybe he needed more time to mature into the role. Maybe he needed the Olympic experience to refresh him. Maybe he needed a guy like Laviolette to push him. Who knows? What we do know is Richards is looking like the captain everyone wants and expects him to be. He's been on a tear since Vancouver, and last night, despite registering just one point, he was the best Flyer on the ice. It was his line that really got things going again. And with a rejuvenated captain in tow, the veteran snipers are picking up their play. Simon Gagne and Danny Briere are scoring at an alarming rate, and at the same time, Richards and Jeff Carter are carrying the club. With the never-ending talents of Claude Giroux flanking the third line with Arron Asham and the rookie JVR, and Blair Betts, Darroll Powe and Ian Lapperriere providing energy and awesome defense, things are starting to round into form.

Who knows what the rest of the season has in store for the Flyers. But something just feels different right now than it did last season, even though the Flyers were vying for the 4th seed and home ice late last season while they're only 6th presently. There's something about this team that gives you a little more cofidence. Maybe it's the big guy on the blue line. Maybe it's the depth up front. Or maybe, just maybe it's that guy behind the bench — the one who's hoisted the Cup we all so desperately want to see one of these days.

BallHype: hype it up!

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