Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Déjà Vu, Hopefully Not All Over Again

When Michael Leighton went down late in the season — after taking over for Ray Emery, who went down much earlier — and the Flyers had nowhere else to turn but a rusty Brian Boucher, I longed for the days of 2000, when Brian Boucher was a fresh-faced rookie riding a hot streak and playing nothing short of outstanding hockey between the pipes.

Little did I know just how eerily familiar this stretch would turn out, a decade after the fact. Here we are, after some initial shakiness, and Brian Boucher is playing fantastic hockey once again. Facing the Devils, again. In the playoffs, again. Against Martin Brodeur, again. With the Flyers holding a 3-1 advantage through four games, again. It's like déjà vu 10 years later. Let's just hope it doesn't end the same way, with the Devils storming back from the brink of elimination to win the next three games and advance to the Stanley Cup finals. We all remember just how painful that was, watching a tight-knit, cohesive Flyers team poised to get back to the Stanley Cup finals fold as their beleaguered and concussed captain returned for games 6 and 7 only to bust his ass as his teammates, who were playing so hard, so well before he came back, stand around and watch No. 88, as if he could defeat the Devils all on his own. Then they watched him lay motionless on the ice, a sadly familiar sight, and withered with their fallen captain.

Now we face a similar scenario. No, it's not the Eastern Conference Finals, but it is still the playoffs. And no, these are not the same teams, though there are a few familiar faces. For there Devils, Martin Brodeur is still between the pipes, and Patrick Elias, Brian Rolston and Colin White are also still here (in the case of Rolston, back). For the Flyers, there's Boosh and Simon Gagne, at least before he got injured blocking not one but two shots last night in the second period. It would be nice if the new faces can help the familiar ones flip the script from a decade ago, and the sooner the better. It would be in the Flyers' best interest to get this thing over with Thursday in Newark. One thing is certain: If history is any indicator, this series is far from over. The Flyers are in a great position, but there's much more work to be done. It's no time to lose focus or get complacent. Not against this team and this goaltender, even if he didn't look like the same guy from 10 years ago last night, the same guy who was damn near unbeatable in game 3.

I was lucky enough to be at game 4 last night (thanks, Adam EatShit) with uncle jellyfish. I couldn't tell you exactly why, but I had a great feeling about the game all day. Maybe it was because the Flyers saw the best of Brodeur on Sunday and still found a way to win, even with playing a good portion of the game on the penalty kill. Maybe it was because even without the second line scoring, they were still finding ways to get enough goals. Maybe it was just being a homer. Whatever it was, that confidence was quickly shaken when the Flyers hit the rewind button from Sunday and came out taking penalty after penalty after penalty. And I mean one right after the other.

First it was Mike Richards getting sent off for a hook — I should have known things weren't going to go smoothly right away, because Richards literally couldn't control the puck at all, on his first three shifts, the puck was bouncing off his stick like he had stone hands, and it continued all night — and then, before that penalty was even through, Braydon Coburn put on a bear hug and got called for holding, giving the Devils 3:54 seconds straight of power play … before Chris Pronger cross-checked a Devils behind the net just a minute and 8 seconds into Coburn's penalty. With a 52-second two-man advantage, it was only a matter of time before the Devils cashed in, and that's exactly what Ilya Kovalchuk did, putting New Jersey ahead early and silencing the crowd. The Devils had 5 minutes and two seconds of consecutive power play time, with 58 of those seconds up two men. That pretty much negated any momentum the Flyers hoped to carry over from the dramatic overtime victory Sunday, and it took the crowd out of the game, save for a some moans and groans and expletives directed at the officials.

But to be honest, every one of those penalties was, in fact, a penalty. Maybe not in 2000, but certainly in 2010. It's been a problem for this team the past couple of seasons, taking too many penalties, and it put them behind again. As a result of so much time on the penalty kill, the Flyers couldn't generate much offense, and they left the first period down a goal and getting outshot 12-7. Truth be told, they were lucky to come out of all that with only one goal surrendered, and that can be attributed to the tremendous penalty killing of Ian Laperriere and Blair Betts. If you've watched the Flyers all season, you know just how awesome this duo is on the PK, and their work has been as big a reason as any that the Flyers are in control of this series. The Devils have been living on the power play, and yes, they've scored some power play goals, but for the most part, the Flyers have really limited the chance when down a man. Betts and Laperriere have been the biggest keys to that, and last night they were tremendous again. In fact, I thought Laperriere was arguably the best player on the ice, even with Jeff Carter and Danny Briere finally getting off the schnide and providing a huge jolt. Ian was blocking everything in sight, getting his stick in every passing lane, always making sure to pump the puck deep, mucking in the corners and finishing his checks. He was oustanding last night, even when the Devils looked to be in control of the game early on.

However, much like Laperriere's face, things weren't looking so good after one period of play. The Flyers looked flat and undisciplined … but I still didn't feel completely despondent. Even in another season of underachievement, this team has shown time and again that they can come from behind and win. Sometimes that has hurt them, leading to lackadaisical play early on with the belief they can turn it on later. But other times it has been an asset, proving there's no reason to hang their heads when they give up the first goal.

The Flyers bided their time and continued to work. The forecheck was on full bore, and they came out aggressive and hungry in the second period. Before you could blink an eye, the Flyers had turned a 12-7 shot deficit into a 15-13 advantage, outshooting the Devils 8-1 to start the period. Yet the Flyers couldn't slide one past Brodeur for the longest time. He was making all the stops, yes, but he looked a little shaky, was having trouble finding the puck, often fighting it, and scrambling around to track rebounds. Well, except for on this save:

That was just vintage Brodeur. On his back, seemingly down and out, he swipes his left glove hand, flashing the leather and robbing Gagne. The entire Wachovia Center let out a collected groan, astonished the puck didn't go in. That's why the guy is ticketed for the Hall of Fame. Brodeur had no right making that save. Not with that setup, not with the one Flyer who has seemed to have Brodeur's number over the years shooting the puck. But up came that glove to somehow snatch a goal right from the Flyers. Fuck.

Thankfully, that incredible save didn't dissuade the Flyers. Instead, they kept on the pressure, which eventually led to a Rob Niedermayer interference call, which eventually led to Jeff Carter finally burying one of the many chances he's had in this series, penetrating Brodeur for the first time on the night. Unfortunately, some asshole in a Ryan Howard jersey obstructed my view slightly as the play developed, though I did see the goal, and completely blocked uncle jellyfish's entire view, causing him to miss the tying goal. This stupid fuck, who moved at the speed not even a snail could envy, had a cane and bad limp, meaning he knows full well that he doesn't move fast. Yet he still took it upon himself, with the Flyers on the power play with a chance to tie the game in game 4 of a playoff series against the hated Devils, to venture back to his seat right as the puck was being dropped for faceoff. It was the second time this fucking asshole got up in the middle of play, blocking the view with his five-minute venture down the aisle.

This is a message to that asshole, and the other asshole who got up in the 2nd period during play in my row: FUCK YOU AND I HOPE YOU DIE!!!!! WAIT UNTIL A FUCKING STOPPAGE IN PLAY TO FUCKING GO PISS OR EAT OR BLOW SOME FAGGOT IN THE STAIRWELL AND DON'T COME BACK UNTIL THERE'S ANOTHER STOPPAGE IN PLAY YOU STUPID, IGNORANT FUCKS!!!!!!! This is playoff hockey people. If you aren't there to watch every god damn second, don't fucking come and spoil it for the rest of the real fans who are there to, you know, watch the fucking game. Seriously, I hope you got that limp in a horrible accident that killed your closest family members and friends, and I hope only terrible, horrible things happen to you for the rest of your life. If I was uncle jellyfish, I probably would have blown my top even more. Either way, he was rightfully pissed, and if he ever sees that schmuck again, it is 100 percent within his rights to fucking kill him. People make me so mad.

OK, got that off my chest. Now where were we? Right. The Flyers. Tie game. Asshole should die. Got it. For the remainder of the second period, the Flyers continued to take it to Jersey, and then Danny Briere joined his linemate on the scoresheet to completely put the 2nd-line scoring slump to rest, firing an unstoppable howitzer of a rising shot, making the glove hand of Brodeur that looked so incredibly fast in that save against Gagne earlier look as though it was fighting to wade through water.

Wow, what an incredible shot. 2-1 Flyers, and the place was rocking. The Devils were on their heels, you could see it, and the Carter line, which had been snakebitten through the first three games, was clicking on all cylinders. Shortly after Briere's laser shot, down came Briere and Carter on a two-on-one. The Devils defenseman did exactly what he's supposed to do, taking away any chance of a pass, but with Briere with the puck, that seemed like a good thing to just about everyone. After all, Danny had just ripped an absurdly awesome shot, picking the corner with precision, and now his hot stick was one-on-one with Marty. But somehow, some way, Briere still attempted to pass it to Carter, despite it not being there, despite having a clear path to Brodeur, despite just picking the corner with a rocket. Of course, it was broken up, and the Flyers didn't even get a shot off. That was maddening. They could have taken a commanding 3-1 lead in the game, but instead they didn't even get a shot off.

That's not exactly something new for the Flyers. To me, even more so that the inconsistent goaltending, penchant for untimely turnovers and poor performance throughout the season in the faceoff circle, this team's two most glaring weaknesses have been passing and executing odd-man rushes, which comes back to passing. Think of how many times the Flyers have screwed up 2-on-1, 3-on-1, 3-on-2 breaks all season long, either with an errant pass, missing the net with a shot, or trying to force a play that's not there. I'd venture to say they are one of the worst, if not the worst, odd-man rush finishers in the entire NHL, certainly the worst in these playoffs that I've seen. And those are big opportunities missed. Just as this one was. Not a single person in the building thought Briere was going to pass that puck except Briere. He had to shoot it. But he didn't. Ugh.

Still, the Flyers went to the third period with a 2-1 lead, had just dominated the second period, and looked good. Though somehow, at the end of the period, the Flyers were called for the only penalty in an after-the-whistle scrum with less than 5 seconds remaining. Here's what happened: A Devil, I think Dainius Zubrus but I'm not entirely sure if that's correct, came flying in and pounded a Flyler near the boards. It wasn't necessarily an illegal hit, but it was definitely a case of a guy taking a run, so when the whistle stopped play, there was a gathering and a scrum. The Flyers didn't take too kindly to the hit, so they got up in some Devils' faces and a slight scrap ensued, from both sides. Yet when the penalties were announced, only rookie James van Riemsdyk was placed in the box. It was bullshit. Listen, at that point, the Devils had had six power plays to the Flyers' three and a couple extra seconds. I'm not going to complain about any of those calls. They were all penalties. Fine. But when there's a disparity like that, especially when the referees were calling a lot penalties very close together on the Flyers, you can't, just can't send one guy to the box in a scrum like that unless someone threw an obvious punch or took a sucker shot. That didn't happen. You have to even it up there. Just have to. But the refs didn't.

I was pretty livid with that, but it was no cause for worry. Well, actually it was, but Betts and Laperriere wiped away any cause for concern with an excellent penalty kill yet again. Betts won a couple key face-offs, and Ian continued to get his stick on every shot, sending most of them into the safety netting. Then, just 4:10 into the final period, game 3 hero Dan Carcillo beat Brodeur again, with what can only be described as a softy. Carbomb, as they call him, wheeled from behind the net, turned and shot a wrister that wasn't all that strong toward Brodeur, and Marty plain missed it. 3-1 Flyers, with the house going crazy as Philadelphia fan favorite Dan Carcillo got Brodeur again. Earlier in the game, when Carcillo drew a penalty, the fat fuck sitting next me told me how he thought Dan Carcillo was a "piece of shit." This "Flyers fan," the game after Carcillo scored an overtime winner to give the Flyers a 2-1 lead in the series against the hated Devils, after a season where Carcillo cut down on his selfish penalties as the year went on, worked himself up to the top line, found a very nice scoring touch, and played the perfect agitator role with a lot more skill than you'd expect, hated Dan Carcillo. I didn't know that was possible in Philadelphia, yet here we had it. I told him I loved Carcillo, then stopped talking to him. That is, until Carcillo scored the fatal blow to give the Flyers a 3-1 lead, at which time I turned to this monstrosity of a human being and said, "That piece of shit sure is scoring a lot of big goals." Then I never spoke to him again.

The Flyers held a 3-1 lead, and were some 15 minutes away from holding a 3-1 series lead. I knew I felt good about this game for a reason — because these guys were finally, after 82 games that took a shootout victory on the final day of the regular season just to make it to the playoffs, ready to live up to their potential. However, there was cause for concern. Simon Gagne was not taking his shifts, more often than not being replaced by Jeff Carter, and I began to search for him on the bench. He was nowhere to be found, which made me recall the two shots he blocked in the second period. One was by Brian Rolston, and the other from another Devil. On the first one, Gagne was clearly stung, dropping for a slight second and struggling off the ice. But he returned, and that's when I believe the Rolston shot hit him. He looked a little stung but nothing that bad. Turns out, I was wrong, because Gagne did not even come out for the third period, and it turns out he suffered a lower-body injury. Sucks, I thought, but at least the Flyers have Ville Leino to fill in if Gagne can't go Thursday. Leino has played pretty well when given the chance and has a ton of skill. Not the end of the world.

So I watched as minutes later, the Flyers iced the game on a goal by Jeff Carter off a bazooka shot from the point by Chris Pronger. Carter got his second goal, the Flyers held a 4-1 lead, and for the next 10 minutes, they played awesome defensive hockey.

Brian Boucher was brilliant yet again, outplaying Martin Brodeur for at leas the second time this series. He stopped 30 of 31 shots fired his way, doing an awesome job absorbing the puck and limiting rebounds, and he absolutely looks like the rookie that lit the NHL on fire 10 years ago. Betts, Laperriere and Darroll Powe were relentless on the forecheck and in the defensive zone, continuing their tremendous game. Even with Carter and Briere registering three points apiece, I'd argue the fourth line was the best line on the ice last night, Laperriere the best player. That's how good he played defensively. Even Scott Hartnell looked to finally show some life, finishing his forecheck every shift in the third period, playing smart, not trying any ridiculous cross-ice passes or ill-advised drops. Though he still struggled to stay on his skates all night long. It's usually a good idea for an NHL player to know how to skate. But hey, at least he wasn't as awful as he's been in the first three games.

From there, it was just a matter of the clock winding down. The Flyers held on and put themselves up 3-1 in the series. I texted Arkansas Fred to ask what happened to Gagne. He responded that they didn't say anything about it on the telecast. Then he said: "Carter was lucky though cause he was nailed in the leg with that slapshot [by Pronger] that he scored on." I didn't even noticed how bad Carter got hit with it. As it turns out, he wasn't so lucky:

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren issued the following statement on Wednesday morning regarding forwards Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne:

"Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne both suffered injuries to their right foot in Tuesday night’s game. Neither will be available to play Thursday, and both players are listed as day-to-day."

Carter, who led the team in goals with 33 in the regular season and has two goals and an assist in four playoff games, missed eight games towards the end of the regular season with a fractured left foot. Gagne has two assists in four playoff games.

Both players appeared to hurt themselves after getting hit with slap shots last night; Gagne possibly from a shot from New Jersey's Brian Rolston, and Carter when he was hit by a blast from the point by Chris Pronger, in which he immediately deposited the loose puck for his second goal of the game.

Not good. That definitely means Ville Leino is playing Thursday, then either Andreas Nodl, David Laliberte or Riley Cote … or even a 7th defenseman in Oskars Bartulis. We'll have to wait and see. Hopefully both Carter and Gagne are OK, especially Carter, who missed time with a broken foot right before the playoffs, because they'll need those guys. That definitely makes the task at hand that much tougher tomorrow in Jersey, but it can't be used as an excuse. They have to find a way to win, with or without Carter and Gagne, because while we certainly want Brian Boucher to continue playing as he did in 2000, we don't want the same outcome. The Flyers are up 3-1 against the Devils in the playoffs yet again; this time, we don't even want to sniff a game 7.

P.S. Ryan Madson sucks. Let last night's pathetic display of pitching put to rest once and for all any thoughts that Ryan Madson can ever be a reliable closer. The guy is a setup man. He thrives as a setup man. And he sucks as a closer. Horribly. Let us never speak of him as a long-term closer ever again. Thank you.

BallHype: hype it up!

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