Friday, May 21, 2010

Finding the Silver Lining

There's not much good to say about the Flyers last night. Montreal came out hungry and took it to Philadelphia from the opening faceoff to the final horn. This one was as lopsided as it gets, and it didn't take long for the Canadiens to take command.

Yet again in the first period, Montreal came out the better team. Way better, in fact. And this time, they actually made the Flyers pay. The Canadiens outshot Philadelphia 17-9 in the opening stanza, went up 2-0 and never took the foot off the gas pedal. In all, they finished with a 38-26 shot advantage, and made a series of this thing. The reason they were able to do so, besides finally solving the Michael Leighton puzzle, had as much to do with Philadelphia's horrendous defense as it did their own pressure.

Make no mistake about it, Montreal earned this victory in every conceivable way. They kicked ass and took names. And with the Canadiens playing their best hockey, the Flyers, namely Chris Pronger and Matt Carle, completely and utterly sucked.

Both Pronger and Carle finished a game-worst minus-3 on the night. In the first two games, that duo had done such a phenomenal job shutting down the hottest player in this postseason, Mike Cammalleri. It took the Montreal assistant captain all of seven minutes to finally get on the board, and he easily had his best game yet. Not coincidentally, Pronger and Carle each had their worst game of the entire postseason.

In the first period, Matt Carle did not do a single good thing. Not one. Every time he got the puck, he either made a terrible pass, wrong decision or turnover. He had no control whatsoever. It was his worst games in months. Not only did he get a major case of the yips, but he also tripped up his own goaltender on the game's first goal — though admittedly, he had a little help from Mike Cammalleri, who gave him a little cross-check nudge, however slight, to create room. I think it's safe to say that Matt Carle was the worst player on the ice last night.

Though no one would argue that Pronger wasn't far behind. Since coming over from Anaheim in the offseason, Chris Pronger has been nothing short of spectacular. I say this with an incredible amount of bias but also with real conviction and belief: Pronger flat-out got snubbed in the Norris Trophy race, and frankly, he probably should have won it. That's how great he's been this year. Save for an occasion turnover here or there — of which there weren't many, especially after the first month or so — it's tough to even recall a single bad game Chris Pronger has played in the Orange and Black. That is until last night. There is no argument about it. This is not opinion, but fact. Last night was easily, far and away Chris Pronger's worst game as a Philadelphia Flyer. He was sloppy with the puck, so much so that he deserved an assist on this debacle of a goal:

Often, he was uncharacteristically out of position. He just didn't look like Chris Pronger out there. For the first time all year, he was hurting the Flyers. To compound that, the Flyers let Jaroslav Halak gain his confidence back. That's a dangerous thing for a goaltender who has had such an up-and-down playoffs. In each series, he has been pulled. And in each series, he has gotten better and better and better as it's wore on, to the point of being the best player on the ice by the time it's all said and done. By firing just 26 pucks at him, only one of which got through, Halak looked like a goaltender back on top of his game. He made some outstanding saves early and then went largely untested the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, Michael Leighton no longer looked like an impenetrable brick wall. Though to be fair, he also didn't have much help in front of him. On Cammalleri's goal, he was tripped up by Carle. The second goal resulted in a terrible turnover by Pronger, which led to three Canadiens heading to the crease. Another goal resulted in a bad misplay by Carle trying to reach a puck by jumping and failing, resulting in a breakaway for Brian Gionta. He was left out to dry most of the night. You can hardly chalk this loss up to him. However, putting up a five-spot on a goaltender that had blanked them through two games gives the Canadiens confidence that they now can score. Combine that with Halak's bounceback game and a total team effort and you have yourself the makings of a tough, tough series.

It may sound like there's nothing good you can take from a game like this, a 5-1 beating. But I'm going to do my best. For one thing, Simon Gagne continued his torrid pace, scoring the lone Flyers goal. When Simon is scoring the way he is right now, the Flyers are a tough team to beat.

Another promising thing to take out of this: Chris Pronger and Matt Carle couldn't possibly play any worse. That duo has been great all season long. It took a pretty piss-poor effort by the pairing that had been shutting down every team's top players for Montreal to finally get on the score sheet. The likelihood that Carle and especially Pronger will have even just one more game like last night's is remote. It was Pronger's only bad game of the season, and Carle, while prone to inconsistency and some bad stretches of play, has really minimized his mistakes as the season has gone on, especially in these playoffs. He seems calmer and more confident playing alongside Pronger, understandably — last night excluded. So you have to think those guys won't have another game like this. Let's certainly hope not.

And the final silver lining, of course, is that the Flyers still hold a 2-1 advantage in the series. That's the most important thing. They defended their home ice advantage, and really, that's all they have to do in this series. That's not the ideal way to go about it, obviously, but the Flyers are still in really good position.

Having said that, this team has to step up its game in the first period of play. Think about it, when's the last time the Flyers actually played a good, complete first period? Yes, they led after a period of play in games 1 and 2 of this series, but they also were outshot in those first periods 13-6 and 16-6. Last night, they were outshot 17-9 in the opening 20 minutes. And thinking all the way back to game 7 against Boston, they fell behind 3-0 before making it 3-1 and were outshot 14-8. They've been outshot 60-29 in their last four first periods, and the last good opening period they had came in game 6 against Boston. Even then, they were outshot 9-8 by the Bruins.

If this team really wants to complete a miracle run, really wants to have the chance to lift Lord Stanley's Cup, the Flyers are going to have to find a way to come out of the gate better from here on out. Tomorrow afternoon would be a good time to start. Steal a game in Montreal, and a 3-1 series lead coming back to Philadelphia puts the Canadiens in quite the vulnerable position. Fall to 2-2, and it becomes a three-game sprint to the Cup, always a dangerous proposition. The good news is the Flyers are still in control and they couldn't possibly play any worse than they did in game 3. Now it's time to seize this opportunity, grab the bull by the horns and get six more wins. Just six more.


BallHype: hype it up!

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