Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Far from Perfect Weekend

A perfect game comes around only once in blue moon (even though there's been two this year). It's only happened 20 times in MLB history. A perfect game truly is something to marvel at, something to enjoy and appreciate and make you giddy as a fan, especially when your guy, your team's pitcher, records all 27 batters out in order. And yet, as I watched Roy Halladay toss the last few innings of just the 20th perfect game in baseball history, I couldn't help but feel as though its meaning was diminished with the Flyers' 6-5 loss in game 1 going on simultaneously.

Frankly, that's not fair. Not at all. But I just couldn't muster up the pure joy and excitement such a performance deserves. Had Halladay performed the feat under virtually any other circumstances, I would have been ecstatic, going crazy, laughing and smiling and living it up. But I just couldn't, not with a game of so much more significance going on, not with the Flyers locked in an unexpected shootout with the Chicago Blackhawks in the first Stanley Cup Finals game played by the Flyers in 13 years. Not with that game's score never going beyond a one-goal difference. And ultimately, I was left with a hollow feeling when the Flyers lost, pushing what should have been a reason to celebrate to the side.

For Roy and the Phillies, that's not fair. But that's how I felt. It was incredible to see Halladay do what he did, masterfully getting every single Florida Marlin who came to the plate out, but it counts for just one regular season win in May. The loss for the Flyers put them in a hole, and they're at the point of running out of lives. The Phillies, even after slipping to second place with yet another loss yesterday and seemingly no offense in sight, have plenty of time to decide their fate. I'm sure I'll look back on Roy's incredible day more fondly the older I get, but right now, it is (unjustly) tainted with the day the Flyers lost game 1. And that's a shame. Because Halladay was incredible. Just check out all 27 outs:

Of course, even Halladay's perfect game, while dominating the sporting world and the baseball scene in Philadelphia for a solid 24 hours or so, couldn't overshadow the funk the Phillies are in right now, especially offensively. After getting swept by the Mets without scoring a single run and getting shut out in four of five games, the Phils showed a little spark Friday, beating the Marlins 3-2. Then came Roy's perfecto. But even in that game, the Phils managed just one run, and they followed that up with another shutout loss Sunday, getting blanked by Anibal Sanchez and company in a 1-0 loss, wasting a perfectly good Jamie Moyer outing. And yesterday, the Phils were shut out for six innings by Tommy Hanson before finally breaking through with a three-spot in the seventh, but by that point, it was too little too late. The Phils dropped their 7th game in 9 chances, a 9-game streak in which they've been shut out an astounding five times, scoring an average of 1.11 runs per game (10 in 9 games). They haven't hit a home run in years, and they've slipped behind the Braves.

What the hell? Sure, we've become accustomed to the Phils going through offensive swoons here and there, and Jimmy Rollins' injury (not to mention injuries to Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz) aren't helping, but damn. Five shutouts in 9 games? Averaging a run a game? That's insanely pathetic, especially for a team with this much offensive potential. Chase isn't hitting. Werth isn't hitting. Raul hasn't hit all year. Polanco's come back down to earth. Ruiz isn't hitting. Greg Dobbs isn't hitting (and should be sent to the minors — think about it, he's the worst fielder ever in the history of third base, and he hasn't been a good pinch hitter since 2008, time to go, Dobbs). Victorino isn't hitting. The only guy who seems to be getting any hits these days is Ryan Howard, and even he can't manage to hit any over the fence. It's absurd. And tiresome. They better snap out of this quick, because this team is too talented offensively to be putting up goose eggs on a regular basis.

Truth be told, the start of the Phillies' struggles at the plate were a lot easier to take with the Flyers rolling through the Canadiens en route to the Stanley Cup Finals. But with this weekend's outcomes, the joyride is over. The Flyers find themselves down in an 0-2 hole, something they've certainly faced before, but somewhere they didn't want to be again, not against the Blackhawks, not with the Cup in their sights.

But that's the reality of the situation. Saturday's 6-5 goal-fest couldn't have been more painful to watch. Sure, the NHL was probably pissing its pants it was so excited, seeing the two conference champions rush up and down the ice and score seemingly at will, but for the true hockey fans, this thing was a nightmare. Especially for Flyers fans.

The Flyers went from on the fringe of the playoffs to conference champions with a simple philosophy: strong, fundamentally sound defense; timely, balanced scoring; and solid goaltending. On Saturday, the Flyers were missing two of those three things. Right out of the gates, Michael Leighton looked like a deer caught in headlines. He was fighting the puck, fumbling it, never looking confident on a single save. That would prove to be some ominous foreshadowing of his play the rest of the way. Not that Leighton necessarily gave up many soft goals in the five that got by him, but what he didn't do was make a single big save to bail out his teammates. Not one.

To compound a goaltender that looked visibly overwhelmed, the defense was nowhere in sight. I don't care what anyone says, Matt Carle was the single worst player on the ice Saturday night. He got beat wide at least 7 or 8 times by Chicago forwards coming down on the rush. He misplayed puck after puck, looked timid, lacked confidence. He looked like the erratic player that always seemed to have the yips before Chris Pronger became his defensemate. He was every bit as awful on Saturday night as he was in game 3 of the Montreal series, maybe even worse. How he finished with an even rating boggles my mind.

And Braydon Coburn, the other half of the young, talented but inconsistent defense duo, was pretty awful himself. Coburn finished a minus-3 on the night, and he made the biggest mistake of the entire game. After Ville Leino lit the lamp to give the Flyers an early 1-0 lead and the Blackhawks answered just over a minute later, as Troy Brouwer beat Leighton from the high slot with a slapper, the Flyers had the man advantage. Looking to set up, Simon Gagne flipped a backhanded pass to Coburn at the point. The puck was not a difficult one to handle. It was a soft pass, right to his stick. Yet Coburn fumbled it, let it get behind him and sprung Dave Bolland the other way. Bolland took advantage, beating Leighton to put the Blackhawks ahead with a breakaway shorthander. It was an incredibly awful, careless play by Coburn, the type of nonchalant attempt that's inexcusable any time, let alone during the Stanley Cup finals. What made that play infinitely more maddening to me was watching the way Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger threw their entire bodies in front of pucks later in the game to keep them in the zone and make sure they didn't get by them. That's what you're supposed to do. That's what any good defenseman does. Yet Coburn didn't and it burnt the Flyers.

Add to that the fact that Ryan Parent was visibly getting overtaken by bigger, stronger players, not to mention complete breakdowns by the forwards defensively, and it was a disaster. The Flyers surrendered open shot after open shot right in the slot, and more times than not, the puck found the back of the net. One of those came on a play where James van Riemsdyk was simply caught napping. It was the tally that put Chicago up 5-4 and chased Leighton from the net. Next to Carle and Coburn, JVR was the worst Flyer on the ice. He didn't do a damn thing offensively, and his lapses defensively were plentiful. He was so bad that he earned himself a scratch for game 2.

And of course, Leighton didn't help himself either. He got beat short side on a 2-on-1 break by Patrick Sharp. Sure, it was an awesome shot, but he was leaving an awful lot of net short side there. Not good positioning. Add on top of that terrible rebound control and the deer in headlights look, and you were in for a disaster. Brian Boucher came in and looked much, much better, making some great saves and looking healthy, but he also made a horrendous play on what turned out to be the game-winning goal by Tomas Kpecky, getting way out of position and ultimately beaten on a bad angle. Of course, that goal came on a failed clear, something was routine throughout the night.

As terrible as the defense was, and man was it shit, it wasn't all bad Saturday night. After all, the Flyers scored 5 goals, didn't commit a single penalty and came out strong, outshooting Chicago 17-9 in the first period. Scott Hartnell was the best player for Philadelphia in my opinion, all over the place, winning puck battles, scoring a goal and assisting on two more. The Briere-Leino-Hartnell line accounted for all three first-period goals, and Briere and Hartnell each assisted on Arron Asham's game-tying goal in the 2nd, on a great play by Hartnell and excellent feed by Briere. Hell, even Blair Betts scored, on a wicked shot, and put the Flyers ahead. So in some aspects, they played pretty well. Hell, if anyone told you the Flyers would score 5 goals and stay out of the penalty box in the first game and that the Toews-Byfuglien-Kane line would go scoreless, everyone single person alive would have said the Flyers would have won. But they didn't. Because their defense and goaltending were woeful.

The difference in the game, in my eyes at least, was that despite porous goaltending by both teams, Antti Niemi made a couple of big stops that Chicago needed. Leighton didn't make a single one, and Boucher's misplay negated his first couple big ones. Also, it didn't help that the Flyers spent so much energy chasing the puck off draws, losing the faceoff battle 40-24. Those two little things wound up being the difference.

It was all just a little too much for me to take. There were the highs of scoring first, then taking the lead again before the first was through, then taking the lead yet again in the second and coming back to tie it before the third. Then there were the lows of not being able to hold a lead not once, not twice, but three times. The terrible defense and quick momentum shifts. All the while, the tension of a perfect game was going on, with Tom McCarthy not shutting his big, fat mouth about it, as if trying to jinx Halladay or a fielder into blowing it. God I fucking hate Tom McCarthy.

Then ultimately, it was the utter disappointment of a hard-fought loss. The high of the perfect game was quickly beaten back down to the earth with the painful loss by the Flyers. It was a game that certainly proved the Flyers belong on the same ice as Chicago, but it was painfully clear that these Blackhawks are a far cry from the Devils and Bruins and Canadiens that struggled so much to get goals. Then we had to go and do it all over again last night.

For starters, I'd like to say how incredibly fucking horrible the guys working the NBC broadcast last night were. I spent the weekend avoiding the internet like the plague and not watching much TV besides the actual games themselves. That meant I was not privy to Dan Carillo and Oskars Bartulis getting inserted into the lineup for last night's game to replace JVR and Parent until the game started. Well, that's not entirely true. Pierre McGuire did let us know that Carcillo was dressing … but he never said whose place he was taking. Not once. And the fuckers didn't even let us know that Bartulis was in the lineup.

I just assumed that Carcillo was taking JVR's place after the horrendous game van Riemsdyk had in the opener. But it would have been nice for NBC to let us know. They did not. All they did was talk and talk and talk about Carcillo, but never once mentioned who was scratched in his stead. It was annoying as hell. Then I'm watching and I see Bartulis on the ice. I turn to my roommate and say, "Oh, Bartulis is playing too. Nice of those assholes to tell us." Finally, five minutes into game time, Doc let us know that Carcillo was added and JVR scratched, while Bartulis was taking Ryan Parent's place. Thanks for fucking letting us know. That made me so god damn mad. Do your fucking job. Inform us of who is playing and who is not before the game. You know, like you do in every other fucking sport on the planet.

To make matters worse, the camera work was beyond awful. Twice, the game cut to a couple seconds of commercials when there was no TV timeout. Other times, they were slow to react to the puck or panning the benches while a faceoff was going on. Once, they even began to put up a highlight graphic of Chris Pronger as the god damn puck was being dropped for a draw. We must have missed at least three faceoffs because of shoddy camera work. Plus there were a couple of times that the noise got all static-y and choppy. All around horrible production. I was pissed.

As far as the game itself was going though, so far so good. Despite getting outshot and outworked in the first period, the Flyers didn't play altogether awful. Defensively, they tightened up and looked like the team that had fought its way through the Eastern Conference. Leighton looked sharp, Coburn and Carle rebounded nicely, and the Hawks were limited in their chances.

The bad thing was the Flyers couldn't get anything going offensively at all. It was a struggle to get through the neutral zone, often missing on outlet passes or not finding any to begin with. And on the rare occasion that they slipped by Chicago in neutral ice, that was all she wrote. The Blackhawks stood up at the blue line and won all the puck battles. The offense resembled the Phillies — it was nowhere to be found.

In the second, things opened up. Big time. The Flyers fired 15 shots at Niemi, but they couldn't beat him. Not once. And Chicago was starting to regain its firepower as well, firing 13 pucks at Leighton. Finally, it was Chicago that broke through, as the Blackhawks got the favorable matchup of the Sharp-Hossa-Brouwer line out against Lukas Krajicek and Bartulis. Advantage Hawks, and Hossa buried a rebound to try and reverse the Hossa jinx. Krajicek simply got outmuscled and guided to the side by Hossa. Fuck. It would have been really nice to see the Flyers get the first one after Saturday's tough loss, but nothing doing. To make matters even worse, Ben fucking Eager of all people, the guy I described as a player who "has never shown a particularly keen scoring touch in the NHL," sniped a shot past Leighton's ear just 28 seconds later to put Chicago up 2-0.

It was an awesome shot by Eager, no question about it, but it was also the second time that Leighton got beat short side on a wrister above his glove this series. He went down entirely too early and didn't cut down the short-side angle enough again. Terrible, backbreaking goal to endure right before the third. I was pissed, and far from confident.

But as has been their M.O. this entire playoffs, the Flyers wouldn't quit. Five minutes in, they got a power play and buried it with a knuckle puck that bounced oddly off the ice by Simon Gagne, 2-1. And it was all Flyers the rest of the way.

Feeling the pressure of an 0-2 hole, they fought for every loose puck, won every battle, took it to the Blackhawks. They outshot Chicago 15-4 in the final 20 minutes, owned every aspect of play. But Niemi rose to the occasion, making big save after big save. In the end, Eager's goal held up. Now the Flyers are down 0-2 as the series shifts to Philadelphia tomorrow night.

It's a position they didn't want to have to face again. And the lineup changes showed that they aren't holding anything back. Carcillo played well last night, bringing the energy you expect and playing smart, disciplined hockey. Bartulis showed more in game 2 than Parent has shown all year, which is a good thing. But you still don't want to see him and Krajicek out there for major minutes.

Where the Flyers go from here is up for debate. Stay with Carcillo or bring back Riemer? How can they win more faceoffs? Can they turn this series around? The questions are there, but really, it's all about just doing a little more, a little extra. The Flyers were right there with Chicago through two games. They lost both by just a single goal, having more than their fair share of chances to tie things up or put it away. Now all they really have to do is tie up the loose ends, and maybe they'll get a win. And then anther and then another. Four more wins. They're still within reach. The Flyers are down 0-2, but they've shown they can play with the Blackhawks in their own building. Now it's time to win two here in Philly, even this thing up and find a way to get two more after that.

Oh, and if this series thus far doesn't convince you that I should be a GM, specifically when it comes to the little things, remember the disparity in faceoffs in game one and how big they were, and how many big draws Chicago won last night late when they needed to, and recall that I begged the Flyers to go out and get a guy to win faceoffs. They sure as shit better next year.

Down, but not out. Four more wins.


BallHype: hype it up!


  1. Half way home my son, start putting that money aside for payment please. And of course you old man has to roll up to the city dressed in almost head to toe flyers stuff yesterday. I'm surprised some angry rangers fan didn't try to snipe him as he drove through the hood. And that was a nice game winner by Ben Eager as you mentioned, ex Flyers draft pick. These first 2 game should tell you that your chances of coming back are slim and none. And slim is getting ready to leave town. Game 1 was a shootout and they lost and last night the defensive game took over and another loss. If they lose game 3 turn out the lights it's done!!

  2. Ben Eager wasn't drafted by the Flyers.

  3. my bad i was thinking of Patrick Sharp who drafted by the Flyers in 01 Eager was drafted by Phoenix in 02 then traded to the Flyers later. Consider this my version of the correction that the newspaper prints in the bottom corner of like the 20th pages correcting an error they had reported the day before.

  4. that said, an ex flyers prospect at one time had to be the one to bury the game winner last night. But either way i'm 2 games closer to getting paid

  5. Im surprised you didnt mention anything about the ice condition, although to be fair both teams have to cope with it. But I thought it was a big problem. Completely agree with everything else. Hopefully the VS guys bring us some better luck