Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Back in First

How do you cap off an incredible day of reveling in the return of Cliff Lee to Philadelphia? By going to the Flyers-Penguins game at the Wells-Fargo Center and witnessing the Flyers snap Pittsburgh's 12-game win streak and reclaim the top spot in the Eastern Conference. That's exactly what I did last night, having the honor to go to the game with Adam EatShit, who repeatedly said on the way down that he had a good feeling about the game despite Pittsburgh's impressive streak.

The Flyers came out last night completely dominating the first 18 minutes of the first period, at one point holding an 11-3 advantage in shots. Every shift was spent in Pittsburgh's end, they were winning damn near every faceoff and, to be frank, the Flyers just looked like a much better team than the Penguins.

They were getting chance after chance, sustaining pressure the entire time, but they couldn't put the Pens in much of a hole. Yes, the Flyers did take a 1-0 lead on a perfectly placed goal by Claude Giroux resulting from hard work by Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell in front of the net, but Marc-Andre Fleury did what he always seems to do against Philadelphia, making some truly spectacular saves.

Then, in the final two minutes of the period, the Pens finally had their first real pressure of the game, spending almost the entire time in the Flyers' end and generating some chances. Pittsburgh was strong on the puck, cycling with relative ease and wearing down Philadelphia's defense. Luckily for the Flyers, the horn sounded before the Pens could do any damage, but there was sort of an uneasy feeling in the building.

The Flyers had completely dominated almost the entire period, spent almost the entire time in Pittsburgh's end, won faceoffs and finished with a 12-7 shot advantage, but only held a one-goal lead against the hottest team in hockey that just so happens to have two of the greatest scorers alive in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. A one-goal lead is hardly comfortable against the Penguins.

Well, as great as the Flyers played in the first period, the Penguins played even better in the first 9 minutes of the second. Building on those final two minutes of the opening period, Pittsburgh came out of the locker room and just absolutely took it to the Flyers. The roles completely reversed.

The Flyers looked sluggish and tired, while the Pens looked hungry. They won damn near every faceoff, rarely let Philadelphia even get through the neutral zone and put on a cycling display I haven't seen since the days of Lindros, Brind'Amour and Otto. That 12-7 shot advantage quickly dissipated, as the Flyers were held without a shot on net for over 9 minutes, and the Pens were peppering Brian Boucher.

Pittsburgh's hard work paid off, frustrating the Flyers and eventually leading to a silly penalty by Danny Briere, though the interpretation of the call didn't sit well with the Flyers faithful. Chasing down a puck carrier, Briere definitely got his stick in the midsection of a Penguin, but then his stick was held by the arm. The call could have easily gone either way, holding the stick or hooking, or even concurrent minors, but only Briere went off. A minute and 10 seconds later, Evgeni Malkin blasted one over Boucher's shoulder for the power-play goal to tie the game.

That was the wakeup call the Flyers needed in the second period, because after that, they really cranked it up. After being dormant for the first 9 minutes, the Flyers once again looked like the team that had owned the first 18 minutes of the game. Claude Giroux was flying all over the place, and all four lines began rolling.

Then, Nikolay Zherdev broke out in a 2-on-1 with Jeff Carter. All night long — and all season long, really — Zherdev had both dazzled and infuriated Flyers fans, something he's made a career of doing. His talent and skill are unquestioned. The man has some of the best hands on the planet. But boy does he have the true European mentality. Because he can do so much with the puck, he often tries to do too much. He was doing that a lot last night, trying to stickhandle between two and three guys at a time, rarely succeeded. But when he broke out on that 2-on-1, he made no mistake, showing incredible patience, moving to the middle and beating Fleury on a gorgeous goal, 2-1 Flyers.

He made it look so effortless, which he often does. Now if he could only harness that and make fewer mistakes, he would really be something. But that's what they've been saying about Zherdev his entire career. Just ask Rangers fans.

The importance of that goal cannot be overstated. The Flyers controlled the play in the first but only held a 1-0 advantage, and PIttsburgh answered in the 2nd. But the Flyers didn't let that deter them, instead turning it up a notch from there, climbing back to even the shots in the 2nd period to 11-11 and going back up a goal.

However, they did once again miss several golden opportunities to distance themselves late. In a rare role reversal, it was the Penguins that began a steady march to the penalty box, giving the Flyers three power plays after Malkin's goal. They were practically begging the Flyers to put them away. But they couldn't, because their power play has been complete garbage. Of those three power plays to close the second period, only one looked remotely competent. The others continued to be embarrassing, getting outmanned in scrums despite being up a player, bad entries, miscommunication, no spacing, not enough puck movement. Name a facet of the power play and the Flyers are struggling at it.

Credit Pittsburgh's penalty kill, no doubt, but man do the Flyers need to work on their power play. It's been a huge problem for nearly two months now. Something needs to be done. And of course I have a suggestion for Peter Laviolette, one that seems pretty obvious to me: Put the Briere line out there as a power play unit.

I really don't understand why Laviolette doesn't put this trio out there together on the man advantage. I really don't. The Briere-Leino-Hartnell line has been the best offensive line all season for the Flyers, dating all the way back to last postseason. All three of them have over 20 points, Briere leads the team in goals (16) and the three of them have remarkable offensive chemistry. Then you add the fact you have a sniper in Briere, playmaker in Leino and grunt guy in Hartnell, and you have all the ingredients needed for a strong power play unit. Put them out there together, Pete. Please. And for the record, my other power play trio would be Richards, Giroux and Carter. No Andreas Nodl, even with as well as he's played. Just my two cents.

Anyway, back to the game. The third started out a little dicey with Briere and Max Talbot getting called for concurrent minors on a holding the stick/interference play, meaning open ice against a dangerous team in a one-goal game. Not something you want. To compound that, Matt Carle foolishly started reaching toward Malkin as the big Russian was going by him heading toward the Flyers line, getting his stick up in the face. Seconds later, Malkin was scoring his second game-tying, power-play goal of the game.

Matt Cooke set up a great screen on Boucher, and Malkin didn't miss. It's bad enough going 4-on-4 against Pittsburgh while trying to protect a 2-1 lead, but it's absolutely deadly go down a man for a 4-on-3 power play. There's just too much ice for guys like Malkin and Crosby to work with. Now the game was tied in the third period. The Penguins came in as the hottest team in the NHL, and ever since the Pens got Crosby, Malkin and Fleury, Pittsburgh has been the team that's taken over as Philadelphia's tormentors, replacing Martin Brodeur and the Devils.

This was the type of game that perhaps even just a year ago the Flyers would let slip away against Pittsburgh, and this was the way they'd let it happen — outplaying the Pens most of the game, taking a few penalties, losing the lead and then falling apart. But this Flyers team is different. Maybe it was last year's inspired run to the Stanley Cup Final. Maybe it was Paul Holmgren doing a masterful job tweaking the lineup and bringing in the best defense corps in the league. Or maybe it's just maturity that comes over time.

Whatever it was, the Flyers weren't about to let the past haunt them. Not one bit. Just like they did after Malkin's first goal, the Flyers responded. They turned it up another notch and started to dominate once again. Clearing the puck out of harm's way, sustaining pressure in Pittsburgh's zone, flying out in transition. Then finally, mercifully, the Flyers answered the bell on the power play.

With the Flyers actually set up in the zone for once, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen played catch with it for a moment. Then Pronger stepped inside with the puck a little bit, looked, and let go a wrister near the top of the circle. Scott Hartnell, playing another tremendous game, got his stick on it and deflected the puck past Fleury, 3-2 Flyers. The irony of it is that Malkin, the player who had made the Flyers pay dearly twice on power play goals of his own, was the guilty party, called for interference.

The Flyers kept the pressure up and really owned the period, outshooting the Pens 14-5, closing the way they started. They kept their shifts short, put on some pressure and played sound defensive hockey. Richards, Giroux and Nodl played the role of shutdown top line, while Blair Betts, Dan Carcillo and Darroll Powe put forth perhaps the hardest-working shifts of the night. And Jeff Carter, well, damn. He played perhaps the best defensive game I've ever seen him play.

Carter is known as a great goal-scorer and very sound two-way player, but what he's not known for his winning battles along the boards and playing physical. Well guess what? Last night he was doing all of those things. Beyond winning faceoffs and making plays in the offensive zone, Jeff Carter was playing defense like a defenseman. He was mucking in the corners and winning the battles. And in a rare display, he was throwing his considerable size around. At one point, Sidney Crosby had the puck below the goal line in the Flyers zone. For all his great skill, Crosby may just be the most difficult player in the entire NHL to knock off the puck. He's way stronger than the casual fan realizes. Honestly, he probably gets knocked off the puck one percent of the time. This was one of them, and it was Jeff Carter who did it. He attacked Crosby aggressively, checked him into the boards, knocked him off the puck, stole it and sent the Flyers the other way. It was one of the most impressive plays I've ever seen from Jeff Carter, and if he starts doing that regularly the way Mike Richards so often does, he'll move up to another level. Really impressive game by Carter.

But again, as great as the Flyers were playing, they couldn't put Pittsburgh away. Then when they tried, it resulted in disaster. Up a goal with less than three minutes to play, Mike Richards and Darroll Powe found themselves bearing down on Fleury in a 2-on-1. Richards fired as Powe crashed the net. The problem was Powe crashed too hard, running right into Fleury for a goaltender interference. It was an absolutely stupid play by Powe. I know he was trying to put the game away with a goal, but you can't take a penalty there. Just can't. Especially when the Pens had already scored their only two goals of the night on the man advantage, and the Pittsburgh power play was getting chance after chance. Powe played a tremendous game overall, but that was a killer.

Or it could have been. Instead, the Flyers actually had their special teams bail them out. Betts and Nodl did a nice job early with Giroux and Richards a nice job late, but the star of the final two minutes was without a shadow of a doubt Kimmo Timonen.

I'm not even sure that words can do justice my feelings toward Kimmo Timonen. The Flyers have a ton of players on this team that I love. Claude Giroux is my favorite Philadelphia athlete (along with Cliff Lee) right now. Mike Richards is a warrior. I love the grinders like Darroll Powe and Blair Betts. Andrej Meszaros has been outstanding. There's nothing not to like about Ville Leino, Chris Pronger and Sergei Bobrovsky. But it's hard to appreciate anyone more than Kimmo Timonen.

He isn't just a good player. No, he doesn't put up numbers like Lidstrom and Green and some of the other flashier guys, but he truly is a great defenseman. And I mean great. He does everything right, always makes the right decision, rarely makes a mistake. And last night, he had one of the most impressive individual penalty kills I've ever seen, and it came with the game on the line.

At one point in those frantic 2 minutes, Kimmo blocked a Pittsburgh shot and was clearly stung by it. He immediately dropped his hand in pain. But the puck was still in play, and his team was down a man. So Kimmo wasted no time, went to the corner after the puck, threw his weight into a mass of Penguins, came away with the puck and cleared it. It was truly remarkable.

As the penalty expired, Powe came flying out of the box and gave the Flyers one final clear on a great effort, and the game was over. They killed off the penalty, snapped Pittsburgh's 12-game winning streak and jumped over the Pens to reclaim first place in the Eastern Conference.

Through 32 games, the Flyers have 45 points, the most in the NHL (and one more than the Penguins). They have three balanced scoring lines, a tremendous checking line, six top defensemen, numerous penalty killers and have gotten excellent goaltending by Bobrovsky and Boucher. The only thing missing right now is the power play, and you have think that will come with all the talent on this squad.

Just as importantly, the Flyers for the first time really since Crosby and Malkin came into their own look to be definitively better than the Penguins. They've played four times already this season, and the Flyers have won three of them. No one can match a duo of Malkin and Crosby, but the Flyers are way deeper from top to bottom. And there isn't another team in the NHL that can come close to having six defensemen as good as Philadelphia's.

There's still a long way to go, and a lot can happen, but the Flyers are in first for a reason — they're the best team in the Eastern Conference right now, and maybe the entire NHL.

No comments:

Post a Comment