Friday, February 4, 2011

On Ville Leino, Chris Therien, Bobby Clarke and Ray Emery

Last night, I had to go run an errand midway through the first period of the Predators-Flyers game. A few moments after I got in my car and turned on WIP, Chris Therien and Tim Saunders were discussing Ville Leino.

The conversation began with Saunders relaying that Peter Laviolette said, very carefully, that he doesn't necessarily mind when Leino turns the puck over as much as he does when other guys do it because he is so creative offensively and he doesn't want to stifle that creativity. Therien agreed, saying his only real criticism he has of Leino is that he doesn't shoot the puck enough in his opinion. It turned out to be unintentional foreshadowing at its best.

By the time I got home and watched a relatively bland, scoreless second period, I settled in for a tense third. This was two of the NHL's top teams — the Flyers first in the East and the Predators 4th in the west — really wanting those two points. A few minutes in, Scott Hartnell put the Flyers in position to take control, drawing a hooking penalty.

That's when Ville came calling. He set up shop on the power play behind the net, dished it to Richards near the circle next to boards, and when Richie fired, Leino drove from behind the net toward the crease, pounced on the rebound and banged it home.

It was Leino's first shot of the game, and it went in. Maybe Therien was on to something.

The goal was huge on a couple levels. Obviously, it gave the Flyers the lead with just over 13 minutes left in regulation. Secondly, it came on the power play against the third-besting penalty-killing unit in the NHL. Nashville has climbed to 4th in the West behind great defense, great goaltending and a damn near impenetrable PK unit, one that kills off more than 85 percent of penalties.

As good as the Flyers have been offensively this year, the power play has been the one area they've struggled. To capitalize late in a game against one of the best penalty-killing teams is a very encouraging sign.

Unfortunately, a few minutes later the Flyers returned the favor. Claude Giroux, who has done so little wrong since his NHL debut, made a crucial mistake. He lost control of his stick, getting it up on a Predator, taking a high-sticking penalty in the offensive zone with his team trying to protect a one-goal lead late.

The Flyers' penalty kill couldn't bail Giroux out, as Joel Ward — the player who hooked Hartnell, leading to Leino's go-ahead goal just minutes before — erased his mistake with a game-tying power-play goal of his own. Not good.

Moments later, Therien's words of advice to Leino came to full fruition. On the ice with Giroux and Jeff Carter, Leino was probably the last forward out there you would expect to occupy a vacant spot in the slot, spin and shoot a surprising backhand, picking the top corner. But that's exactly what Leino did.

It was one of the rare times that Leino was clearly thinking shot all the way, even going so far as to pull an impressive spin and fire an almost blind backhand. That surely had to make Therien happy. It definitely made every Flyers fan alive jump for joy.

And perhaps it will give Leino a little more confidence and/or inspiration to shoot the puck even more. His two goals were his only two shots on net all night, and for the season, he has by far the least amount of shots (80) among the top 9 forwards on the team. With now goals 12 and 13 last night, he uncoincidentally has the second highest shooting percentage on the team (.163), trailing only Giroux's .178. So yeah, maybe he should shoot it a little more.

It was an encouraging win coming off a terrible performance against Tampa Bay. Ville was the hero, Jeff Carter and Claude Giroux continued to be the hottest players on the team, with Carter opening the scoring and assisting on both of Leino's goals and Giroux notching assists on the first and last goals of the night. It was a very nice win and an important two points as the Flyers try to fend off the Lightning, Penguins and the rest of the Eastern Conference.

The opening ceremony honoring Bobby Clarke was great as well, as was Clarke's interview with Steve Coates before the game.

Clarke is the single most recognizable Flyer of all time, and few if any athletes are as beloved and respected (at least as a player) in Philadelphia than him. He was the captain on the only two Stanley Cup winners in franchise history. He's the all-time leading scorer in Flyers history. And he won 3 Hart Trophies as the league MVP. Even as a general manager, while he never built Cup winner and made several controversial moves, he was aggressive, always trying everything in his power to make the Flyers better. And he did turn the franchise from a few down years to a perennial Cup contender.

Bobby Clarke was known for a lot of things. What he's never been known for is his emotions. Clarke has always put on a stoic face, whether it was winning hockey games, facing the media or the camera panning on him in the press box. But last night, as he was being interview by Coates before the game and as he was out there at center ice, Bobby Clarke became emotional. He was fighting back tears and didn't even try to hide his smile. That's a rarity for the one man who represents the Flyers more than anyone else. And it was really nice to see.

I have to admit, when I heard the news that the Flyers might be interested in acquiring Ray Emery again, I kind of thought Clarke was back in the GM chair. It's the type of move he may have made at one point in time.

When the murmurs started to trickle in before last season that the Flyers were considering signing Ray Emery, I did not want, at all. For real. The Flyers signed him anyway, and Emery actually played pretty well … for all of 29 games, before a hip condition ended his season and many thought his career.

Now the word is out he's been cleared to play, and the Flyers are one of three teams interested in his services. I have to say, I just don't get it, once again. Now, I'm not nearly as opposed to this move, given that Emery accepts a two-way contract, as I was last season. Emery was a good citizen and played decently last year. But this team already has two goalies entrenched, albeit a career backup and a 22-year-old rookie still learning the nuances of the NHL game, and they still have last season's hero as another option down in the AHL. I just don't see the point in bringing in yet another goaltender at this point, especially with Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky doing a much more than adequate job thus far.

It's not like Emery has ever been a great goaltender. He had one fantastic season in Ottawa. That was in 2006-07, four years ago. Then he became a locker room cancer, mediocre goalie and sustained a huge hip injury, an important body part of goalies. If it were Evgeni Navokov or somone at that level or higher, I'd get it. But Ray Emery coming off a year hiatus? No thanks. I'll stick with Bob and Boosh, thank you very much.

It may happen, though — I'm just not sure why.

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