Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Power Outage

It's only fitting that yesterday and today the intense winds here in Philadelphia caused brief power outages in both my house and my office. This weekend, Villanova and the Flyers sustained power outages as well in their losses — Nova down in manpower and the Flyers continuing their season-long impotence on the power play.

On Friday, I headed up my parent's way and hung out with silver fox. During the course of the night, I told him that I wish Dominic Cheek would play more. For whatever reason, I just feel like he can contribute in a lot of ways if he gets the playing time. Little did I know I was about to get my wish.

Unfortunately, it happened due to unfortunate circumstances. Early on Saturday, I found out that Nova's leading three-point shooter and second-leading scorer Corey Stokes was out of action. That meant Villanova was down a lethal offensive weapon against a really good, really tough defensive-minded Pitt team. Not good. To beat Pitt, even at the Pavilion, the Wildcats had to be at their best, and missing Stokes made that very challenging. But, all it really did was make the two teams even, because the Panthers were without their own star. Pitt's leading scorer Ashton Gibbs didn't suit up either.

Basically, neither team was playing with a full deck, and it showed. Big time.

Silver fox and I were invited to Arkansas Fred's house to watch the game … and were left out in the cold because Fred wasn't home in time for the start. Forced to listen to the first few minutes in my car, we rushed inside and headed straight for the basement to watch the game. We shouldn't have been in such a hurry, because the first half was about as ugly as a half of basketball gets.

Yes, Nova did take a four-point lead into halftime, but it was hardly pretty. Without Corey Stokes, the Wildcats struggled to get anything going offensively. They couldn't hit anything from beyond the arc, and Maalik Wayns, who was reinserted back into the starting lineup to replace Stokes, was atrocious in the first 20 mintues, turning the ball over recklessly, missing layups and open jumpers, forcing bad shots. It was painful to watch.

The first half was so disjointed that not a single player hit double digits. Corey Fisher, the guy expected to carry the offensive load without Stokes, had just four shot attempts in the first half. Wayns was just 1-7 shooting, and the Wildcats made shot 38.5 percent from the field and made only one of six threes. The good news was Pitt didn't do any better, shooting 32.1 percent and going 0-fer from beyond the arc, hence the three-point lead.

But in the second half, it was the Pitt's Philly guys that took over. Brad Wanamaker, Wayns' former teammate at Roman Catholic, had 15 huge second-half points, and Chester's Nasir Robinson added 8 of his own. For the game, Wanamaker finished with a game-high 21 points and basically made every play down the stretch that Pitt needed. Robinson had 15 points and 7 rebounds himself, getting to line 14 times in the process. And he also was involved in the game-changing play early in the second half.

With Nova still up 3 just a few minutes in, Robinson fouled Mouphtaou Yarou —  the lone Wildcat who was having a pretty nice game. The two got tangled, and in stepped Isaiah Armwood to break it up. Or so it seemed, because actually what Armwood did was nonchalantly throw a punch at Robinson. That led to a long break so the refs could go to the monitor, and from that moment on, Pitt took command.

Shortly thereafter, Pitt took the lead and began to play from ahead the rest of the way. For a moment, it looked as though the Panthers might run away with it. But Yarou continued to get things going, and suddenly Wayns began to heat up. Then, the Cats suffered another death blow. With just under 5 minutes remaining in a very tight contest, Corey Fisher got called on an incredibly tough charge, jump-stopping in the lane. Wanamaker went down, probably still moving, and drew the charge. It was Fish's 5th, meaning Nova had to play the final five minutes without their top two scorers.

Wayns and Yarou did everything in their power to keep it close, and Nova found itself down by three with the ball and just 26 seconds remaining following a huge steal by Antonio Pena. With 13 seconds left, Jay Wright called a timeout. Naturally, the ball was placed in Wayns' hands to decide things. After an awful first half, he had heated up and was the guy you wanted taking the potential game-tying shot. But Pitt ran two guys at Wayns, so he gave it up to Cheek. Instead of taking his time and either getting a good look or getting the ball back to Wayns, Cheek, the player I had suggested needed more playing time, threw up a wild shot that didn't go in. By the time Cheeks tracked down his own miss and tossed it out to Wayns, time was expiring. Of course, Wayns launched a shot after the buzzer that went in a second too late.

In the end, it was the Philly guys who decided it. Wanamaker and Robinson led Pitt to victory, while Wayns was just a second too late. It was an especially biting loss following the embarrassing ending at Rutgers. But when it came down to it, Villanova simply didn't have enough firepower to overcome the absence of Corey Stokes and then the loss of Corey Fisher in the final minutes.

That game left a bitter taste in my mouth, but the good news was I ready to put it in my rearview mirror and head to the Flyers-Kings game. A few months ago, I purchased tickets to Sunday's game as part of my Spectrum seats package and headed on down to the game with my cousin.

What we witnessed was one of the ugliest 40-shot performances in hockey history.

The Flyers lead the Eastern Conference in goals scored and trail only the Canucks and Red Wings in the entire NHL. However, since the calendar flipped over to the shortest month of the year, they've averaged only two goals a game heading into Sunday, including being shut out against the Lightning. The goals have been a little harder to come by.

To try and reverse that trend, Peter Laviolette decided to tinker with his lines. Usually, I'm 100 percent on board with just about anything Laviolette does. He just seems to know what buttons to push when at all time times. But I really, really wasn't feeling the super line of Mike Richards, Claude Giroux and Jeff Carter. Not because I have any problem with that trio skating together, but because that meant the third line was Andreas Nodl, James van Riemsdyk and Dan Carcillo —  three young players that have never been asked to carry a line in their entire careers.

Basically, the game was a disaster. Yes, the Flyers outshot the 40-25. Yes, Scott Hartnell in particular had a couple of golden opportunities to bury the puck and couldn't, and the Flyers played a large portion of the game in the Los Angeles end. But something was off from the very start.

It began when a group of upper middle-aged people sat behind us. These morons didn't know a damn thing about hockey. I mean, not a thing. One of the guys didn't even know who Alexander Ovechkin was, and in the final minutes of the third period with the Flyers still trailing 1-0 and failing to solve the Jonathan Quick puzzle, one of the ladies in the group tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I knew why Gagne wasn't playing. I stopped for a second and tried to calm myself down. I thought for a second that she was joking. When I realized she wasn't, I said in a very annoyed tone, "What do you mean? Simon Gagne? He's not on the Flyers anymore. He's on the Lightning."

If there was ever a time that punching a female should be allowed, that was it.

The thing that was odd about the game was that the Flyers were totally outplaying the Kinds on the scoreboard, but that's not what my eyes told me. Los Angeles was crisper with its passes. They had an easier time getting out of their own zone and retrieving pucks in the offensive end. And Quick was simply outstanding. He stoned Scott Hartnell twice, pounced on any and all rebound attempts and basically won the game for the Kings.

At the other end, Sergei Bobrovsky was matching him save for save. He made an insane breakaway save, stretching farther than any man should able to stretch, and came up with huge save after huge save late. The lone goal he surrendered 17 seconds into the second period sort of caught him and everyone else offguard, but you can hardly blame the loss on Bob. He stood on his head besides that.

Bobrovsky was the best player in the game for Philadelphia, and the only other player on the ice that outperformed him was his counterpart.

But the reason the Flyers lost the game, possibly even more than running into an outstanding performance by Quick, was the joke that is their power play. The Flyers had three power play opportunities alone in the second period —  two too many men on the ice penalties and tripping minor by the Kings. A little over a minute into the second too many men penalty, LA tried to gift the Flyers a goal by taking a tripping penalty, giving them more than a minute of a two-man advantage. Yet time and time again, the Flyers would lose the draw, allowing the Kings to clear and kill valuable time. Then they couldn't get set up, couldn't get shots through, couldn't do anything on the power play. When you add another early power play in the third, the Flyers had four golden opportunities to tie the game, yet they failed to even pose a threat. I'm not even sure that they had more than a shot or two combined in those four power plays. It was embarrassing, and this team's power play has been an embarrassment all season long.

The Flyers have the deepest offensive lineup in all of hockey. They've scored an insane amount of goals. Yet their power play operates at a measly 17.5 percent. That puts them at 17th in the NHL, behind teams such as the Islanders and Wild, two teams that have struggled to score goals all season long. It just doesn't make any sense. The Flyers were so bad on the power play Sunday that it got to the point that you wish they could decline the penalty.

The worst player of all was Jeff Carter, one of the most potent scorers in the league. He was just awful Sunday. All game long he was turning the puck over with terrible passes. He kept losing face-off after face-off, especially on the power play. And he looked out of sync playing with two other centers. I know the Flyers haven't scored at a high clip this month, but I'm not sure why Laviolette would tinker with the Giroux and Carter pairing. Those two have been so hot playing together with another winer, whether it be Nikolay Zherdev or James van Riemsdyk. Putting them with Richards, who has been so good with a rotating door of wingers, seemed to throw them all off.

But I'm not too concerned about that. Laviolette will the get the lines right, and those three will be just fine. The power play on the other hand is a concern. It has been all year. Nothing has worked, and it's tough to figure out. I still don't know why the Hartnell-Briere-Leino line isn't just one unit in and of itself. That trio was again the one line that really looked good Sunday, and they've been awesome together all year. Why not just leave that chemistry in tact and play them together up front on the power play? As it currently stands, Giroux's been out there with Briere and Hartnell on one line, with Richards and Carter playing with either Ville Leino or JVR lately. It hasn't worked. So it's probably time to change things up again, because on Sunday it got so bad that I was calling for the Betts-Powe-Shelley to get a chance. They couldn't have done any worse.

The good news is that even more offensive help is on the way. The Flyers traded two draft picks for the young, talented Kris Versteeg, a player they're all too familiar with after losing to his team then, the Blackhawks, in the Stanley Cup Final.

Versteeg has had 14 goals and 21 assists this year as a member of the dreadful Maple Leafs, and even though he has just 13 power-play points, perhaps he can infuse some life to the man advantage. He will be playing with a much better cast of teammates.

I'm completely on board with the Versteeg acquisition. He's a young, versatile player that can score and play on just about any line. I'm guessing this means we see very little if any Zherdev and Dan Carcillo the remainder of the year. We'll see, but it's a nice problem to have.

Oh, and it's ridiculous that that hit by Stoll on Pronger late in the third wasn't called a penalty. It was the definition of boarding, hitting a defenseless player from behind near the boards. Regardless, it was an incredibly stupid retaliation penalty for Pronger to take with the Flyers down a goal late in the third period. I hated this weekend.

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