Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Philadelphia State of Mind

For the past couple of months, the Flyers have not played to the same level they had played for the majority of the regular season. It's been pretty clear that they aren't dominating the same way they were.

Still, the Flyers sit atop the Eastern Conference and have garnered points in 10 of their last 11 games, highlighted by last night's emphatic 5-2 victory over the Penguins.

Any rational fan would be happy with the way things are playing out. Sure, there's cause for concern with the level of play tapering off a bit and the ever-present goalie uncertainty that is Flyers hockey, but when you look at the big picture, the Flyers still remain as the top seed in the conference with 102 points and six games to play.

When you think about it, a lull was bound to happen sooner or later for several reasons. Number one, the Flyers were incredibly lucky with their health during the first part of the season, especially with their key players. That hasn't always been the case since. Several key players, namely Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, missed a few games here and there with the flu. James van Riemsdyk, who has really taken the next step this year, had some groin trouble and missed a few games. And most notably, Chris Pronger has been out with a broken bone in his hand. Then you add in the loss of seventh defenseman Oskars Bartulis, and the Flyers haven't been quite as lucky in the health department. Oh yeah, and Kimmo Timonen suffered a lower-body injury last night.

Then you add in the fact that at this time of year, the teams fighting for playoff position are desperate … and they play with that desperation. It's easy to say that every team should come out with the same intensity every night, but that's not realistic. The Flyers built such a big cushion early that they simply haven't had the same desperation as the teams chasing them and chasing playoff spots. That's been another huge factor of late.

It was bound to happen, and when you really think about it, you had to expect it. But this team is still in first, still as deep and as talented as anyone, and still primed to make another deep run in the quest to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.

Flyers fans should recognize that and take some comfort in that. But this is Philadelphia, and that's not how things work. It just isn't. It's part of our DNA. Philadelphians are so used to being the unlovable losers that they always expect the worse. It's been a way of life for too long, one that was washed away briefly when the Phillies became World Fucking Champions, but something that cannot be forever taken away with one championship in 25 years.

I'm guilty of this. I know I am, especially when it comes to the Eagles. But I've recently reached a point in my life where that Philadelphia state of mind — always expecting the worst — has become tiresome. Yet I cannot avoid it, mostly because of one friend in particular.

Shortly after the all-star break, he started griping about the Flyers' play. His grumblings became louder as the team continued to look flat. And in the past two weeks, he's completely abandoned ship, saying after the shootout loss to the Capitals in which Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher let up four soft goals that the Flyers aren't good enough to win with Bobrovsky and Boucher in net, completely forgetting that this same team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year with a revolving door of average-at-best goalies. He's called them dogs, pointed out every flaw, and completely and utterly jumped off the belief this team — a team with the most points in its conference and second-most in NHL — can win it all.

Frankly, I'm tired of it. I just don't want to hear it anymore. I really don't. Am I upset and troubled by the way the team has played for the past two months? Yes. But do I think it spells doom? No. This team has been too good for too long. They have the depth and the talent, and they'll be getting Chris Pronger back right around playoff time. The pieces are still there. Do they have to turn it around and play better? Absolutely. Will they? I don't know, but I don't need to be told they can't. Last year is evidence that anything can happen, from a low seed finishing just two wins shy of the Cup to a top seed winning it all. And these Flyers aren't in position to miss the playoffs altogether or even squander hosting a first-round series the way they were the past two seasons.

We overreact in Philadelphia — as most sports fans do everywhere — to every slump and every loss. I get it. I've spent my entire life here and have done the exact some thing. But sometimes we all need to step back and look at the big picture. The Flyers have enjoyed a comfortable lead and good fortune for the majority of the season. They were bound to get complacent and hit a rough patch. It's just human nature. In professional sports today, it's rare for a team to dominate from start to finish without any hiccups along the way.

But with the Capitals, Bruins and Penguins putting the heat on the Flyers of late, they've been beginning to turn things around, even without Pronger. And last night they passed a crucial test. The Flyers entered Pittsburgh just two points ahead of the Penguins. A loss in regulation, and the Flyers would suddenly be tied with their cross-state rival in the standings, albeit with a game in hand. But the Flyers turned their game up a notch after falling behind 2-1 in the second period, scoring two goals in 47 seconds to take the lead.

They never looked back, as Ville Leino added two more in the third to put the game out of reach. With the pressure squarely back on the team's shoulders, they responded emphatically. The Danny Briere, Ville Leino, Scott Hartnell line reasserted itself, playing at the level it did in the early going. All three players had at least two points, with Leino leading everyone with three. Jeff Carter and Claude Giroux both scored, continuing to be a dynamic duo. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 of 27 shots, and the Flyers picked up two crucial points without allowing the Penguins to get any. And as bad as they've seemingly been playing, the Flyers are 5-1-4 in their last 10 games. They've earned points in 10 of their last 11. And they still have a three-point lead on second-place Washington with a game in hand.

I'm from Philadelphia, born in Abington Hospital, raised in the Northeast and the suburbs, and residing in the city once again. I get the negativity. I pretty much perfected it over the years. It's the Philadelphia way. That's why we bitch and moan even as the Flyers sit atop the conference and control their own destiny for home ice advantage.

It's the Philadelphia state of mind, for better or worse. But frankly, I'm growing tired of it. I don't want to expect my team to fail just so I can I told you so. I'm not sure I'm capable of doing it, and I'm certainly not promising anything. But I'm trying because like most things Philadelphia is noted for — cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, tastykakes, scrapple, murder — the Philadelphia sports state of mind can't be good for your health.

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