Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Flyers Return to Form

Prior to the NHL all-star break, the Philadelphia Flyers were the best team in hockey, both literally and aesthetically. They led the NHL in points and had such a huge cushion in the Eastern Conference that it looked all but certain that they’d finish as the top seed. Night in and night out, they looked like the superior team every time they hit the ice. The Flyers looked like a team that was determined to get two more wins in the playoffs than they did last season and raise the Stanley Cup for the first time since Bobby Clarke was winning Hart Trophies.

But as happens in hockey and most professional sports, the Flyers grew complacent with such a large lead and started to skid. The problem is that skid lasted longer than anyone could have anticipated. To the point where they lost their grip on the top seed in the East, and went on an extended winless streak at the end of the season. They still finished as the second seed and still had more depth and talent than just about any team in league, but they weren’t playing well at all. Couple that with an injury to Chris Pronger, a few bumps and bruises to key contributors and the pretty porous, sloppy play after the all-star break, and what looked like another Stanley Cup Final run began to look more like an early-round exit.

That only intensified when the Flyers lost game 1 to the Sabres, getting shut out by Ryan Miller, and questions loomed night after night with the revolving door in net. Even though the Flyers out-played the Sabres in nearly every one of the six games, they still looked more like the team after the all-star break than the dominant one from before it.

Well last night, in a deciding game 7 in South Philadelphia, the Flyers finally were that team the fans have been waiting for to return. From the drop of the puck to the final horn, the Flyers were not just the better team, they were as good as any team in these playoffs has looked for 60 minutes. The team that was running through the Eastern Conference prior to February returned.

As far as game sevens go, this one lacked any sort of drama, and I couldn’t have been happier. The Flyers came out and just took it to the Sabres right from the start, outshooting Buffalo 16-2 in the first period. And even though they only scored once in that first 20 minutes – on a fairly bad goal by Ryan Miller nonetheless (I know it was deflected by Mike Grier’s hand, but it was soft and went right through Miller) – there was very little worry after that.

Everything was clicking for the Flyers. They were playing the type of hockey that got them to be one of the best teams in the league, getting the puck deep, winning puck battles, forechecking hard, cycling the puck, driving the net, doing everything right. Shit, even their dreadful power play woke up, scoring on their first two chances thanks to a faceoff win by Danny Briere back to Mike Richards on the first one, where Richards fired right away, and Briere stuffed it in as he headed to the net. The second came by James van Riemsdyk doing what Jeff Carter wouldn’t. JVR, who really was head and shoulders the best forward in this entire series finally emerging as the force the Flyers expected him to become, stood in front of Ryan Miller to screen him. And when the shot came from the point, JVR didn’t jump out the way and try to bat it the way Carter always does, thus taking away the screen and making it more difficult to deflect. No, JVR held his ground, faced the shooter and never moved, just getting the puck with his stick to give the Flyers the 3-0 lead and complete control off the game.

The maturation of van Riemsdyk in this series cannot be overstated. He was absolutely incredible in every single game, the best player on the ice in most of them. If he sustains that play, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t, this team only gets better. He’s turning into a stud right before our eyes, and he’s skyrocketed up the chart as far as becoming one of my favorite Flyers. JVR was absolutely awesome this series.

As was his young teammate, Claude Giroux. Giroux had some turnover troubles early in the series, but he came back and re-emerged as the player he was last postseason and was again this entire year. Giroux was all over the ice last night, so dominant in the first period that Peter Laviolette was putting him out there what felt like every other shift. It’s going to be incredibly fun watching JVR and Giroux grow together in the Orange and Black. It really is.

And that brings me to the other guy that started the game on the JVR-Giroux line, Nikolay Zherdev. This season, Flyers fan have gotten the entire Nik Zherdev spectrum – offensive brilliance, maddeningly terrible defense, dominant games, horrible games, and everything in between. At times, I’ve praised him and was left in awe. Other times I couldn’t wait for Laviolette to make him a healthy scratch for lazy plays and defensive indifference. But I have to say, last night, Zherdev was an absolute man out there. He played, hands down in my mind, his best game as a Philadelphia Flyer, and he didn’t even record a point. Now that’s saying something.

Zherdev is in the NHL for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to create offense and score goals. Last night, he had just one shot on net and didn’t tally a point, but he was absolutely a factor. I don’t know what got into him, but Zherdev was a one-man wrecking crew out there, throwing more checks last night than I think he’s thrown in his entire NHL career. He was backchecking harder than he ever has in his life, making several key defensive plays. And he won puck battles, kept plays alive, basically looked like Mike Richards when he’s on top of his game. It was remarkable to watch. I can’t say enough about Zherdev last night. He impressed the hell out of me, playing the type of game I didn’t think he had in him. If he keeps that up, an extremely big if given his history but still, he’ll never be a healthy scratch again. Great effort out of him last night.

Just as I can’t say enough about Danny Briere.

Ever since the Flyers signed Briere to a very healthy contract, there has been talk about how it was one of the worst contracts in the league, partly due to injury and a lack of production because of that, partly because of the situation it put the Flyers in with the salary cap. He’s been rumored to be on the trading block, subject to criticism by fans and media alike.

But when the bright lights come on and it’s time for the playoffs, Briere is always one of the best players in the entire league. He has been his whole career, and he has been in every playoff series he’s been in wearing the Orange and Black. There was nothing different this time around.

Briere came off his most production season in Philadelphia and carried that right over into the playoffs against his former team. And he was the most potent scorer in the series, and one of the most potent in this first round of the playoffs. His goal last night was enormous, and it was the sixth time he beat his former teammate Ryan Miller in the series. Six goals in seven games. The man steps up when the Flyers need him. There’s no two ways about it. He won two faceoffs that led directly to the first two goals, continued to snipe and hang around the net, and simply played more tremendous hockey. Thank god the Flyers didn’t trade Briere, because there are few players out there I’d rather have this time of year. He lives for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It was nice to see his linemate Ville Leino light the lamp last night as well, chasing miller with an absolute laser. That’s the type of shot that makes Flyers even more frustrated that he rarely lets a shot fly. That was an absolutely perfect slapper.

Last night, everything came together. Every Flyer that took the ice played not just well, but great. Dan Carcillo played tremendous all series, driving the net hard, agitating Ryan Miller and playing smart, never retaliating as he took shot after shot, the game misconduct late last not excluded. And he scored twice in the series, putting the exclamation point on the series last night and getting the last word in to the Buffalo bench.

Blair Betts and Darroll Powe were defensive monsters once again, doing an incredible job on the penalty kill, starting games and periods for the Flyers with Carcillo because of their defense, and cycling the puck in Buffalo’s zone all series. The fourth line was outstanding this series, probably the most consistently good line for the Flyers all seven games.

Mike Richards and Kris Versteeg, who players who struggled mightily as the team struggled and two guys who were rather invisible in games 1 and 2, absolutely took their game to another level as the series wore on. Versteeg went from a player I was extremely disappointed in and blaming more than anyone for the funk this team was in into the player I thought the Flyers were getting. He really was a force, especially the past three or four games, doing all the little things we were told he was so good at. And although Richards didn’t light the lamp in the series, he got the offense going as well, setting up some of the series’ most beautiful goals with great passes or blasts from the point. And of course he was defensively responsible as always, doing a great job with Versteeg in their own zone and both players doing outstanding work on the penalty kill, along with Claude.

Speaking of defense, even though this series went 7 games and the Sabres got their fair share of goals, the Flyers’ defensemen were really excellent all series. A lot of the goals, as we all know, were the result of laughably bad goaltending. Though you have to tip your hat to Brian Boucher. Outside of his one atrocious period of hockey in game 5, Boosh outplayed Ryan Miller, something no one could have foreseen. Even after getting embarrassingly pulled in game 5 and benched in game 6 before coming in to save the day, Boucher played brilliantly last night. The Flyers didn’t ask much from him, but when needed to make a big stop, he did. He’s the guy going forward, no doubt about it, and I honestly am comfortable with that. He may not win you a series, but there’s a better than good chance he won’t lose you one either, if the goaltending as a whole almost did do the Flyers in this series.

Truthfully, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn were beasts once again, shutting down Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville before they were injured. Timonen really is just one of the most underrated players in all of hockey. Sean O’Donnell and Andrej Meszaros continued to prove to be fantastic offseason acquisitions. Both players were smothering last night, O’Donnell making some particularly nifty, veteran plays. Matt Carle built off his breakout season last year, continuing to play really well. Danny Syvret didn’t hurt the team much with Pronger out. And the return Pronger had such a steadying influence on this team.

Pronger didn’t play much in game 6, but his presence on the power play helped them gain confidence on it. And with him taking regular shifts last night, albeit playing about 10 less minutes than when he’s healthy, the entire team could settle back in to the normal defensive pairing. Pronger played just 17 minutes last night, but he stood out in all of them. Early on, he jumped in and intercepted a pass. He blocked shots. He made no mistakes, and I honestly believe just having him in the lineup taking regular shifts was a big part as to why this team got back to playing the type of hockey it was playing earlier this year. Pronger means that much. And though it’s an extremely small sample size and not entirely reflective of what he did on the ice, the Flyers won both games Chris Pronger played in this series. As he gets healthy, the Flyers are only going to get better, hopefully as good as they were last night.

If they can start playing the way they played last night on a consistent basis, if they can regain that form from before the all-star break the way they did in game 7, this team is more than capable of beating anyone. There’s no question about it. They dominated game 7 the way they dominating the majority of the regular season. If that’s a sign to come, there’s no reason this team can’t finish with two more wins than last postseason.

LET’S GO FLYERS!!!!!!!!!!

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