Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Missing Piece

For the majority of my life, the Flyers have been one of the best franchises in the NHL. It truly began during the Eric Lindros era and has continued to this day, minus one epically bad season mixed in. Yet year in and year out, the Flyers have always come up short, whether it was an unexpectedly early playoff exit, the seemingly annual dismissal at the hands of the Devils or heartbreaking series a la Tampa Bay, Detroit and Chicago.

During this run of impressive regular seasons that ultimately end short of hoisting the Stanley Cup, one thing has been missing more than anything else. That thing is a goaltender that can literally win you not just a game, but an entire series, as every Flyers fan alive can attest to. Well, the Buffalo Sabres have that missing piece in Ryan Miller, and he is the only reason why this series is now tied 2-2 heading back to the Wells Fargo Center tomorrow night.

I could talk about the questionable referring — which had me screaming and yelling and jumping up and down — but as bad as some of those calls and no calls were (especially giving Mike Richards a major for that elbow), the referees didn't decide last night's game. Ryan Miller did. The Flyers could have had all the power plays in the world last night, and it wouldn't have mattered. Not only because their power play is a complete disgrace (seriously, it's fucking atrocious), but because Ryan Miller simply was not going to yield anything last night. For the second time in this series, Miller literally played flawless hockey.

And while the Flyers dominated the game for the most part after the first half of the first period, they weren't flawless. Particularly on the lone goal of the game.

The entire play was a series of mistakes. First, the Flyers backed up, allowing Buffalo to enter the zone easily, instead of holding the blue line. Then, after a nice poke check by Danny Syvret, Giroux couldn't get his stick on the puck, a difficult play. And most egregiously, Nikolay Zherdev, who every single person in the comments section insisted absolutely has to be in the lineup no matter what, tried to break out of the zone early on the original poke check instead of taking care of his defensive responsibility. That left Matt Carle in an impossible 2-on-1 situation, resulting in a slam-dunk goal for Jason Pominville.

That's why Zherdev has had such a difficult time staying in Peter Laviolette's lineup. For all the good things he does offensively, he goes and does that, completely ignoring his assignment defensively, resulting in a goal for Buffalo. It turned out to be the difference in the game. Well, that and Ryan Miller.

Honestly, it's difficult to be too upset with the Flyers last night. This wasn't game 1, where they generated very little great scoring chances despite controlling the game. After the initial 10 minutes, when Buffalo took it to the Flyers and scored the goal, the Flyers played exactly the way you want. They forechecked aggressively, cut down on mistakes, fired the rubber at Miller, got traffic in front, won puck battles, created tremendous chances. They just couldn't beat Miller. He was too damn good.

The best chance they had was on the play above, with Danny Briere all alone down low with the Buffalo goalie. It sure did look like Briere had a whole lot of room to score between Miller's legs, but Briere tried to beat him glove side. His former teammate would have none of it. Hindsight is always 20-20, and I'm sure Briere is kicking himself for not sliding between Miller's five-hole after his poke check missed, but what can you do? Sometimes you a goaltender can steal a game and even a series. So far, it's been Flyers 2, Ryan Miller 2. He's that guy the Flyers have been searching for forever. Unfortunately, he's winning games for the opposition.

And I mean this as no indictment of Brian Boucher. Boosh was fantastic again last night. He stopped 28 of the 29 shots he faced, and the one he gave up he had absolutely no chance on. Boucher has been spectacular. He really has. But even with his impressive playoff numbers and awesome play in the two-plus games he's been in net so far, he won't singlehandedly win the Flyers a series the way Ryan Miller has singlehandedly evened this thing up for Buffalo. The guy is incredible, and it's incredibly frustrating that Philadelphia isn't up 3 games to 1 or done with the Sabres in a clean sweep. But what can you do besides keep cracking away and hoping you can crack through the way the Flyers did in games 2 and 3?

I'd be remiss if I didn't comment on a few Flyers in particular last night. For the second straight game, Kris Versteeg impressed the hell out of me. He was flying all over the ice, making plays, creating chances and playing sound defensive hockey. These past two games he's been every bit the player I thought the Flyers were getting when they traded for him. Glad to see him pick him game up. His forechecking and pressure on the puck was a big reason the Flyers got things going after that first 10 minutes.

And to me, even with James van Riemsdyk continuing to be the best skater on the ice and the top three lines creating chances, the fourth line was the best of the bunch last night.

Dan Carcillo had his best game in forever. He showed the offensive flair that had some people thinking he'd be much more than a fourth-line agitator when he was coming up. Carcillo was all over the place last night, drawing penalties and pounding the Sabres on both ends of the ice. He had a jump in his step that we haven't seen in quite some time. And his linemates followed suit.

Blair Betts and Daroll Powe have been stalwarts on the penalty kill all season long, and they were again last night, especially when killing off that five-minute major to start the third period. And at even strength, no line cycled the puck better or spent more time in Buffalo's zone than Betts-Powe and Carcillo. It really was an impressive showing by that trio. It's a shame they weren't rewarded with a goal.

But with the good came the bad. Namely, Jeff Carter injuring his knee on a collision with Tyler Myers. Missing a goal-scorer against a guy that's already difficult to score against is a big deal. Hopefully Carter is OK to go tomorrow night and/or Sunday, because with the way Ryan Miller has played in games 1 and 4, the Flyers will need as many goal-scorers as possible in the lineup.

And speaking of Tyler Myers, I cannot say enough about the kid. He has been downright awesome in this series, and he was against last night. In the NHL, we're used to our big defensemen being smart and using their reach, but not being that agile or fast. Zdeno Chara, Chris Pronger, even guys like Derian Hatcher before them use their size, strength, reach and smarts to dominate. Tyler Myers has all that, but he also has the speed and agility of players half his size. At 6'8" that's frightening. The kid has been the biggest standout on the blue line for either team thus far, and that's certainly not helping Philadelphia in finding a way to beat Miller.

Thankfully the Phillies won in come-from-behind fashion to give the day something positive. After the bats went silent Monday and Tuesday, it was Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino supplying the power and re-igniting the bats just as the Phils drew it up. Or something like that.

Anyway, it was nice to see Polanco have another monster game with his three-run jack to tie the game in the 6th and Victorino continuing his hot start with an absolute bomb in the 7th to give the Phils a 4-3 win and prevent the sweep. Unfortunately, no one could get a hit on Tuesday, when I sat out in the cold and rain to watch Roy Halladay labor through six innings only to have David Herndon surrender a game-ending (for all intents and purposes) home run on his first pitch. Oh yeah, and the Phillies only got two hits off Randy Wolf, one of which was a bunt single by Jimmy Rollins.

This week has not exactly been that great. Hopefully that all changes tonight with the Sixers getting a boost from the home crowd. Though somehow I doubt it.

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