Friday, April 15, 2011

Nice of (One of) You to Show Up

As you may have heard, I attended game 1 of the Flyers-Sabres series last night with Adam EatShit. Maybe it was because I was there and felt the energy (and lack there of) of the building that led me to slightly disagree with Matt P's assessment of last night's 1-0 loss:

Sifting through the ashes of the Flyers' 1-0 loss to the Sabres to open the playoffs, it's hard to come down too hard on them despite losing a game we really wanted to see them win. They played well overall, with a single play that was by no means terrible leading to the game's only goal. The Flyers generated some very good scoring opportunities, but couldn't beat Ryan Miller, nor his defense, which clamped down on the slot and surrounding area once the Sabres had the lead. 

Yes, the Flyers outshot the Sabres 35-25 last night. Yes, they won the faceoff battle. Yes, they took less penalties, threw more hits and had more scoring chances. But being at the game and watching it all unfold, the Flyers hardly played well, at least offensively.

I agree 100 percent that the defense played extremely well. The Flyers surrendered just 25 shots, and the Sabres generated very few chances. When they did, Sergei Bobrovsky was there to answer the call. In his first career playoff start, Bob was stellar. While he did leave a big rebound on the game's lone goal, he did just about everything right last night, absorbing the puck and leaving few rebounds, never losing track of the puck, making all the saves you can expect. It was perhaps his best start in a month.

You'll get no complaints on Bob from me. Nor from the defensive work of the Flyers. The only negative came on that rebound goal by Patrick Kaleta, with Danny Syvret letting him get behind him and bang it home.

It would have been nice to see Syvret get in better position and take that away, but I won't be too hard on the young defenseman. He played fairly well.

What absolutely disgusted me last night was the complete lack of energy from any forward not named James van Reimsdyk.

First, let me get the good out of the way. JVR was absolutely awesome last night. He was head and shoulders the best player on the ice for either team, and that even includes Ryan Miller. This time last season, van Riemsdyk was struggling to get ice time in the playoffs and looked completely lost. But over the past couple of months, with the Flyers slumping, he's been one of the few consistently good forwards. Last night, he carried that over into the playoffs. JVR was flying all over the ice, creating a ton of scoring chances, backchecking hard, blocking shots, and honestly playing perhaps the best game I've ever seen him play. He was all amped up and ready to go.

The problem was none of the other forwards seemed too eager to join him. Yes, the Flyers looked really good early, creating a lot of chances, but after the first couple of minutes, many of those 35 shots were easy saves for Miller. Claude Giroux had some of his typical brilliant moments, but he also gave the puck away a ton. Danny Briere was humming, but he didn't really get things going the way he typically has against his former team. And barely anyone else did a damn thing.

Honestly, for all the shit the fans give Andreas Nodl, he may have been the second-best forward on the night for the Flyers. At least he consistently busted his ass and looked determined. I can't say the same for anyone else.

Ville Leino made a habit of trying to go through too many people again. Scott Hartnell was relatively quiet, failing to even stir the pot. The fourth line worked hard but couldn't generate anything more than a modest forecheck. Jeff Carter, save for his one great chance, was damn near invisible. And Kris Versteeg and Mike Richards actually were invisible, not doing a damn thing.

And that brings me to the root cause of the problem with the Flyers. Remember earlier this season, when the Flyers were ripping through the NHL and night in and night out looked far better than anyone else? During those times, Mike Richards was quietly playing some of the best hockey of his entire career. While the Briere line was lighting the lamp like crazy and Giroux was getting the headlines with his all-star level play, Richards was racking up the points himself, and doing so while being given a revolving door of wingers.

Every time a player hit a rough patch, Peter Laviolette would put that guy on Richards' line, and he'd snap out of the funk — Nikolay Zherdev, JVR, Dan Carcillo, even Nodl. Richards was not only playing his typical style of hockey, but he honestly was making his linemates better on a nightly basis.

Then Paul Holmgren went out and acquired Kris Versteeg, and everything changed. At the time of the trade, I was ecstatic. Versteeg has been a very good, very productive player for the Chicago Blackhawks before going to Toronto this season, and Holmgren didn't have to give up anyone on the roster to get him. It looked like a brilliant addition — another player who could play in all situations, a scorer and defensive player. But ever since that trade, the Flyers have been a mediocre hockey team at best. And Versteeg has been complete and utter shit.

I have no idea where the guy who looked so good in Chicago went. But I have been nothing but underwhelmed with Kris Versteeg since he put on the Orange and Black. He came here with a reputation of being a smart, hard worker who could make plays. He's shown absolutely none of that. At all.

Versteeg has been an even bigger perpetrator than Ville Leino when it comes to trying to do too much with the puck. He routinely tries to stickhandle through 2, 3, even four guys, rarely ever succeeding. He seemingly refuses to shoot, a trait that has rubbed off on most of his teammates. He rarely dumps the puck in to make the simple play, and he makes so many ill-advised passes that it drives me nuts. Last night, Versteeg continued to do all of those things, and he was without a shadow of a doubt in my mind the single worst player on the ice.

It pains me to say that, because I was all for this trade and actually liked Versteeg before he came here. But he has sucked ever since he got here, and he's sucked the life out of this team, especially the captain. Since being paired with Versteeg, Richards' play has plummeted. Initially, the two looked to have a good rapport, finding each other often and looking very comfortable. But it was all an illusion. All of Versteeg's bad traits have rubbed off on Richards, and the bad traits Richards' already had have magnified. Those two are supposed to be two of the top players on the team, but lately they've been playing like fourth-liners. And last night, they were completely invisible, save for the glaring bad plays Versteeg made.

Though the offense didn't go silent solely because of Versteeg and Richards. It began with the power play literally stifling all the early momentum the Flyers had in the game.

When the puck dropped, the Wells Fargo Center was rocking. The place was loud and energetic and the Flyers started well. Then they went on the power play and things came to a screeching halt. As has been the case virtually all season, the Flyers couldn't even get set up, let alone create opportunities. It was so bad that I honestly wished they could decline penalties in hockey.

And the biggest killer of all was the brief 5-on-3 they had in the second period. The Flyers came out in the second with their skates on fire, building a shot advantage and actually taking it to the Sabres. Eight minutes in, they went to the power play, and at the beginning it actually looked competent. Then Shaone Morrison slashed Richards to give the Flyers an abbreviated two-man advantage. The home team had all the momentum in the world. The place was rocking. And I was certain JVR was going to score sooner or later, if not on this power play than before the game was over. He just had that look in him last night.

But with all the momentum on their side and the Sabres reeling, Laviolette decided to use his timeout. I know he's a magician with his timeout use, especially in the playoffs, but to me this timeout made absolutely no sense. I understand maybe he wanted to set up a play and get his guys composed with the two-man advantage, but he also let the Sabres get a breather and gain their footing. It made no sense to me. Buffalo was on its heels. That timeout allowed them to get their bearings. And whatever was said in the timeout didn't work, because instead of generating any really good chances, the Flyers looked more determined to break the record for most consecutive passes without shooting on a power play ever.

It was embarrassing to watch. No one would pull the trigger. They just kept passing and passing and passing. And of course they didn't score. When the second penalty expired, all the air went out of the building. From then on, the place was dead quiet more than it should ever be in a playoff game. Sure, there were uproars when something happened, but the Flyers showed so little life after that that it was like a funeral in there.

I have to give credit where credit is do. The Sabres, despite surrendering 35 shots, played tremendous defense. They bottled up the front of the net, rarely let the Flyers establish their forecheck and cleared any rebounds Ryan Miller left out there, which were few and far between. And Miller was outstanding, just as you'd expect him to be. Even with the lack of quality chances, the fact the Flyers did spend more time in Buffalo's zone than their own, the fact that they did fire 35 shots at the goaltender, the fact that they did set up about 4 or 5 really great scoring chances would have been enough to beat damn near any other goaltender in the league. But Ryan Miller isn't just any other goaltender. He's a stud, and he played like one.

But to me, that doesn't and shouldn't let the Flyers off the hook. Simply put, not enough guys showed the desire to win, a common trait for this team heading into the playoffs. The only two players I can confidently say had really good games are JVR and Bobrovsky, and let's fact it, if your two youngest players are making the rest of the team look fairly bad in comparison in the playoffs, you're in trouble. And that was the case last night. Other guys had their moments, but no one else played with the intensity and desire that those two did, which is just unacceptable.

I also want to voice my extreme displeasure with Laviolette last night in the third period. Typically, when Lavvy sees a player that is simply going harder than anyone else, he'll double shift him to make sure he's on the ice as much as possible. He's done it numerous times this season, even if it's a fourth-liner like Darroll Powe. Last night, JVR was clearly that guy. He was infinitely better than the next best skater for either team. Yet when it got down to desperation time in the final six minutes, he didn't double shift Riemer at all. Instead, he double shifted Carter a couple times, a guy who showed very little last night. The one time he looked like he was going to do it, putting a makeshift line of Briere, Giroux and JVR out there, he called back JVR and sent out Hartnell instead. I just didn't understand it.

Maybe Laviolette wasn't comfortable putting a 21-year-old in that type of position, but it was a move I think you had to make. JVR was the best player on the ice, and he should have been given more time in the 3rd.

I guess it's hard to complain with him getting 18:29 of ice time, but he should have definitely been out there more than Carter, Hartnell and Leino, all of whom saw more action.

Now the Flyers find themselves in a 0-1 hole, a place they certainly didn't want to put themselves in with the way the season has turned on them. But it's nobody's fault but their own. Yes, Ryan Miller played great and the Sabres were limited offensively themselves, but the Flyers just didn't bring their A game offensively. And in all honesty, they haven't had their A game offensively in months. Trying to get it back against Ryan Miller and a stingy Buffalo defense is a tough proposition.

All I know is that the rest of the forwards better join JVR and Bobrovsky tomorrow, or this team will be watching the Phillies like the rest of us very soon.

At least Cliff Lee is still the greatest man who ever lived. Lee followed up Roy Halladay's complete-game win on Wednesday with a complete-game shutout of his own, striking out 12 Nationals while walking one and surrendering just three hits, giving the Phils the 4-0 win and 2-1 series victory. So there's that. At least all of the Phillies have been showing up to play.

No comments:

Post a Comment