Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When a Playoff Win is More Painful than a Playoff Loss

After a weekend in which the Sixers came back from a double-digit second-half deficit much to my surprise – thanks largely to excellent play by Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday – to make it a game against the Heat and the Flyers outlasted the Sabres in a wild, terribly officiated game (on both sides) to even the series, I was all set to what each team had in store last night.

While the Flyers had yet to play their best game, they were the better team in both game 1 and game 2, and they had the best player through the first two games in James van Riemsdyk. I expected nothing less in game 3, perhaps even thinking the Flyers would put together a more complete game. That did not happen.

Things started out well, sure. The Flyers came out and applied some nice pressure early, earned themselves a power play and somehow, some way, miraculously tallied a power-play goal on a gorgeous shot by Jeff Carter.

Carter, who had played pretty poorly in the first two games, kept finding the puck on his stick in that first period, and he made no mistake on that laser of a wrist shot to beat Ryan Miller. But after that goal, the complexion of the period completely changed. As has been the case ever since the Flyers got in their late-season funk, they took the gas off the pedal once they got the lead.

The Sabres outworked the Fleyrs in every single aspect of the game, outshooting, outhitting, outchancing and out-faceoffing the Flyers. It was only a matter of time before Buffalo scored, and it came on the power play. What started out as a promising period devolved into complete domination by the Sabres. They outshot the Flyers 16-6 in the opening period, and for the first time all series, Buffalo looked like the better team.

Luckily Brian Boucher was up to the challenge the way Miller was in game 1, and the Flyers escaped tied at 1. Then they reversed roles in the second, with the Flyers outshooting Buffalo 15-10 and scoring twice to take a two-goal lead. One came on an awful turnover by the Sabres on a faceoff win. Scott Hartnell gave a little nudge, took the gift and hit Briere for an easy goal.

That goal gave the Flyers the jump-start they needed. From there, they began to play much better hockey, keeping most of the play in Buffalo’s end and asserting themselves. And with just over three minutes later, the much maligned Richards line broke through. Kris Versteeg made an awesome play to get the puck, found Mike Richards who waited patiently for the defense to come to him, then hit Nikolay Zherdev for the slam-dunk goal. It was a beautiful tic-tac-toe play, the type of thing we’ve been waiting for out of this line for months. In his first playoff game as a Flyer, Zherdev lit the lamp, giving all the people begging for him to get in the lineup even more ammunition.

I have to admit, it is nice having the play-making and finishing of Zherdev in the lineup, especially with the way this team has struggled to score goals heading in to the playoffs. But if you watched Zherdev closely last night, you can see why he’s in Peter Laviolette’s doghouse. Defensively, he was appallingly bad, rarely ever skating hard to back-check, often skating away from Sabres in the defensive zone and generally looking disinterested defensively. That’s why he has trouble staying in the lineup. He is a brilliant offensive player. He really is. And right now, the Flyers need that. But his defense is beyond terrible.

Speaking of terrible, I pretty much laid into Kris Versteeg after game 1.

Beyond his two-goal game against the Maple Leafs, he’s been so underwhelming since coming to Philadelphia and has dragged Mike Richards down with him. But last night, Versteeg was really good. He made very few bad decisions, kept it simple and worked extremely hard. His play to set up Zherdev’s goal was outstanding, and he had far more of those types of plays last night than the lazy, terrible and downright stupid ones he’s made a habit of. Last night, he was the player I thought the Flyers were getting, and that’s an extremely encouraging sign.

What was discouraging was that after a strong period in which they took a two-goal lead, the Flyers gave up a back-breaking goal less than a minute and half later. With less than two minutes remaining in the period, Brian Boucher completely boxed an easy shot to stop from far out. Of course it landed right on that little gnat Nathan Gerbe’s stick, who beat Boosh and completely changed the momentum of the game.

The Flyers did head into the third with the lead, but that goal took the wind out of their sails and gave Buffalo life. That led to a third period that was a lot like the first. Yes, the Flyers escaped with a 4-2 win on the empty-netter by Kimmo Timonen, but they weren’t the better team last night. The Sabres outshot the Flyers 11-4 in the 3rd, forced the Flyers to take a ton of penalties and ended with a 37-25 shot advantage.

Honestly, it was a painful game to watch, and it didn’t exactly instill a ton of confidence. Yes, they won, but the Sabres worked harder, looked hungrier and played better. Ville Leino was a nonfactor yet again, playing pretty poorly. The defense coughed the puck up way too much, with Braydon Coburn making two glaring giveaways in the 3rd. They failed to play well with the lead yet again. Richards, despite the great feed on Zherdev’s goal, still didn’t look right.

But a win is a win, especially in the playoffs. And despite being outplayed, there were plenty of good things to take away as well. The Flyers killed off a crucial 5-on-3 and a 4-minute double minor on Scott Hartnell. The work that Darroll Powe and Blair Betts do on the penalty kill is simply remarkable to watch. Without those two last night, no way the Flyers win that game.

JVR was once again the best player on the ice. He may not have shown up on the scoresheet, but he was everywhere once again. The guy is turning into a certified beast. He just won’t be denied. I can’t believe how far he’s come since last postseason. Riemer has been a lot better than anyone else on the ice in this series thus far, and I’m incredibly excited to see what he turns into. Versteeg had his best game in a long time, perhaps his best since becoming a Flyer. Timonen and O’Donnell played very well on the back end. And Boucher, despite boxing that one to lead to Buffalo’s second goal, was outstanding, stopping 35 shots and really stealing the victory.

You can say what you want about Boosh, but the guy shows up in the playoffs, evident by the fact that he has the fifth best goals against averages in his playoff career among active netminders. Great game by Boucher last night.

Having said that, the Flyers absolutely have to play better tomorrow night if they want to prevent the Sabres from evening this series up. In the first two games, the Flyers looked like the better team. The same cannot be said for last night’s game. Thank goodness for Brian Boucher.

As for the Sixers, their game turned out exactly as I expected. Game 1 was a wakeup call for the Heat. I’m sure Miami was just as surprised as I was that the Sixers didn’t fade after going down pretty big in the second half on Saturday, but they weren’t going to be caught off-guard again.

Miami played absolutely suffocating defense, limiting the Sixers to just 31 freakin points at half and winning going away 94-73. It was never even a contest and not a single Sixer besides Evan Turner of all people looked remotely competent offensively. This was the type of game you expect a team like the Heat to have. Miami’s third best player is so far superior than Philadelphia’s best, which is why I had and have no delusions that the Sixers might take a game. They did have a shot in game 1, but now they have none.

LeBron was a beast, scoring a game-high 29 points to go along with 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Oh yeah, and he did this:

Dwyane Wade wasn’t spectacular stats-wise, but he looked like his migraines were not an issue at all.

And Chris Bosh had his second straight double-double, putting up 21 and 11. The Sixers simply have no one who can even remotely match up with Bosh. Andre Iguodala, who has been awful offensively, can bother LeBron defensively. The Sixers can have guys funnel Dwyane Wade to help. But there is no one who can contain Bosh, and he’s been taking advantage.

That was what you call a good old-fashioned ass-whooping, and I’d honestly be surprised if either of the next two games in Philadelphia (I’ll be at game 3 on Easter Sunday, by the way) are remotely close. The Heat look like the team everyone thought they’d be when Wade, LeBron and Bosh united. And that’s a frightening thought.

Though as badly as the Heat beat in the Sixers’ brains last night, I didn’t find myself overly upset. The Heat are simply way better than the Sixers. But watching the Flyers get out-worked and outplayed in a victory was incredibly painful. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but watching that Flyers’ win was way worse than watching the Sixers’ blowout loss.

As for the Phillies, GM Carson said it best:

why is Kendrick in the bullpen and what the hell is the purpose of Michael Martinez. Rosters spots could be better spent.

The same thing goes for Danys Baez. Way to make me stay up for that loss, jerks.

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