Tuesday, May 3, 2011

JVR Deserved Better

James van Riemsdyk just put on one of the single best individual efforts my eyes have ever seen in an NHL playoff game last night.

All playoffs long, van Riemsdyk has been by far the best player for the Flyers, and right now, he may be the best player in the entire NHL playoffs. His two-goal, eight-shot, countless scoring-chances night had me dropping my jaw in awe. At one point, I actually said, "We are watching JVR turn into the best power forward in the NHL right now." And I meant it 100 percent.

It's truly remarkable just how far van Riemsdyk has come this quickly. Last postseason, he struggled to earn ice time and was even a healthy scratch at times. This year, he got off to a slow start and had to fight just to dress prior to Christmas. As the year wore on, he began to gain confidence and actually wound up playing as good a hockey as any Flyer in the latter stages of the season. But no one could have seen this coming. JVR is the breakout star of the playoffs. But he's not just turning heads and making people say, "One day this kid is going to be great." He is great right now. As if overnight, JVR flicked the switch and turned into a bigger, meaner Patrick Kane, the player he has been in the shadow of ever since being taken second overall behind Chicago's young superstar.

Last night, he put on a performance so remarkable that he had the Flyers fans chanting his name … when he wasn't even on the ice. Without a shadow of a doubt, he was easily the best player on the ice, and his play last night was the best any player has played in this entire postseason for any team. He was that dominant.

The thing that has stood out more than anything else is his speed and explosiveness. Suddenly, van Riemsdyk has been kicking it into another gear, flying by, around and through defenders at a pace I'm not sure anyone knew he had. There were several occasions last night when he made a Boston defenseman look embarrassingly bad and incredibly slow, several times doing that to Zdeno Chara, no easy task. His aggressiveness, physicality and speed have him on a whole other level than everyone else that steps on the ice right now, and last night, he was oh so close to carrying the Flyers to victory.

But even JVR's ridiculous night couldn't get the Flyers over the hump. And as much as I hate to beat a dead horse with the Philadelphia Flyers, it's impossible to ignore. The Flyers lost a heartbreaker in overtime last night because of goaltending. Simple as that. Not that Brian Boucher played all that poorly, but he didn't play that great either. Tim Thomas did. And that's been the difference all playoffs long for the Flyers. Save for game 1 of this series, the Flyers have lost every game they've lost because the other's team goalie was simply able to come up with more big saves than Philadelphia's. And it doesn't get any more frustrating than that.

As well as van Riemsdyk played for the Flyers, Thomas played just as well for the Bruins in net. He surrendered those two early goals to JVR in the first period, but then went on to stop every shot the Flyers fired at him the rest of the way. And there were tons of them. The Flyers came out and took it to Boston in the first half of the first period, building that 2-0 lead and looking primed to tie the series up. But after JVR's second goal, the Bruins took control.

They started to get physical again, pounding the Philadelphia defensemen, and the Flyers' defensive-zone lapses that were so prevalent in game 1 started to creep up again. The defensemen continuously backed up, giving the Bruins' forwards time and space to make plays. And both the d-men and forwards were often caught staring, mesmerized by the puck and getting beat to rebounds.

Chris Kelly made it a one-goal game by driving hard to the net and beating the Flyers to a loose rebound. And that was a common theme all night for Boucher, leaving loose rebounds. His rebound control was absolutely dreadful last night, and more times than not he looked like he was fighting the puck off instead of seeing it clearly and making stops. Sure, Boucher made some dandies in the third period, but he never looked comfortable all night.

Still, fighting the puck off is one thing. Getting beat with no screen on a shot from 35 to 40 feet out is inexcusable. Yet that's exactly what Boucher did on Boston's second goal, the one that tied the game and changed the complexion of the game. The Flyers once again got caught staring at the puck and losing sight of their assignments, leaving Brad Marchand to get free. And Marchand wasted no time, firing a shot right by Boucher. Was it a nice shot by Marchand? No question about it. But it was a shot that absolutely has to be stopped. Boucher wasn't screened. The shot was from far out. Yet he got beat short side. And that's the type of thing that the Flyers simply can't have. We already know Brian Boucher or whoever is in net for the Flyers isn't going to go out and win you a game or a series. All the Flyers need is for the goalie not to lose it for them. That second goal by Boston was the result of poor defense, sure, but more so it resulted from poor goaltending. Losing goaltending.

And from there, it was all Boston. The Bruins finished the period in dominant fashion. In fact, the only thing that went wrong was when Andy McQuaid attempted to level Mike Richards next to Boston's net. Only Richards sidestepped the hit attempt at the last second, and McQuaid essentially boarded himself, frighteningly face-planting into the boards awkwardly and leaving the game for good.

Scary moment, for sure. But it didn't scare off the Bruins. They came out and owned the second period, outshooting the Flyers 13-8. Boosh did hold up for 7 of those shots, but then he got hurt making his final stop in the 2nd. As he went to stop the puck with his glove, the puck caught him awkwardly on the hand and he had to leave the game. That's when things got interesting.

With Boston controlling every aspect of play in the second period the way they did in game 1, you knew Sergei Bobrovsky would get tested. The question was how would he respond. Well, Bob came in and looked exactly like he did at the start of the season, when he took the NHL by storm and turned heads. Bobrovsky faced 6 quality shots by the Bruins to wrap up the second and stopped all of them. More importantly, he looked calm and collected, with the exception of that one scramble play, and looked more comfortable than Boucher did all night. He kept the game tied going into the third, and honestly, I was somewhat relieved that Boucher was out of there.

As odd as it sounds given how calming of an influence Boucher has been in his career and how well he's played overall, last night he just didn't seem to have it. He looked uncomfortable all game. Bob came in and did the job well. And his relief work seemed to ignite the Flyers.

As if finally realizing that if they didn't turn things around the season would be in peril, the Flyers came out and played perhaps their best period of hockey all season in the third. Right from the drop of the puck, they kept all the play in Boston's end and created chance after chance. They were so dominant and spending so much time in Boston's end that I didn't even know Brian Boucher was back in net to start the third. It didn't help that Versus announcers Kenny Albert and Eddie Olczyk didn't even mention that fact until six minutes had gone by in the third. I don't ask much from my announcers in all honesty, but that's inexcusable. Do your job. Let us know the injured goalie has returned. And let me process that after watching Bobrovsky play outstanding minutes to finish the third while Boosh had given up a stinker of a goal to tie the game. I kind of wanted Bob to stay in there. But I really didn't have much time to think about it.

Not knowing Boosh was back in net for a few minutes was actually a good thing, because it meant the Flyers were taking control. And they were, all period long. So much so that they fired 22 shots at Tim Thomas in the period, to just 7 for Boston. It looked like it was only a matter of time before someone, and I was convinced it would be JVR, put one by Thomas and evened this series up. But it never happened. Because Thomas played absolutely perfect in net, standing on his head yet making it look easy at the same time. That's what a good goaltender will do for you.

Chance after chance after chance, yet they couldn't solve Thomas. He was incredible. Truly incredible. It was going to take something miraculous or ugly or lucky to beat him. He was just in the zone. And that miracle almost happened. Because with just over 4 seconds left, the Bruins iced the puck, giving the Flyers an offensive zone draw. They won it, fired a shot and the puck came out to Danny Briere with Thomas down and out. There was nothing but empty net between Briere and the puck, and let's face it, there isn't another Flyer you'd rather see with the game on his stick and an empty net right in front of him. But Briere whiffed on the bouncing puck, missing the last chance Philadelphia had at victory. I couldn't believe it, as I'm sure no Flyers can could. The Flyers had the game. Briere had it right there. But he missed. I swear, even with a bouncing puck, Danny Briere comes through 99 times out of 100 in that spot. This just so happened to be that one time, and it couldn't have been a worse moment for it.

Because even as the Flyers carried over that incredibly dominant play from the third period into overtime, they couldn't beat Thomas. They fired 10 more shots at him in the extra session, 54 in all, and Thomas stopped all of them. He finished the game with 52 remarkable saves, literally beating the Flyers damn near by himself in the third period and overtime. It was getting to the point where you almost knew something bad was bound to happen, and it did.

Braydon Coburn sent the puck around the boards in his own end to his defense partner Kimmo Timonen on a seemingly harmless play. Only Timonen didn't get his stick on the pass, which resulted in a turnover, which resulted in David Krejci firing one by Boucher to end the game and give Boston the 2-0 series lead, and make me sick to my stomach.

After that great start, after an incredible performance by JVR, after a valiant relief effort by Bob, after arguably the best period of hockey and another 10 minutes of dominance in OT, they still lost. All thanks to an awful turnover and a weak goal earlier in the game, and an otherworldly performance by Tim Thomas. JVR deserved better. The Flyers deserved better. But in the end, it all came down to goaltending.

Tim Thomas won the game for the Boston Bruins. Brian Boucher simply didn't do quite enough to prevent a loss.

Given last year's dramatic run to the Stanley Cup Final with a revolving door in net just like this season, the theory went that you can win the Cup without a great goaltender. And that may be true. But the fact of the matter is it's a whole hell of a lot easier to hoist the Cup when you have a netminder that comes up big. So far in this playoffs, we've had to watch first Ryan Miller and now Tim Thomas, two of the very best in the game, singlehandedly steal victories and keep their teams in games, while simultaneously watching goaltender after goaltender get pulled and get beat on pedestrian plays for the Flyers.

This team is good enough to win the Stanley Cup. It really is. But the goaltending is not. And if Paul Holmgren doesn't go out and get a netminder this offseason, a real goaltender that this team can rely on night in and night out, the season is going to end the same way it always does, looking on as someone else hoists the greatest trophy in sports.

We know from last year that this series is far from over and that anything can still happen. The Flyers can still make a deep run and maybe even overcome the question mark in net. But it doesn't look promising, and it's hard to have any confidence that this team can get two more wins than it did last postseason with such shaky play from the last line of defense.

This team's effort last night should have been good enough for a win. But great goaltending from the opposition turned it into a heartbreaking loss. And all we're left here saying is that JVR and the Flyers deserved so much better last night.

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