Thursday, October 13, 2011

Killer Penalties and Penalty Killers

As I stated after the Flyers' season-opener, I came into the season worried about Philadelphia's penalty kill units. The team's three top forwards on the PK from last year are no longer around, with Mike Richards traded to Los Angeles, Darroll Powe allowed to walk in free agency, and Blair Betts waived, though ultimately still property of the Flyers after a waiver claim was negated due to health issues.

Well, consider me worried no more, because last night against the incredibly potent Vancouver Canucks, the Flyers' penalty-killing unit essentially won them this wild game in the third period. That may sound odd when you strictly look at the stats — after all, the Canucks did strike twice on the power play — but if you watched that strange third period unfold, you know what I'm talking about.

The Flyers went into their home opener last night stressing one major point above all others against last season's Stanley Cup runners up: stay out of the penalty box. Vancouver had the top power play unit the NHL last season, led by the Sedin twins and their incredible puck movement and chemistry. Putting the Canucks on the power play is like playing with fire.

So naturally, after the Flyers scored two power play goals themselves to open the game — with Giroux and Pronger each getting a goal and an assist (great work by Wayne Simmonds with an awesome screen of Roberto Luongo on Pronger's goal) — Scott Hartnell did what Scott Hartnell does, taking a god-awful high-sticking penalty away from the puck. And of course, the Canucks capitalized, making it a 2-1 game.

Thankfully JVR responded just over a minute later, but as the period ended, Hartnell picked up yet another stupid roughing penalty … this despite the Flyers stressing that they'd like to stay out of the box against Vancouver. Nice to see Scottie is in midseason form already.

The good news for the Flyers is that they didn't take any penalties in the 2nd period. The bad news is the Canucks outscored them 2-1 in the second, making it a 4-3 game heading into the third. You could see the Canucks begin to assert themselves in the period, outshooting the Flyers 14-6 and keeping the play down in Philadelphia's end. On one goal-scoring shift in particular, the Canucks simply would not let the Flyers out of their zone, and eventually they capitalized. The entire shift, Vancouver's forecheck and pinching defensemen kept picking on Andreas Nodl, who just could not clear the puck despite about four chances to do so. It was an example of the kind of night Nodl had. He was not very good or strong with the puck the entire game, though he had a few good shifts on the PK.

The good news, however, besides staying out of the penalty box once Hartnell's minor expired, was that the goal by Jakub Voracek was a thing of beauty, from the nice play off the wall by rookie Sean Couturier, to the incredible pass Courturier made to Voracek, to the perfect shot by Jakub to beat Luongo.

That play made it official, Sean Couturier is my new favorite player on the team, joining Claude and Kimmo. The assist was the 18-year-old's first NHL point.

And it wasn't the last time the Flyers would need some strong play from the rookie on the night. Because in the third period, the Flyers began to take a steady march to the penalty box, kicked off by an absolutely stupid move by James van Riemsdyk. JVR turned on his speed and got behind the defense as he cut in on Luongo. As he was starting to make his move for a shot, he got a stick on his hand and in his midsection, clearly a hook by Vancouver. But the officials let it slide, JVR could only get a late shot off, and then he went to plead his case to the officials. The only problem is he did it a little too aggressively, even if he did have a point, and got two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. Stupid penalty No. 3 for the Flyers on the night, and killer one at that.

This time, the Canucks would not let the Flyers off the hook. Daniel Sedin buried one by Bryzgalov and tied the game. Horrible, horrible penalty by JVR.

But, just as this team did all night long, the Flyers responded. Just a minute later, Danny Briere weaved his way into the Canucks' zone and laid a perfect pass to Andrej Meszaros, who fired a missile in the top corner to put the Flyers ahead yet again.

Great pass. Awesome shot. Lead restored. And it looked like the Flyers might regain all the momentum and improve to 3-0 in front of the home crowd. That is until Zac Rinaldo took yet another horrid penalty, picking up a useless, senseless roughing minor. Listen, I understand that Rinaldo is a tough guy and good banger, the type of player who can throw his body around on the forecheck the way Peter Laviolette likes. But he has no discernible skills other than hitting and taking stupid penalties. I don't really understand his presence on the team, and I really don't understand why the Flyers can't just keep Blair Betts around and get rid of Rinaldo. Betts is a smart, veteran player, a great defensive forward, a good faceoff guy and an excellent penalty killer. Rinaldo is none of those things. What am I missing here?

Luckily for Rinaldo, the PK bailed him out, just as it did the rest of the night as the Flyers took three more really bad penalties to tempt fate. Jaromir Jagr, a freakin 39-year-old, 18-year veteran, took a lazy, stupid hooking penalty in the neutral zone — though I do have to say he looks awesome with Claude and JVR offensively. Jagr should definitely know better. At least Rinaldo is only a 21-year-old, so he has an excuse. Jagr has none.

Then Voracek made a poor decision in hitting former Flyer Andrew Alberts from behind into the boards for a boarding penalty, and finally Chris Pronger got caught with a rough shove that he normally gets away with right after the Flyers had killed off the Voracek minor. Really dumb, killer penalties. At least they could have been given the prowess of Vancouver's power play.

But the Flyers were able to kill off those final four penalties and escape with the 5-4 victory thanks to some absolutely great work down a man and awesome goaltending by Ilya Bryzgalov. Claude Giroux may have been awarded the game's first star, but it was Max Talbot and Bryzgalov who really did yeoman's work in that 3rd period.

I was really pissed when the Flyers signed Talbot because I hated him so much in Pittsburgh, but after the way he played last night, my hate has officially vanished. Talbot was easily the best penalty killer as far as skaters are concerned last night, blocking a ton of shots, clearing the puck every chance he could, taking away shooting and passing lanes, and coming up with the play of the game in my eyes, somehow managing to block a shot despite being without a stick for nearly a minute and ultimately getting a clear. Awesome work by Talbot.

And if Talbot wasn't the MVP of the third period, then Bryzgalov was.

Bryz faced 17 shots in that third period, stopping all but one of them. He made some spectacular ones to be sure, but the most impressive thing of all was how routine he made most of them look. The guy never seems to be caught out of position, and he smothers damn near everything fired his way. It may sound strange in a game in which he saw four goals go by him, but Ilya was awesome last night. He really had no chance on any of the four goals, and he still managed to stop 36 shots on the night and help steal a victory. As good as Talbot was on the PK, nothing tops a goaltender who can be your best penalty killer.

I also have to give some praise to the other PK players. Couturier has been so damn impressive that he's really helping Laviolette limit Giroux's PK time. He was great again last night, though I have to admit I'd like to see Claude out there a little more down a man — he's really good at it too. Matt Read did some great work as well, playing smart and showing that Laviolette isn't afraid to trust rookies with vital roles. Not only does Read kill penalties, but Laviolette had him manning the point on the power play as well. And of course Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen did what they always do, blocking shots and working hard to prevent the power play from doing too much harm. Braydon Coburn also had a really strong game, not showing up in the box score but doing just about everything right.

It wasn't exactly the way you'd draw it up, putting the Canucks on the power play 7 times with killer penalties late, but the penalty killers bailed out the guilty parties and carried the Flyers to victory in the third. And in the process, they helped quell my concerns over this year's penalty kill.

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