Thursday, November 3, 2011

Face-offs, Penalties and the VCVR Line

Throughout the first month of this young NHL season, the talk around the Flyers has largely been about Ilya Bryzgalov and the Claude Giroux-Jaromir Jagr-(and recently) Scott Hartnell line, and rightfully so. Bryzgalov was the high-priced, high-profile offseason acquisition, finally giving the Flyers the elite netminder they've been lacking ever since Bernie Parent was hoisting two Stanley Cups — or possibly young Ron Hextall and his incredible Conn Smythe run in 1987.

Naturally, he's going to generate a ton of attention all year, whether it's praise like he received through the first few games or criticism following a recent slump in play.

And of course no one can stop talking about the Jagr-Giroux connection and how incredibly awesome that line has been, especially since Scott Hartnell was inserted on the wing.

And while that trio did connect for what turned out to be the game-winning goal — an absolute laser of a shot by Hartnell, assisted by both Jagr and Giroux, that chased Ryan Miller from the game — it was another line that stood out on the night, a newly formed line due to the injuries to Brayden Schenn, Danny Briere and Matt Read.

With Schenn, Briere and Read out of the lineup, Peter Laviolette devised a trio of two 22-year-olds and an 18-year-old: rookie Sean Couturier centering James van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek. That line got the Flyers out to a fast start as Couturier calmly gathered a fat rebound kicked out by Miller and deposited it in the back of the empty net just 1:43 into the game, and 13 seconds later JVR ripped an unstoppable shot past Miller, sniping the top right corner.

A seemingly makeshift line of youngsters scored twice in the first two minutes of the game and set the tone for the first period. And while the Sabres eventually got their bearings at intermission and gave the Flyers a fight to the end, that line continued to be the most impressive all night long. The chemistry between Voracek, Couturier and JVR was instant and just kept getting stronger. Every time those three were on the ice together, it seemed as though they had the Sabres on their heels and pinned deep in their own zone. They cycled the puck well, won battles along the boards and created chances time and time again.

It was such an impressive performance that I wouldn't be surprised if Laviolette keeps them together for a little while, even if Briere and Read come back relatively soon. I mean, for the first time perhaps all season someone other than the top line looked like the best line for the Flyers. So perhaps this is the birth of the VCVR line.

Of course, we all know how fickle line combinations can be in the NHL, and this line may not be what it was last night as time goes on. But I was so impressed with the way they played last night that I couldn't help myself from giving it a name, especially since it's so easy to come up with. The VCVR line. I like it.

What I do not like, however, is this team's continued propensity to lose face-offs and take penalties. No matter how much talent and how good your lines and defense pairings are clicking, a team that takes a lot of penalties and that cannot win face-offs will struggle to be a true Cup contender.

As you probably know, I'm a huge face-off guy. Hockey is a possession game, and winning face-offs is a huge part of gaining possession. An offensive zone draw can be the difference between a great scoring chance and shift or a missed opportunity. And defensive zone draws are so vital to keep the other team out of your zone and relieve the pressure, especially on the penalty kill and in the 3rd period.

Prior to the lockout, the Flyers always had a stable of centers who were elite face-off guys: Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Lindros, Joel Otto, Keith Primeau, etc. It was a major reason the Flyers of the 90s and early 2000s were always among the elite, always great defensively and always strong on the penalty kill. They won important draws all the time.

But since the lockout, despite always having a glut of centers, the Flyers have not been able to find a dominant guy in the circle. As a result, it's been one of the franchise's achilles heels and led to entirely too many goals by the opposition and missed opportunities to set up in the offensive zone.

Despite my urging, the team continually fails to address the problem, and lost face-offs continue to harm the Flyers.

Last night, they won just 35 percent of the draws, and it was a huge reason that the Sabres were able to get back in the game and control large chunks of the 2nd and 3rd periods. And it's been a huge problem all season long. In fact, the Flyers are dead last in the NHL in face-off percentage, sitting at a paltry 45.5 percent. That's embarrassingly low and something the team has to address at some point. It's honestly like the Eagles with linebackers. For whatever reason, the Flyers turn a blind eye to face-offs despite face-offs being a huge part of the game. It drives me nuts.

Just as the constant penalties drive me nuts. The other reason Buffalo was able to steadily get back in the game after digging itself a 3-0 hole in the first 6 and half minutes is because the Flyers kept taking penalty after penalty, another recipe for disaster and another bad habit this team can't seem to break.

Through 12 games, the Flyers are second in the NHL in penalties minutes with 205, trailing only Ottawa's 224. Last night, they had 31 penalty minutes compared to just 17 by the Sabres. And while Buffalo failed to convert on any of its five power plays last night, they were able to build momentum and sustain pressure to get back into the game due in part to the Flyers being shorthanded so often.

Thankfully, the Flyers' penalty kill has been pretty good this year, and I cannot say enough about Max Talbot on the PK. The guy really is one of the game's best. Last night, he was a monster on the penalty kill, doing everything you can ask and always making the right, smart decision. I hated it when I heard the Flyers signed arguably the former Pittsburgh Penguin I despised the most, but now I absolutely love it.

Now if he could just win some damn face-offs with the rest of the centers and have his teammates stop taking so many penalties, the Flyers could really have something special.

Oh, and I'd be remiss without mentioning Ilya Bryzgalov's enormous save at the end of the game on Thomas Vanek all alone in front of the net to preserve the 3-2 victory. Bryz was really good last night when he needed to be, and he seems to have his confidence back after that dreadful 9-8 loss against the Jets. And thank goodness for that.

No comments:

Post a Comment