Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Brayden Schenn's Breakout Overshadowed by King Henrik

Yesterday's Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park was just about all the NHL could have asked for. It featured two major media and hockey markets with a heated rivalry among two teams atop the standings, star players coming through for their respective teams, a fast-paced game with very few whistles and even a potential game-tying penalty shot with 20 seconds left in regulation.

The result notwithstanding, it was one hell of a good hockey game. When it was all said and done the real difference in the outcome was goaltending, and 100 times out of 100 if the game comes down to the goalies, the Rangers will come out ahead. Henrik Lundqvist is a superstar and played like it yesterday, while Sergei Bobrovsky looked every bit like the green sophomore in net that he is. All the while, the man who was supposed to be to Philadelphia what Lundqvist is to the Rangers was left out in the cold with a .890 save percentage and 3.01 goals against average.

No matter what the official stars of the game tally tells you, it was Lundqvist who was the best player on the ice. With all due respect to Mike Rupp and his improbable two goals, King Henrik is the man who kept the game tied in the first period despite the Flyers taking it to the Rangers. He's the guy who thwarted 34 shots and made the game-clinching save on Danny Briere's late penalty shot. And he's the guy who came up with huge save after huge save whereas Bobrovsky let in one — arguably two — soft, back-breaking goals. The man is a certified superstar in net, something the Flyers have lacked in what seems like forever. Ilya Bryzgalov was supposed to change all of that. Instead, he wasn't even on the ice in the league's marquee regular season spectacle.

However, as painful as the outcome was and as annoying as the reemergence of the annual Philadelphia goaltending controversy is, there was one particularly big bright spot for the Flyers in rookie Brayden Schenn.

Not only did Schenn score his first NHL goal and register his first point as a Flyer, but the lynchpin of the Mike Richards trade was arguably the best forward on the ice from the opening draw to the final horn.

Yes, Claude Giroux was his brilliant self, scoring an absolutely filthy goal, but when Jaromir Jagr left late in the first period with a groin strain, Giroux — like the Flyers' attack in general — wasn't quite the same.

However, Schenn shined all game long. Besides his goal, Schenn also provided something the Flyers have been lacking since Keith Primeau's career was cut short: excellent work in the faceoff circle. For the game, Schenn won 12 of 16 draws, and a couple of those losses came as a result of his wingers failing to get to the puck. It was nice to see someone dominate in the faceoff circle for a change.

Schenn also seemed to be everywhere, whether it was backchecking hard to negate a Ranger, throwing his weight around or making things happen in the offensive zone. In my opinion, he was the best skater on the ice period, playing without question his best game as a Flyer. In fact, Schenn was playing so well that I think Peter Laviolette did himself and his team a disservice by not playing him enough in the third period.

When Jagr went down, I think Schenn should have been given a little more ice time with Giroux given the way he was playing. It just seemed like he earned it. I was really impressed with the kid yesterday and can see why so many people are so high on him.

Of course, it was all for naught. After taking that 2-0 in the second behind goals by Schenn and Giroux, the complexion of the game changed when Mike Rupp scored just 30 seconds after Claude to cut the lead in half. From then on, the Rangers simply played smarter hockey, made fewer mistakes, blocked more shots and got outstanding play from Lundqvist.

Rupp improbably scored again, this time on a bad-angle shot that snuck between Bob's arm and body — an absolutely terrible goal to surrender, especially in a game of this magnitude. Just a few minutes later, Bobrovsky was left hung out to dry when Giroux lost his man, who turned out to be Brad Richards. Richards calmly buried what became the game-winner.

The thing that's most frustrating about the loss isn't that Lundqvist played out of his mind to stone the Flyers. Goaltenders the caliber of Henrik are going to steal games from time to time — that's why they're the best of the best. The most frustrating thing, at least to me, is that the difference came in the little things.

Overall, the Flyers had a nice game in the faceoff circle, but they couldn't win the crucial ones in the third period. Mental lapses in their own zone resulted in sloppy turnovers and the game-winning goal, where the Rangers barely turned the puck over at all. The Rangers' defensemen blocked shooting lanes all game long as the Flyers at times backed off and allowed the Rangers to shoot — not the best strategy when your goaltender is letting very save-able shots go through. That's what makes the loss so damn annoying. Yes, Lundqvist was great and certainly helped steal the show, but the little things made just as much of a difference.

The good news is the Flyers can correct those little things, at least to some degree. With so many youngsters on the team, they're bound to get better and make fewer mistakes as the season wears on. And as shaky as the goaltending has been at times, I think Ilya Bryzgalov has been taking a little more heat than he deserves.

No question about it, his numbers are terrible. But a lot of that was due to a bad start, and in his most recent struggles, he's been left hung out to dry quite a bit by his defense. Given his track record and the presumed better play by the defense after adjusting to life without Chris Pronger, you have to figure the Flyers are going to get better in their own zone, both in defense and goaltending.

Of course, none of that helps take the sting away from yesterday's hard-fought 3-2 loss, falling two more points behind the Rangers to make it a four-point cushion for New York instead of pulling even.

As for the Eagles and Penn State … I'll have more on their disastrous, embarrassing seasons at some point. Maybe. But to be perfectly honest, I'm more excited for the Duke-Temple game I'm attending tomorrow night than anything football-related right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment