Monday, March 19, 2012

Don't Look Now, but the Rangers Are in Flyers' Sights

A month ago, the New York Rangers held a 10-point lead in the conference and were head and shoulders the class of the East. At the same time, the Flyers were struggling, no one more than goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, and injuries continued to crop up. The division looked out of reach, and the Penguins and Devils were charging to supplant the Flyers from the fourth spot and home ice advantage in the first round.

What a difference a month can make. Since the calendar flipped to March, Ilya Bryzgalov has found his game, notching four shutouts in five starts and becoming the best goaltender in the NHL out of nowhere, and the Flyers have followed suit.

Propelled by Bryz's incredible turnaround, the Flyers have gone on a tear. Including this weekend's huge pair of afternoon match-ups — a shootout loss to Boston on Saturday and a 3-2, last-second overtime victory over Pittsburgh yesterday — Philadelphia has gained at least one point in their last four games, and the Flyers have won eight of their last 10 games. They are 8-1-1 in the month of March, earning 17 of a possible 20 points in the process. And while they're still two points behind the Penguins for the fourth seed, they now have both the Pens and the Rangers in their crosshairs.

With 10 games left in the regular season, the Flyers are just three points behind the Eastern Conference leading Rangers and two behind the Pens — though both the Penguins and Rangers have a game in hand on the Flyers at the moment. That's truly remarkable given how far ahead New York was and how badly the Flyers were slipping.

The Flyers' resilience was on full display this weekend against two of the teams they are jockeying with for position. On Saturday, the Flyers got off to a painfully slow start, getting jumped on in the first period and falling behind 2-0. The Bruins controlled virtually every aspect of play and simply looked like a superior team.

But the Flyers rebounded in the second and took advantage of an opening the Bruins gave them. Matt Read netted his 20th goal of the season on the power play and rode the momentum to a third-period goal by Jake Voracek, who was perhaps the best skater on the ice for the Flyers Saturday.

Unfortunately, the game went to a shootout, and unlike the previous two skills competition, Bryzgalov was not very good.

At least Bryz was stellar in regulation and overtime, stopping 31 shots and keeping the Flyers in it until they could turn play around.

The bad news, however, was that Max Talbot and Andres Lilja were hurt in the effort. Talbot sustained what's believed to be a shoulder injury during a scrum and could not go yesterday, while Lilja was also scratched. Not good, given the injuries already on the blue line and the versatility of Talbot. In fact, Talbot has been a huge part of the Flyers' recent surge, doing an outstanding job the penalty kill for a unit that is on fire right now. Luckily, the Flyers have plenty of excellent penalty-killing forwards, led by rookies Matt Read and Sean Couturier, not to mention the likes of Giroux, Eric Wellwood and Voracek.

And yesterday, the Flyers needed those guys on the PK with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in town.

Yesterday's game was actually eerily similar to Saturday's. The Flyers came out sluggish, as Pittsburgh quite literally manhandled them for the first 40 minutes. The Pens built a 2-0 lead, scoring one goal apiece in the first two periods, and it could have been much worse if not for Bryzgalov and the PK unit.

The Penguins dominated every facet through two. They outshot the Flyers 27-10. They were throwing more hits. And the Flyers looked stunned. But Bryzgalov was incredible again, keeping the team in it, and the PK absolutely shut down one of the game's best power play units. I can't say enough about the work of the PK unit, with everyone doing a masterful job from the forwards I mentioned above to guys like Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle and Nick Grossmann on the back end.

And then, just like against the Bruins, the Flyers took advantage of an opening the Pens provided to turn the tides. As the second period was winding down, Voracek, who was stellar again, drew a slashing penalty on the Pens, giving the Flyers the man advantage. Just 31 seconds into the third, the Flyers capitalized, as Timonen scored his third goal of the year from the point to cut Pittsburgh's lead in half.

From there, it was on. An already chippy game got even chippier, and unsurprisingly, Scott Hartnell was at the center of it. He got involved with a slew of Penguins, including getting mugged by Chris Kunitz, and it got Hartell all fired up.

Just a few minutes after the opening goal for the Flyers, Giroux faked a shot, slap-passing it to Hartnell at the side of the net. Claude's incredible play faked out everyone, especially Marc-Andre Fleury, and Hartnell tied the game. It was Claude's second assist of the day, inching closer to Malkin and Stamkos for the NHL lead in points. That guy is good.

The Flyers were suddenly all even and began outworking the Pens. Then, as the game went to OT, it looked like the dreaded shutout was looming … until it wasn't. Danny Briere weaved through the neutral zone, entered the Penguins territory and made a great feed to Hartnell, who fired a laser wrist shot by Fleury with just 0.9 remaining in the OT, 3-2 Flyers.

Just like that, the Flyers went from sure defeat to a huge victory, pulling to within two points of the Pens and three points of the Rangers here in the home stretch. Suddenly, they're right back in the mix of it for home ice throughout, something that seemed unlikely just one short month ago.

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