Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On Mark Howe's Night, Ilya Bryzgalov Steals the Show (and the Victory)

Approximately an hour before the Flyers were slated to honor recent Hall of Fame inductee and one of the greatest defensemen in Flyers history Mark Howe by retiring his number in front of the team he played his final three seasons with, I got a call from my roommate asking if I'd like to go to the game and if anyone else would be interested. Naturally I said yes … the only catch is I had to wait for silver fox to make his way down from the northern suburbs — about an hour or so away.

I was somewhat nervous I'd miss perhaps the entire first period. However, thanks to the ceremony for Howe, which included a rousing ovation for his father, the legendary Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, it bought us some time. As I waited, I watched the awesome tribute and banner raising at my house, waiting for silver fox to arrive.

As the banner was being raised, silver fox pulled up outside my house and we sped down to the Wells Fargo Center. As we were walking in and meeting my other buddy to give us the tickets, the game was underway, but there was no score. Then as we got closer to our entrance, we saw Henrik Zetterberg beat Ilya Bryzgalov on the short side with an absolutely insane shot. Thankfully, it was the only goal that occurred before we got in the building.

Finally, we got to our seats in section 124, row 14 — awesome seats right behind the Flyers' bench and up high just enough to see the entire ice clearly — with 10:15 remaining in the period. Not a bad turnaround at all, missing not even half a period given the late notice.

When we were all settled, the Flyers had recovered from surrendering the first goal and were completely dominating the play. A few minutes later, Jakub Voracek threw a puck across the crease, which deflected off a Detroit defenseman's skate before it could reach Max Talbot on the other side, careening in to tie the game. Then, with less than two minutes to go in the period, Claude Giroux broke out on a breakaway, which is as close to an automatic goal as there is in hockey, 2-1 Flyers.

The Flyers were in complete command in that opening period, at least once I entered the building, and as I took in the surroundings I started to gather the atmosphere after being in such a rush. I reflected on the fact that for some reason Scott Hartnell was taking every draw on the Giroux line, with Claude lining up at wing. I couldn't figure out why, and I was pretty baffled. Why was a winger who rarely takes face-offs lining up for the draws instead of the best face-off guy on the team? Giroux is over 50 percent after all, the only Flyer who can make such a claim. Turns out, Giroux did injure his wrist in the win over the win over Washington on Sunday, which is why he only took two draws last night.

The other I did was take in the scene, watching Howe's speech on the jumbotron, snapping a few shots of our view and Howe's number hanging from the rafters, and also realizing that, yes, I was in the same building as Mr. Hockey himself. Pretty cool stuff.

And the atmosphere was about to get even more intense, albeit at the expense of the Flyers.

Voracek, who opened the scoring for the Flyers and was tremendous in the first period, gathered the puck in his own zone near the blue line. Then he did something you can never do on the ice, especially with a guy like Niklas Kronwall out there — he put his head down and tried to gather the puck. That's when Kronwall pounced, absolutely destroying Voracek, who no doubt suffered a concussion. It was lights out for Jake, literally and figuratively, as he left the game with what had to be a concussion.

We had a perfect vantage point of the lethal hit, seeing right away that Jake had lost all control of his extremities. Immediately upon the violent impact, his hands involuntarily shot up in the air, almost as if he was flopping, but uncontrollably. Then he tried to get up, but his legs were spaghetti and his brain most definitely mush at that moment. He dropped right back down to the ice in a scary moment, groggy and helpless after the hit. Thankfully he did skate off under his own power, but it's hard to imagine he'll be back anytime soon. That hit had concussion written all over it.

As for the check itself, in real time I thought it was a clean check, though the Flyers' faithful were livid. The replay they showed was a bit deceiving, zooming in on the impact and aftermath, where Kronwall's arm came up a little after he had already nailed Jake. In actuality, it was a clean hit, although it was a dangerous one at the same time. The prime impact was up high, near Voracek's head. It'll be interesting to see if anything is done with that, given that it was clean yet high. Truthfully, I don't think Kronwall did anything wrong. In fact, it was Voracek's mistake for putting his head down, especially knowing Kronwall was within striking distance.

However, the big hit didn't have the intended result for Kronwall and the Red Wings. In fact, it was the complete opposite. The hit riled up the natives, and the Wells Fargo Center turned it up a notch after that. And Voracek's teammates weren't going to sit idly by and let Kronwall just take out their teammate without any sort of repercussions. Giroux had a few lengthy verbal spars with Kronwall, Scott Hartnell began throwing his body around, and Zac Rinaldo attempted to make someone answer the bell, though no Red Wing would oblige. Instead, Rinaldo got tabbed for an absolutely weak unsportsmanlike conduct penalty shortly thereafter, as he was trying to get someone to go with him as Claude was jawing at Kronwall.

That only got the crowd more into it, as the chants of "ASS-HOLE, ASS-HOLE" rained down upon the men in stripes. Detroit may have had the power play, but the Flyers had turned a scary moment into a momentum builder.

The Flyers killed off that ensuing penalty, then were out for blood. Scott Hartnell took a run and absolutely destroyed a Red Wing. Every time Kronwall touched the puck, the boos were deafening, and every time he went back in his own zone to retrieve a puck, the Flyers targeted him. Even Jaromir Jagr aggressively went at Kronwall, throwing a rare hard check on him — one that proved costly. Jagr fell awkwardly as he hit Kronwall and came up a little gimpy. He would not return after that, suffering a hip injury. Not good.

Then a few moments later, Hartnell was called for a roughing minor that really got the fans upset. Honestly, it was a penalty on Hartnell. He hit Doug Janik with the puck already long gone. But given the way the crowd was in a frenzy, it just juiced up the fans even more. And on the ensuing penalty kill, the place erupted. Giroux blocked a pass out high and streaked the other way, blowing by Ian White for a semi-breakaway. The newest public enemy No. 1 in Philly, Kronwall, was chasing down Giroux. Claude still broke in and got a shot off that was stopped, but with White chasing and Kronwall trying to cut the angle on Giroux, Max Talbot was all alone for the rebound, depositing it in the back of the net to give the Flyers a two-goal lead and blow the roof off the building.

Lost in the shuffle of all the madness, however, was the fact that after a first period in which the Flyers outshot the Red Wings 9-2, Detroit was the one getting most of the pressure. The big hit, crowd noise and shorthanded goal overshadowed what was happening in between on the ice. The Red Wings began cranking it up a notch and firing shots at Bryzgalov, and Ilya answered the bell every time. He faced 16 shots in the second, stopping them all. Then in the third, he faced 21 more. One did get by, as Hartnell took an awful goaltender interference penalty that led to a Detroit power play — horrible given the time and the situation, the Flyers trying to protect a two-goal lead — and right as the penalty expired Johan Franzen found himself all alone with room to snipe, beating Bryz on a beautiful shot.

But from there on out, Bryzgalov stopped everything in his path. With the team already down arguably its three top defensemen — captain Chris Pronger, all-star Kimmo Timonen and last year's Barry Ashbee winner for the Flyers best defenseman Andrej Meszaros — and then losing two forwards during the game last night, the Flyers needed Bryzgalov more than ever.

The mercurial goalie was brilliant last night, his fourth straight game of brilliance to be exact. He was fantastic in the 1-0 loss to San Jose last week, pretty good again in the 6-3 over the Islanders, then perfect Sunday against the Caps in the 1-0 shutout victory. And last night, he was without a shadow of a doubt the best player on the ice, stopping 37 shots, including some absolutely brilliant ones, and was in complete control in the third period when the Flyers were on their heels, getting outshot 21-6 in the final 20 minutes. He looked composed and focused, getting square to every shot, absorbing pucks and controlling things on the back end. He looked like the goaltender the Flyers thought they were getting when they dished out that humongous big contract.

Now that the Flyers need him more than ever, Bryzgalov is rising to the task, something I didn't think he had in him this season. But he's getting hot at the right time and as the pressure is rising. Three of the team's top defensemen are gone, and injuries continue to ravage the forwards. Yet there is Bryzgalov to save the day. And he stole the show from Mark Howe last night, earning the first star honors.

I have to give a shout-out to a few other Flyers as well. First and foremost, I cannot possibly say enough about Pavel Kubina. I liked the trade when it happened, bringing in a big, physical, steady defenseman who also happens to be a right-hand shot. I knew Kubina was a good player, having seen him so often. But I wasn't quite sure he could shoulder really big minutes given his age, and I don't think the Flyers expected him to with guys like Timonen, Meszaros, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle.

However, with Timonen and Meszaros out, Kubina has had to play a lot, and right now, he's the best defenseman on the team. Better than Coburn, better than Carle, better than anyone on the blue line. And last night he was incredible again, doing a masterful job on the penalty kill, moving bodies and making the right play time and time again. He won a ton of battles along the boards, never got caught out of position and really steadied a defense corps that desperately needs a leader right now. I can't say enough about his effort last night. Really impressive.

As was Eric Wellwood. In the limited action for Wellwood in the NHL, I've been impressed with the kid every time he's played. But last night, he showed me even more. With Jagr and Voracek going down, he had to do a lot more than he's used to, playing a little more on regular shifts, but more importantly taking Voracek's spot on the PK. And man, did he do an incredible job chasing down pucks, winning battles and getting puck out of the zone on the PK. Great work by Wellwood last night.

Finally, I have to give credit to Peter Laviolette and Sean Couturier. In the final minute, I said to silver fox that Lavvy should put Giroux, Talbot and maybe Brayden Schenn out there to wrap up the game with the one-goal lead, since Giroux and Talbot are the best defensive forwards on the team and Schenn had been taking most of the shifts with Giroux since Jagr left the game. Before I could even finish my sentence, Talbot and Giroux were skating to the dot … along with Couturier, another tremendous defender. And to my surprise, not only was the 19-year-old Couturier out there, but he was out there taking the face-off against one of the best players in the world, Henrik Zetterberg.

Couturier proceeded to do a great job on two face-offs of tying up Zetterberg and killing valuable time, and then ultimately winning the final face-off against Henrik to help secure the victory. Great to see Couturier bare down and get the job done in the face-off circle when it mattered most, something the Flyers have struggled with all season.

It was an all-around great game and great atmosphere. Mark Howe's jersey now hangs in the rafters among other Flyers greats such as Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and Bernie Parent; I got to be in the same building as Gordie Howe, one of the three or four most famous hockey players of all time (along with Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and perhaps Mario Lemieux); the Flyers won; and most importantly and most encouraging, Ilya Bryzgalov stole the show, playing as well as a goalie possibly can to help steal a victory.

Hopefully Voracek isn't concussed for the rest of the season and Jagr can recover quickly. And if the Flyers can find a way to get healthy and Bryzgalov continues his recent ascent, this team may not be in quite as much trouble as was once thought.

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