Friday, January 25, 2013

(Penalty) Killing in the Name of Victory

Last night, the Philadelphia Flyers played their best first period of this young, shortened season thus far, outworking and outplaying the weary New York Rangers — who had come off a hard-fought overtime victory the night before against Boston — and while they did not score in said period, they rode the hot start to their first victory of the season.

However, it wasn't the hot start or even the strong second period in which Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek scored to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead that really propelled the Flyers over the Rangers. No, it was the much-maligned penalty kill that turned out to be the difference, led mostly by the trio of Sean Couturier, Max Talbot and Ilya Bryzgalov.

As we know, the Flyers special teams have been atrocious here to start the season. Their power play entered the night with just 1 goal and the penalty kill had seemingly given up more power play goals than they've actually killed. And while they did score a power-play goal last night (Voracek's), they also surrendered yet another goal down a man on the first power play they tried to kill off in the game. It came at an absolutely horrible time, with the Flyers up 2-0 in the third and having outplayed the Rangers in every conceivable way.

That's when Braydon Coburn, for literally the third or fourth time this year already, took an absolutely atrocious, stupid penalty at a horrible time. He checked Rick Nash up high for no apparent reason, and was sent off. Shortly thereafter, the Rangers made it a one-goal game on some remarkable patience by Marian Gaborik that led to a Taylor Pyatt goal.

It was an inexcusable penalty by Coburn, something he's made a habit of here in the early going. A veteran stalwart like himself shouldn't be making boneheaded mistakes like that.

And just like that, it was a game again. And it looked like the Flyers were going to not only surrender their lead, but surrender the game after getting tagged with an incredibly unfortunate four-minute high stick on Tye McGinn, whose stick flew up as he fell to ice and cut Michael Del Zotto, followed by a hooking penalty by Nick Grossmann just 15 seconds later to give the Rangers a two-minute, two-man advantage.

At that point, I thought the Flyers were destined to lose, negating all the great work they had done through two periods.

But then a funny thing happened. That penalty kill that had been so porous to kick off the season went out and did yeoman's work and killed off the whole damn thing.

Max Talbot and Sean Couturier were all over the damn place, blocking shots, pressuring the puck and clearing the zone every chance they got. When the Rangers did create something of substance, Ilya Bryzgalov was there to deny them, playing remarkable and coming up with the huge saves he needed in a huge spot.

With Talbot and Couturier leading the charge, others followed suit. Ruslan Fedotenko had an incredible PK shift himself, and then Matt Read and Claude Giroux finished it off. By the time it was over, the Rangers were somewhat flummoxed and the Wells Fargo Center crowd erupted.

But there was still more work to be done. With just over a minute left, the Flyers iced the puck. Sean Couturier won the defensive-zone draw, and after a quick change, the Flyers iced it again. That's when Claude Giroux took the circle, won a draw which led to another ice, won another draw, then won another defensive-zone draw after yet another ice, and that was all she wrote. A team that has been horrendous in the face-off circle and suspect at it for years won four huge defensive-zone draws in the final minute-plus to seal the victory.

And it was the little things all night that made the difference. Yes, the Flyers were playing a dog tired Rangers team that had just played an overtime game less than 24 hours earlier, but New York is a star-studded team solid all the way through. And it's led by one of the single most talented offensive lines in hockey, with perennial all-stars Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Rick Nash on the top line.

Well all night, that trio was muted by Couturier, Talbot and Jake Voracek. It was the type of game from Couturier and Talbot we saw a lot last year, particularly when Couturier basically took Evgeni Malkin out of the series last year in the playoffs. Last night, it was more of the same. Talbot and Couturier were the best players on the ice period in that game. Better than Giroux. Better than Grossmann, who managed to be named first star because he laid out Gaborik, I guess. Better than Lundqvist or anyone else on the Rangers. And even better than Bryzgalov, who was outstanding last night as well.

Couturier and Talbot not only led the charge on that vital PK, but they literally took the Rangers' talented top line completely out of the game. Their defense was beyond tremendous, and I can't say enough about those two.

It was a much-needed win, one in which the Flyers got great contributions from everyone. Bryz was great. Kimmo Timonen did all the things Kimmo Timonen always does. Claude, Simmonds and Read looked good as a top line. The youngsters provided energy. Hell, even the fourth line I mocked before the game of Jody Shelley, Tom Sestito and Eric Wellwood played extremely well. And of course there was that line of Couturier, Talbot and Voracek.

Finally, the Flyers won a game, and surprisingly given the first three contests, it was the penalty killing that led the way.

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