NHL Playoffs: 5 Players That Must Step Up Their Game for the Philadelphia Flyers
Facing a 2-1 series deficit against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, the Philadelphia Flyers have very little room for error if they wish to continue a run toward hockey’s Holy Grail.
Peter Laviolette will be a busy man over the next two days as the Flyers prepare for their first must-win of the playoffs in Game 4. Along with trying to solve the Devils penalty kill and searching for ways to motivate his stalled and sluggish club, Laviolette will need to ignite a fire in some key players.
It’s clear that the Flyers have lost the hunger and sense of urgency which powered their efforts in the opening round with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In lieu of this lack of effort, these 5 Flyers need to seriously step up their level of play if this club will find success against the Devils.
Let me set the record straight on Claude Giroux. Along with Danny Briere, Giroux has been the best Flyer in these playoffs. On any given night they are interchangeable as 1 and 1A.
Giroux doesn’t wear the captain’s “C” but in the eyes and hearts of many Flyers fans, and arguably among his teammates, he is the clear leader of this club.
He single-handedly stole the show in the series-clinching Game 6 against the Penguins. He has been strong in nearly every shift he has played in this series, but in the playoffs your best players need to continually ratchet up their play and now is the time for Giroux to take his play to yet another level.
If Giroux has another gear it’s time for him to shift to it. He’s been one of the few Flyers to maintain their momentum from the first round, but if he doesn’t ramp it up in the wake of his team’s shortcomings the Flyers could be well on their way to a second consecutive Round 2 exit.
It may be revealed at the close of this playoff run for the Flyers, whenever that time comes, that Jagr has been playing through significant injury. Perhaps he is just tired and worn down from what has been a physically exhausting playoff run, and at 40 years old that would not surprise anyone.
Still, Jagr’s fitness level is renowned in hockey circles and his level of play over the course of the long regular season would seem to suggest that fatigue is not a factor in the Czech’s game.
Through nine games in this postseason, Jagr has posted eight points but only one goal and that came all the way back in Game 2 against the Penguins on April 13. No one is expecting Jagr to carry the work load offensively, but he was brought to Philadelphia for his experience, particularly in the playoffs, and the Flyers need him to draw on that experience soon if they’re to have a fighting chance against the Devils.
It’s easy for the casual observer to look at the grit and nastiness that Wayne Simmonds has brought to this series and confuse that with playing well.
Simmonds has been awful in the last two games of this series and with the minutes he is getting from Laviolette he needs to be much better going forward.
One part of Simmonds' game that stood out this season, especially for those of us on the East Coast that didn’t get to see him play on a regular basis, is his considerable speed and tenacity. He’s lost more than a step or two in this series and his physical presence has been visible only in the moments after the play.
A power forward like Simmonds needs to be as strong on the wall as he is with the puck and he has struggled significantly in both areas in this series. Simmonds is consistently beaten in puck battles and is far too easily taken off the puck on the rare occasions where he has won possession.
He is also getting important shifts with the top power play unit. His form in man advantage situations was stellar in the opening round, but with the exception of Game 1 he has been more of a liability against the Devils.
With the Flyers' power play struggling as a whole, Simmonds is one of a handful of guys that need to find their game fast in order to contribute to the cause.
In the wake of the lower body injury suffered by rookie Sean Couturier in Game 3 and his unknown status for Game 4, every player in the Flyers locker room will be called upon to play a bigger role. This is no truer for any Flyer than it is for fellow rookie Matt Read.
Read had an exceptional rookie season and has contributed five points to the Flyers cause to this point in the postseason, including the lone goal for Philadelphia in Game 2 of this series with the Devils. There are aspects of Read’s game, however, that have been far too lacking in the playoffs.
At times, Read appears in over his head. He makes more than questionable decisions with the puck and seems overpowered by opponents at times, even for a guy with his smaller-than-average stature.
No one is asking Read to play at the same level as Giroux or Briere, but asking him to play like the same guy we saw in the regular season for 60 minutes a night is not a stretch. Now more than ever the Flyers would benefit immensely from a surge from their rookie sensation.
It would be unfair to kick a player while he’s down. Following his line change gaff in overtime of Game 3 which directly led to Devils’ forward Alexei Ponikarovsky’s game-winning tally, it’s easy to argue that Erik Gustafsson is certainly feeling down at the moment.
Laviolette has trusted Gustafsson with considerable playing time during this playoff run, plugging him into the lineup following an injury to Nicklas Grossmann in the Penguins series and sticking with him after Grossmann’s return from injury, instead of veteran defenseman Pavel Kubina.
Now as the play intensifies and every shift becomes more and more critical, Gustafsson should be on a short leash going forward. The young blue liner was a turnover machine in Game 3 and his physicality has dipped in recent games.
Gustafsson has been far from the only Flyers defenseman who has struggled against the Devils’ relentless forecheck, but his play of late has to make Laviolette question his ice time in the games ahead.
While Andrej Meszaros remains out as he fights back from a lower back injury and Kubina lacking the trust of his coaches, Gustafsson is the only option at the moment for Philadelphia. If he cannot continue to contribute significant minutes, the other five defensemen will be heavily taxed as this series wears on. That does not bode well for a long cup run for the Flyers.