Both teams have something to prove tonight - that they can win a game during the 2008-09 season.
The Flyers have faced multiple issues, but I think the two key hurdles are goaltending and chemistry. Bill Meltzer broke down the Flyers’ situation between the pipes. His analysis is dead-on here and worth the read. The blame for the first three games doesn’t rest entirely with Biron and Niittymaki, but the gaping holes back there can’t continue for long without upsetting the entire apple cart.
As for chemistry problems, just check out the changes John Stevens has made to the forward lines. Joffrey Lupul will center the third line with Scott Hartnell and Steve Downie, while Glen Metropolit drops to the fourth line with Arron Asham and Riley Cote. In Pittsburgh, Asham saw time on the second line with Jeff Carter. And the power play units have quietly shifted, with Mike Richards returning to his natural center position with Danny Briere and Simon Gagne on the wings and Kimmo Timonen paired with Luca Sbisa on the blue line. Yes, that’s right, Luca Sbisa.
Stevens isn’t the tinkering type like Ken Hitchcock. This team needs to score more goals on the power play and at even strength if they’re going to win games. But chemistry is something that develops over time, and the Flyers have shown improvements over the last three games. Perhaps tonight will prove their breakthrough.
First intermission. Flyers 0 - Avalanche 2
17 shots from the Avalanche, 3 from the Flyers. If not for some miraculous saves from Biron on Sakic and Smyth up close, the goal differential would be far more in favor of the Avalanche.
I could spend days detailing all the things the Flyers are doing wrong. But rather than recite the obvious, let me say what the Flyers should do if they want to win tonight.
KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. Stop trying the low-percentage cross-ice passes. Move the puck up through the neutral zone, dump it in, establish a forecheck, cycle, and score. I don’t care how beautiful the play is. If you lose, it won’t matter. Good, simple, hard-hitting, mucking-and-grinding hockey is going to win this thing.
By the way, keep an eye on Jeff Carter. He’s been very physically aggressive in both zones, and you can tell he wants to win. Remember that 10 game streak when Mike Richards was out of the lineup in February? That same energy seems to be coursing through Carter right now.
Second intermission. Flyers 2 - Avalanche 4
A beautiful penalty shot goal from Simon Gagne and a slap shot tally on a 5-on-3 advantage from Mike Richards gave the Flyers momentum, but the Avalanche still garnered two power play goals to keep their lead.
For their third period game plan, the Flyers must avoid the penalty box and push hard towards the Colorado net. Any time in the box will hinder their ability to score goals. Raycroft has been allowing rebounds to sit in the crease, which provides a terrific opportunity for goal scoring. We’ll see whether the Flyers are able to find the resilience to win tonight in Denver.
The Flyers figured out how to drive the net, but they simply couldn’t stay out of the box. This was a team loss born of penalties across the board, lapses in team defense, and the early failure of the team to put offensive pressure on the Avalanche.
The lone bright spot was Gagne’s performance. Credible journalists and venerable bloggers alike have pointed to Gagne’s 3 goals in 3 games as proof that he’s back to normal. Truthfully, I observed a player who seemed to be a step behind and who just happened to have a scoring touch.
The penalty shot, though, breathed life into the French Canadian. He not only skated in the direction of the net; he barrelled towards Raycroft. Those trademark give-and-go passes looked crisp and clean, as did his pivoting along the half boards on the power plays. And for the first time in over a year, I watched Gagne ratchet up the speed to create offensive chances for himself. If his normal pattern of building intensity as he comes off an injury continues, then there could be some serious fun in store for Flyer fans.
That said, it’s a team game. A slow start from all 19 guys led straight to a loss tonight. And the slow start of the season from everyone could mean the loss of a playoff spot if the Flyers aren’t careful.