That dull thudding noise you hear is the sound of my head banging repeatedly against a flat screen computer monitor as I sit here and try to hazard a guess as to where your Philadelphia Flyers are heading this season.
Will Flyers fans have the opportunity to attend two victory parades in one year? Or will the hockey hopes and dreams of Philadelphia fan-base be reduced to the non-playoff suckers walk that is the NHL lottery pick (projected to be John Tavares)?
It’s hard to tell.
Eleven games into their 2008-2009 campaign, the Flyers have already put together two streaks: A stretch of six winless contests which saw the orange and black stumble out of the tunnel with a dubious 0-3-3 record to start their season, followed by a four game unbeaten streak, which began with two consecutive victories over the hockey world’s worst…neighbors…ever, the New Jersey Devils.
Each streak contains some illusory qualities. There are facets of the winless streak that can easily explain the Flyers lack of success at the onset of the season. There are also aspects of the recent four game unbeaten stretch that should give fans some pause before they start casing which Broad Street businesses they plan to loot in advance of next June’s parade.
The Winless Streak: 0-3-3
It’s easy to look at 0-3-3 and attribute that kind of performance to distractions or a lack of desire on the Flyers part. However, with eleven games in the books, a different picture has come into focus.
It should be pointed out that as John Stevens tinkered with his lines through the first six games of this season, he inadvertently dismantled two key components of the Flyers success in 2007-2008: depth down the middle, and the consistency of his best defensive pairing.
As Stevens experimented with his top line, by stacking it with an impressive collection of goal-scorers that had Mike Richards centering Simon Gagne and Daniel Briere, his second and third scoring lines suffered.
One of the Flyers’ strengths in the 2007-2008 campaign was their depth down the middle. Last year, the Flyers attack benefited from the passes that came off of the sticks of the club’s three top centermen: Briere, Carter, and Richards.
But as Briere and Richards began taking shifts together early this season, the lack of skilled playmakers distributing the puck across three lines upset the scoring balance the team enjoyed last season.
On the blue line, Stevens’ experimenting had a similarly negative effect as he separated last season’s most successful defensive pairing. He spread Kimmo Timmonen and Braydon Coburn across the Flyers defensive corps in an effort to shore up a blue line that began the 2008-2009 season with injuries, inexperience, and new faces.
Not only were Timmonen and Coburn the most productive offensive pairing from the blue line for the Flyers in 2007-2008, they were also the team’s best shut down defenders.
With both Timmonen and Coburn suddenly skating with new partners, the Flyers goaltending found itself being torched for 28 goals in through the first six games.
As Stevens moved to return to the lineups that had worked for the Flyers in the past, the Flyers fortunes began to turn.
However, the blame for 0-3-3 cannot be laid solely at the feet of John Stevens. As the NHL standings have begun to solidify, it has become apparent the Flyers were dealt a tough schedule to start the season.
Three of the Flyers first five opponents this season currently sit at the top of their respective divisions: the Rangers in the Atlantic, the Canadiens in the Northeast, and the Sharks in the Pacific (which the Flyers played in two consecutive games).
With these three teams combining for a current record of 28-6-1, you might say the Flyers had their work cut out for them through those four games. Throw the Pittsburgh Penguins into the mix, and that’s a tough two weeks in the National Hockey League.
What’s encouraging about the Flyers six game winless drought is the fact that, despite their inability to make it into the win column early on, their guns never went silent.
With the exception of an uninspiring 5-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, three of Philadelphia’s five losses to start the season were decided by one-goal margins; the two goal margin for the Montreal Canadiens 5-3 victory was the result of a Steve Begin empty net goal in the final minute of the contest.
Despite sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings, the Flyers lead the East in goal scoring with 43 goals. League-wide, only the Detroit Red Wings have scored more, with 44 tallies through twelve games.
The Unbeaten Streak: 4-0-0
What has been most surprising about the Flyers sudden reversal of fortunes is the fact that the transformation from winless in six to unbeaten in four began with the New Jersey Devils.
While it is a commonly held misconception that Ed Snider owns the Philadelphia Flyers, anyone keeping score at home knows that Martin Brodeur has owned the orange and black since the moment the future Hall of Fame goaltender pulled a red and black jersey over his head.
With Philadelphia mucking through a six game winless streak, there was little expectation the Flyers would march into the Prudential Center (a building where the Flyers had not won in their last twelve visits) and not only beat the Devils, but sweep New Jersey in two consecutive days to conclude a home-and-home series against Brodeur and Co.
BUT, for all of the excitement generated by a pair of wins over the Devils, the Flyers thumping of the hapless Atlanta Thrashers and the New York Islanders hardly puts an exclamation point on “we’re back!” Especially when it’s taken into consideration the two clubs have five wins between them in 22 games played this season.
The Flyers four game unbeaten streak came to an end yesterday with a 5-4 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, leaving fans to wonder if the Flyers can string together wins consistently against opponents that have a winning record.
The Long View
With the Atlantic Division competitive from top to bottom, the Flyers could find themselves in a struggle to make the playoffs this season. A resurgent Southeast Division could lead to a three team battle for the eighth and final playoff spot between the Flyers and teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning.
To be certain, the slow start to the Flyers season has significantly reduced their margin for error moving forward. If Philadelphia finds itself in one of the annual double-digit winless funks that seems to overtake the team every January, the Flyers will most certainly find themselves out of the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.