This season’s been a rollercoaster for Flyers fans.
Six games into the 2008 campaign, the Broad Street Bullies looked very unimpressive in failing to register a single win. This surprised many around the league given high pre-season expectations following last year’s deep playoff run that ended in the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh.
Starting netminder Martin Biron only fueled those expectations by declaring the team's confidence and ability to win it all this year.
Biron’s words came back to haunt him in the season opener against the Rangers, when he was yanked just 17 minutes into the first period after surrendering four goals. The dismal period seemingly shattered the Quebec native’s confidence.
The Flyers coaching staff was explicit in naming its goaltending as one culprit, amongst others, culpable for their atrocious start.
Goaltending coach Reggie Lemelin following a 7-6 loss to the Sharks said, “In the first game, as a team, it was like we got hit in the head by a 2-by-4. I think it put everyone back on their heels a little bit, including Marty."
"You have such high expectations when you start the season, and it might have rattled him a little bit. We've given up too many goals and part of that is the goaltending not making enough key saves.”
Similarly, Biron went through rough stretches last season to the extent that many in Philly were calling on head coach John Stevens to turn starting duties over to Antero Niittymaki.
While nobody doubts Biron’s ability in net, it’s well-documented that he can step into a mental rut that visibly alters his mechanics and approach to the game. Lemelin believes Biron has a tendency to overcompensate for a bad play or two by over-thinking his game, which can lead to prolonged struggles.
Following a closed-door meeting and the acquisitions of defensemen Andrew Alberts and Matt Carle, the Flyers have settled down defensively and are receiving quality goaltending from both Biron and Niitymaki.
Niitymaki is 6-1-2, with a 2.63 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Biron has also bounced back to form, including a spectacular 40-save shutout performance against his old team, the Buffalo Sabres.
Since starting 0-3-3 (three points), the Flyers have stormed back to a 17-8-6 record (40 points). Biron has been between the pipes for 11 of the wins and slowly inched his GAA and SV percentages back toward respectability (2.95 GAA, .900 SV percent).
Prior to last season, Flyers fans’ cynicism had grown thick watching the likes of Roman Cechmanek and Robert Esche hoodwink them with dazzling regular-season campaigns only to implode in postseason play.
Last season, however, Biron exceeded his regular-season performance by leading the Flyers to improbable series wins against higher-seeded Washington and Montreal squads.
Flyers fans hope Biron’s early season struggles were an aberration and last spring’s playoff hero is back for good. If not, Niitymaki’s strong play thus far this season will not give Biron leeway if he finds himself in another funk, especially given an extremely tight Atlantic Division race.
Both goalkeepers are undoubtedly talented and close in age (Biron 31, Niitymaki 29). With no top goalie prospects waiting in the wings, the Flyers organization is hoping that Biron will prove himself worthy of the starting role for the club’s near future.
However, this deeply talented core is closer than most people think to challenging for the Stanley Cup. And the Flyers could look elsewhere if neither goalie emerges as a consistent solution in net.