Monday, October 22, 2007

Monday, Giddy Monday

by Bob Herpen

The Phanatic Magazine

One year ago today, the Flyers took a drastic step towards the restructuring of the franchise by accepting the resignation of general manager Bob Clarke and firing head coach Ken Hitchcock.

The genesis of the blowout of October 22, 2006 came five days earlier, as the team was blitzed 9-1 by the Sabres in Buffalo, giving the club a dismal 1-4-1 record. Two more losses followed to Tampa Bay and Florida, and by the time they returned home, chairman Ed Snider and other upper management decided a massive shake-up was due.

Paul Holmgren was installed as GM, amid hints from Clarke that he’d been making key decisions for quite some time prior. John Stevens became the second Calder Cup-winning Phantoms head coach to be elevated to the Flyers’ top spot.

Exactly 365 days later and the orange and black find themselves in first place in the Atlantic Division with a 6-1-0 record. They’ve won five in a row and just performed a clean sweep of their four-game home stand by allowing only three goals.

The last time the Flyers won six of their first seven games to start a season? Believe it or not, 1993-94. That season, under the leadership of Terry Simpson, packed with names like Mark Recchi, Josef Beranek, Dominic Roussel and Garry Galley, the team began 11-3-0 but totally fell apart and missed the playoffs once Eric Lindros hurt his knee in mid-November and the defense took on the characteristics of a colander.

The real challenge begins Wednesday, though. Inexplicably, the NHL decided to saddle the Flyers with an eight-game road trip, during which they never leave the Eastern time zone. That gives them a staggering 11 road dates in their first 15 games.

Philly’s best starts after 15 games came in 1979-80 (13-1-1) and 1985-86 (13-2-0) and both seasons were memorable for a variety of reasons. This year, it seems the team is intent on living up to its corporate catchphrase, “Back with a Vengeance.”

Although the road trip won’t stray far from home, and though Martin Biron played more than 70 games in goal three seasons ago for Buffalo, you can expect to see Antero Niittymaki make his debut at some point. It doesn’t make much sense to wear Biron out this early in the year, no matter how many times already he’s bailed the team out from sluggish periods. There are a few key stats which tell the true story of how much of a turnaround the Flyers have made from the end of last season to the start of this one:

· Their goal differential is plus-16, the highest in the NHL

· Defenseman Randy Jones is a plus-8, fourth-best in the league

· Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have stepped up for nine goals

· Eleven players have scored at least once

· Biron is third in goals-against average at 1.57

· The team is fifth in power-play percentage at 23.3

· They rank second to Minnesota with a 1.71 overall team goals-against average, and tops in the NHL with just under four goals per game.

If the team makes it out of the road swing with at least a .500 mark, you can count on them no longer flying below the radar. The Ottawas and Buffalos and whoever else distinguish themselves early on will be looking to feast on the new kids, and it’s a good break they don’t play the Senators until late November and the Sabres until a few days before Christmas.

Until then, let the sweet early-season ride continue.

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