Friday, November 30, 2007

No Time to Panic, but Flyers Show They Have Long Way to Go

by Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

Forget the fact that the Flyers and Rangers are dueling for top spot in the Atlantic Division two months into the season.

Forget that Mike Richards is turning into a phenom, leading the club with 14 goals and 30 points, or that Lasse Kukkonen is a shot-blocking machine. Forget that Danny Briere looks like a super ball whenever he senses he can take over a game.

This year’s orange and black model has a lot of growing to do, and may turn out to be slightly more disappointing than even expectations within the city.

Exhibit A is their wildly inconsistent home play.

After reeling off six straight wins to open the season, the team has dropped four home games in a row. Two of them were key division matchups, to the Devils and Rangers. In the following two (Washington and Boston) the team skated like zombies, and found themselves down by three goals before waking up both times.

Exhibit B is their wildly inconsistent home play sandwiched around some inexplicably crucial road wins.

Even head coach John Stevens is at a loss to explain how the club loses by four to the Devils, then goes to a vastly-improved Carolina and scores a three-goal win, then plays a stinker against the Caps, only to wake up and skate 60 excellent minutes in a win over Ottawa, only to play so catatonically through the majority of the Boston game – only to recover by playing a solid defensive contest to win again in Raleigh.

Exhibit C is the goaltending situation, also wildly inconsistent.

Martin Biron looked almost unbeatable early, then turned in stinkers in Montreal and Jersey, then against the Devils and Bruins here, where he almost appeared distracted. Antero Niittymaki, thankfully bailed himself out of a jam in Ottawa, but not before stopping zero-of-two shots in relief in that 6-2 loss to New Jersey on November 17.

Exhibit D is the defense, which seems a bit too old and too young at the same time.

At least that relationship shows signs of mending as the year pushes on, but it’s hard not to figure that the likelihood of either netminder letting in an avalanche of goals won’t increase when the club is allowing more than 30-shots-per-game, and has the largest negative shot differential in the NHL.

This coming week features three out-of-conference games. All three will depend on the cohesiveness of the defense and the steadiness in net. The Stars’ Marty Turco, Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom and Peter Budaj of Colorado all can steal games when needed.

Dallas and Minnesota are still believers in the defense-first philosophy, while the Avalanche may best the Flyers in a track meet.

As of Friday, Philly is 14-8-2 for 30 points, but with a goal differential of just plus-nine. They are 6-6-2 since an 8-2-0 start, and have already dropped two games to the Rangers and Devils, and suffered three other conference losses which will loom larger as the season winds down.

The hope is that Stevens, while still learning on the fly, doesn’t simply force the team into a defensive shell at home to prevent the possibility of more embarrassing defeats, then let the club loose on the road without the “pressure” of “having to perform” with the local crowd.

There are 58 games remaining, and only one road trip longer than three games. After a six-game swing around the holidays, the Flyers get a reward with a six-game homestand from January 20-Febrary 2.

And speaking of long ways to go, the NHL Board of Governors approved a scheduling change at their meeting in Pebble Beach, California on Thursday.

The regular season will remain at 82 games. Starting next season, each team will play division rivals six times (three home, three road), their 10 conference opponents four times (two home, two road), and each of their out-of-conference foes 18 times (all 15 teams once each, three home-and-home matchups to be determined according to a wild card draw).

With so much emphasis placed on what the fans want, it’s no shock that the head office decided not to overthink things. In other words, and with apologies to Pete Townshend: Meet the new sked, same as the old sked.

It’s worth noting, however, that while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman crowed about the change as a response to the fans, the NHLPA had a different take.

New Players’ Association boss Paul Kelly revealed Thursday after the meeting that the players prefer an 84-game slate, where each team played 24 division games, 30 conference matchups, and two games against each out-of-conference opponent.

I wonder why the players did an abrupt about-face on the issue, when, over a decade ago (when there was much less wear and tear game-to-game and over the course of a season) coming out of the 1995 lockout year, they shot down an 84-game regular season as being too long.

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