Monday, March 22, 2010

Around The Rink

by Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

The tenor of the start of this column, about where the Flyers can end up in the playoff race despite a weekend and season-series sweep by Atlanta, was going to be guardedly optimistic.

That is, until the news broke hours ago that Jeff Carter, the club's leading goal (33) and point (60) scorer will miss 3-to-4 weeks with a broken foot suffered in Sunday's loss when he blocked a shot.

Aside from acutally playing the games, this is as close to the precipice the Orange and Black can come in terms of finding a foothold in the perennially-cluttered Eastern Conference postseason race without falling off.

It is one thing to lose your bargain-basement off-season free-agent goaltender signing to repeated injury (Ray Emery) but have one former starter (Brian Boucher) in the wings and a waiver-wire claim (Michael Leighton) pan out beyond anyone's wildest dreams, only to see the former starter return to the form which saw him bounce around the league for five years.

Peter Laviolette and his coaches are smart enough to do a patch job in terms of the system employed, to adjust things slightly where the defensive aspect is tightened up a bit without sacrificing the offensive capability. In addition, the mental reserves and leadership qualities of the players on the bottom two lines can provide some sense of urgency and focus.

It is entirely another when you're top goal scorer, your most counted on sniper, is expected to missing for the final and most critical 10 games of the season. This club is not strong enough, as in previous eras, to withstand the absence of their star player and stay on an even keel. The ship was listing in moderate seas even before the news broke this afternoon, having looked awful in a 5-2 loss in Atlanta on Saturday before coming up two goals short in a better effort yesterday at home.

There was a lot of crowing over having six 20-goal scorers a season ago. But Joffrey Lupul was shipped to Anaheim and Mike Knuble signed with Washington. Now the third piece to the puzzle is injured and the hand-wringing begins.

Can Simon Gagne (three goals in seven games) or Danny Briere (three goals, seven points in last 12 games) suddenly re-ignite if Mike Richards (28 goals, 58 points) draw more heat? Will Powe, Laperriere, Asham and Carcillo be able to stretch themselves offensively a la Hull/Manderville/Ranheim or Klatt-Otto-Podein?

The only saving grace may be this: in a league which hands out points like Halloween candy, it's entirely possible that the Flyers keep losing, but in a bizarre parallel to the corporate world, continue to keep falling up. All every other team below them has to do is lose in regulation with the Flyers collecting any points available beyond regulation.

Today, after not being able to separate themselves from the middle of the pack, Philly still has 79 points and is locked in a three-way tie for fifth place with Ottawa and Montreal – despite having lost five of their last seven lcontests. Every game from here out, except Thursday's home tilt with Minnesota and an April road game with the Islanders, has intense meaning for the standings.

Let the rollercoaster ride begin.

Not So Fuzzy Memories

Aside from the tug-of-war that is the NHL playoff picture, this time of year always stirs up a different patch of emotions, stemming from my undergraduate years at Boston College.

I realize college hockey isn't even an accidental jelly stain on the collective sports radar around these parts, but that's why I love conference finals and NCAA tournament time. Following the Division I game makes me feel part of a secret society, one that nobody cares to join and looks at from the outside like we're an alien race.
Every year BC makes a move in Hockey East and on the national stage is an event, but one that challenges the mental and physical health of its fan base.

Take Saturday for example. BC and Maine hooked up for an uncharacteristically wild Hockey East playoff final which the Eagles eventually won. But...Jerry York's club blew leads of 4-2, 5-3 and 6-4 – seeing the Black Bears tie the game with 27 seconds left in regulation – only to win on a trickling stuffer attempt in overtime by a senior who netted his first career hat trick.

I was at work, sneaking the game on the satellite, exalting and seething at every little thing. My co-workers thought I was getting emotional over the Flyers. Fat chance.

It erased the memory of the 2000 final contest, which saw one-time Flyer Niko Dimitrakos of Maine beat current Panthers goaltender Scottie Clemmensen for the game-winner with seven seconds left in the third period. Ten years ago, I was high above TD Garden ice, calling the game for my student-run radio station with a friend and fellow Communication major colleague who now does TV sports in North Carolina.

The game itself and how it ended still haunts me to this day, and the images of that night sprint to the front of my brain without fail at this time of year.

During my four years in Chestnut Hill, BC made the national finals twice, losing to Michigan in an overtime heartbreaker at Boston in 1998 and to a high-octane North Dakota squad in 2000 at Providence. They lost in a national semifinal in OT to – guess who – Maine in 1999. In a cruel twist of fate, the Eagles won it all in 2001, the Spring after I graduated, avenging losses to all three above-mentioned teams en route to the title.

Boston College now plays in an equally balanced 16-team tournament, one with no byes. I will be sweating out every second of its first game against Alaska-Fairbanks, then possibly the winner of North Dakota-Yale this coming weekend. After that, I'll have to slip down to CVS and get refills for my heart pills because every successive round and potential opponent bears significant memories of time and space when such things mattered too much.

Even with a decade in between, the current unparalleled run of success (two NCAA titles, four championship-game berths, nine tournament selection) stirs up feelings that are too vibrant to merit description. You simply have to be one of the faithful to know the rewards.

Fabulous Finns

Teemu Selanne became the 18th member of the 600-goal club with a score in Anaheim's Sunday-night win over Colorado. He is just the third European, besides Jaromir Jagr and Jari Kurri, and second Finnish-born NHLer besides Kurri, to reach the milestone.

Kurri left the game in 1997 with 601 goals, which means, barring freak happenstance, Selanne will finish his season and his career with the all-time record for goals from a Finnish forward.

No matter if he decides to hang up the skates after the year's up, and even before the milestone marker, Selanne has cemented himself as the greatest Finnish player in NHL history.

Even though Kurri was one of the few Oilers to stay around long enough to win all five Stanley Cups, and though he ripped off six 100-point seasons and posted an incredible 290 goals in a five-year stretch from 1982-87, he did not enjoy the consistency that Selanne has.
Selanne's insane rookie season (76 goals, 132 points) came without the benefit of a Gretzky-like set-up man on a barely-.500 Winnipeg Jets club. The 39-year-old Duck enjoyed his prime from the third to eighth years of his career, just like Kurri, and he did connect with Paul Kariya in a Kurri-Gretzky-like fashion at that time, comparatively so for the defense-first mindset of the late 90s.

However, what distinguishes the four-time Olympian from the Hall-of-Famer is the end of his career.

Kurri's goal totals dropped noticeably after Gretzky left the Oilers and the NHL began to turn away from its explosive offensive mindset from the 1980's. After 1989, Kurri never scored more than 33 goals in any one season, only posted a high of 93 points (in 1990) after that, and was reduced to a role player strung along in his career by ex-Oilers wanting to recapture the old days. He ended his final NHL season, in 1997-98, with five goals in limited action over 70 games.

On the other hand, Selanne enjoyed a career rebirth after the cancelled 2004-05 season with rest and rehab on a botched surgically-repaired knee. He's posted 90, 94, 23 (in 26 games), 54 and this year, 36 points in 45 games. That averages to slightly under one point per game as he approaches age 40, making Selanne a much larger impact player at that age than Kurri ever was at the end. He also was one of a few key players called on to lead the Ducks to a Cup title three years ago, whereas Kurri was simply one of the pantheon in Edmonton.

Infamous Last Words

With the current offense in crisis mode, it's appropriate that we celebrate March 22, 1984 as the date of the Flyers' club record for goals in one game, after a 13-4 demolition of Pittsburgh.

Dave Poulin and Ilkka Sinisalo each posted a hat trick, with Tim Kerr scoring twice to reach the 50-goal mark for the first time in his career. Also strafing Pens netminder Denis Herron were Len Hachborn (twice), Mark Howe, Thomas Eriksson and Ron Sutter.

If you don't recognize any of these names, what can I say? Go ask your parents or uncles. This was a time in the NHL before Mario Lemieux, and in fact, Pittsburgh was tanking games intentionally to successfully get that Number One pick they'd use to snag Super Mario anyway.

How different an era was it from the current one? Marty McSorley was a young puncher just trying to stick to an NHL roster. Herron was left in net for all 13 goals (on 46 shots), and the Pens almost erased a 6-1 deficit before Philadelphia scored seven goals in the third period alone. 

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