Thursday, December 09, 2010

Around The Rink: We Wuz Robbed Edition

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Every once in a while the hockey gods will come down from Mount Orrlympus and remind certain cynics that the NHL is a formless mass of confusion and blown opportunities for all during the middle 40 games on the schedule.

Such was the case last night as the Flyers blew a 4-1 third period lead and eventually lost in a shootout to the San Jose Sharks.

Not two days before, I was sitting at work, poring over my customary multiple NHL games, when I saw how the Washington Capitals wasted a 4-1 third-period lead at home to the Toronto Maple Leafs. I remarked out loud how that was a primary reason that Capitals won't win a Stanley Cup, because top teams don't blow three goal leads to the dregs of the conference, even in mid-season...blah, blah, blah...how the Flyers may lose a bunch of frustrating games to lesser opponents but they won't be caught dead doing that here, blah, blah, blah...

And then it happened.

No less than two of the local talking sports heads Wednesday night spoke incredulously that the San Jose Sharks? haven't lost to the Flyers in almost 10 years -- like it's the mid '90s and hockey in California is still a novel concept. Sometimes the ignorance really gets to me but that's another rant for another time...

Nevertheless, it's just about unconscionable and totally explainable at the same time how the Flyers can blow a three-goal third-period lead to any team at this point: It's the mix of players.

They got rid of supposed distraction Joffrey Lupul, canned head coach John Stevens and replaced him with Peter Laviolette. Problem is, they bring in a guy like Nikolay Zherdev and expect Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, Zherdev and others to play in all three zones with equal proficiency each game. It's just not gonna happen, and the sooner we realize it, the better.

No, Giroux isn't "playing injured" and not telling anyone. No, there's nothing "wrong" with Sergei Bobrovsky except he's thrust into an 82-game NHL when he's used to playing in Russia where the regular season is much shorter.

It's a fact of life in a league bloated with expansion. Not even the San Jose Sharks of the last few seasons were a 100-percent efficient machine. The consensus seems to be a lack of heart and drive more than anything else. But they're still a potent team when they want to be.

The visitors were on Wednesday, particularly in the first and third periods. All three goals the Sharks scored to tie the game were as a result of puck-hounding quickness. The first was also a result of a seeing-eye puck through a screen, but Logan Couture's rebound in front and Joe Pavelski's roof shot came about because the Flyers failed to cover the right man or get to the puck first.

It happens. It's just painful when it happens against a damn good Western Conference team when you're the defending Eastern Conference champions. It's not like the Flyers haven't done that to other clubs before and won't do it again when it's least expected.

And also, doesn't it just rip your heart out that we had the replay of the deflected Mike Richards shot that was millimeters from the goal line as the OT clock struck 00.0? Sometimes I think technology has advanced too far. I could have done without seeing exactly how close to winning and losing it was.

In the end, Philadelphia hasn't beaten San Jose since a 4-3 home win on December 21, 2000. It's not a pretty stat to see, but then again, neither is November 4, 1988 -- which is the last time the Flyers beat the Red Wings in Detroit.

Talent Overflow

Taking a cursory look at the NHL standings, you'll notice something on the far right side of the ledger -- namely that the overwhelming majority of high-scoring teams are in the Eastern Conference.

As of Thursday, the Flyers are the closest to the century mark with 99 goals in 29 games -- which also means they claim the highest goals-per-game average in the league (shootout win goals included) at 3.41.
Washington and Pittsburgh have the next highest goal total with 96, and the Caps edge the Pens in GPG with one game in hand. Then, it's Atlanta with 88, Tampa Bay with 86, and the New York Rangers clocking in with 83.

Over in the Western Conference, the team with the highest overall goal total is defending champion Chicago with 95 in only 30 games followed by Colorado with 94. From there, it's a drop-off as Detroit has 88, Vancouver has 85 and San Jose upped its mark to 83.

The lowest in each conference? New Jersey in the East totaled just 50 in 27 games, and in the West it's Minnesota with a respectable 63 in only 26 tilts.

While statisics are never the real story behind any evaluation of talent, it does tell you that in the NHL of today, the teams with the best talent are scoring the most, but the Eastern Conference still owns the talent advantage overall in terms of highlight-reel persons who put the puck in the net, and also apparently claim the highest percentage of such talented clubs.

In Pittsburgh, there's Crosby and Malkin. In America's capital Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom.  Stamkos and St. Louis in Tampa Bay. Kovalchuk in New Jersey. Gaborik in Manhattan. Blackhawks castoff Byfuglien in Atlanta. Briere and Carter in Philly. Staal in Carolina.

On the opposite side of the ledger, how many West clubs boast names that, like Roxanne, often turn on the red light? Kane, Toews and Hossa claim Chicago. Detroit has Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Nash rules Columbus. The Sedin Twins feature heavily in Vancouver. Colorado's lone attention-grabber is Matt Duchene. Dany Heatley's not doing in San Jose what he did in Ottawa. Calgary's motor is centered around Jarome Iginla.

Just from those names? Which conference jumps out? It's gotta be the East, right?

One of the reasons I was an original proponent of the Penguins leaving Pittsburgh and taking root in, say, Kansas City, would have been the equal split of power amongst the new guard of young talent. Much like the Papal Line of Demarcation in the late 15th century split the rest of the New World between Spain and Portugal, you'd have Ovechkin in Washington and Crosby in Kansas City. With the little cross-over between East and West in the schedule, you'd have had two separate but equal forces turning the opposition into mush.

But no. Now you've got an overload of big names in one conference, which has inevitably led to some more lopsided games and a clear separation of haves and have nots. While you can't predict what team takes a dive due to injuries or underperformance each season, the Devil is in the details in this case.

The top club in the East has 42 points and is on an 11-game win streak. The bottom club is the Islanders with 15, and they lost 14 in a row recently. The best in the West is Detroit with just 37 points and the bottom is Edmonton with 25 points. It's been this way for the last decade, in a stunning reversal of the old ways. The goals, the looser play and the large point differentials are in the East and the tighter competition and defensive mindset exists in the West.

And I still wouldn't mind if the Penguins moved to Kansas City, if for no other reason to rightfully return the Capitals to the old Patrick Division and give the Southeast to Nashville and turn that division 100 percent mediocre.

Your College Hockey Moment

Boston College and Boston University are perennial rivals in the biggest college hockey city in North America. They've claimed the last three NCAA titles, with BC winning in 2008 and 2010 and BU taking the crown in 2009. Last weekend, they revived their riot act and Jerry York's Eagles won both games. On Friday, they raced out to a 6-1 lead and won 9-5. On Saturday back at Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, it was a 5-2 Eagles decision which vaulted them to the top of Hockey East.

The schools meet one more time in the regular season, on January 21 at Agganis in Boston proper. Then, there's the question of the Beanpot in February. The triennial rotation calls for a first-round matchup between BC and BU on February 7. After that? Another possible matchup in the conference playoffs.

York and BU head coach Jack Parker account for nearly 2,000 wins and seven national championships between them.

Say what you want about the overall spread of talent in the WCHA or CCHA, nothing rivals the pure distemper between Eastern New England hockey clubs. BC and BU tops them all, and once again features some of the best college hockey the continent has to offer.

I hope this lasts until the Frozen Four comes to Philadelphia in 2014. It's the biggest thing I miss about not living up there like I did a decade ago.

...and Finally...

I will do my best to picture Bill Guerin in Flyers orange, planting himself in front of the net on power plays, and verbally ripping the kids a new one in the locker room.

Guerin officially retired on Monday after 18 seasons, and was appropriately honored before Pittsburgh's home win. He apparently didn't impress Paul Holmgren in training camp, and the consensus was he was "slow" on the ice during the preseason.

It was one of the more baffling failed talent evaluations of a two-time Stanley Cup winner who scored 21 goals last year that I've ever heard. Say what you want about Sidney Crosby, he's been there twice and won once. You don't think Guerin, having absorbed that, could have made a difference in the mix with this team, if not with his play, then with his leadership? You like Andreas Nodl? Good. Only one of them could have given the Flyers a booster shot, and the budding Austrian scorer isn't the one.

If Mike Knuble can do it, so could Guerin. If Mark Recchi is floating out there at age 43, Guerin could be plying his trade.

In any case, farewell to another player who made the most of his abilities and tortured the Flyers throughout his career.
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