Monday, March 18, 2013

This Is The Week That Is

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Heading into tonight's tilt in Tampa against the Lightning, the Flyers are staring at yet another scheduling quirk of this truncated season -- one which may benefit them less than their shotgun start which featured seven games in the first 11 days.

For the first -- and only -- time this year, the club finds itself with six whole days off before a primetime meeting next Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Those who believed that Ilya Bryzgalov had his finger on the pulse of the clubhouse last week when he said the Flyers' season would be finished if they couldn't muster some promising results in the home-and-home with the Devils, may be surprised to learn that their playoff hopes hinge not on what they've done, but on what those around them will do.

In search of the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia has played the same number of games (29) than seventh-place New Jersey, two more games than the eight seed Hurricanes and 10th-seed Rangers, as many as Southeast-leading Winnipeg and one more than the ninth-ranked New York Islanders.

Oh yeah, the Bolts are in 12th place, just two points back. 

While the Orange and Black may be subject to untold stress and strain by head coach Peter Laviolette in an as-yet-to-be determined number of practice sessions during this gap, the teams vying for playoff standing will have their mettle tested in actual game action.

The Devils host the Rangers, play at Carolina and host Florida in the next four days. After Monday's game against the Hurricanes, the Blueshirts play at Jersey then welcome the Panthers and Capitals. Winnipeg may have the easiest path, with a four-game homestand featuring Boston, Washington (twice) and Tampa Bay, and the Islanders benefit from the same as the Jets, hosting the Senators, Canadiens, Penguins and Panthers.

I find it hard to believe, even in a condensed season such as this, that two games which were 20 from the end of the schedule arrived with such predetermined meaning. Ten games out, definitely.

But I also find it hard to believe that all the teams fighting for the final playoff berths will tank at the same time this week, leaving the Flyers with the unenviable task of having to win virtually every game from here on out to ensure a sixth straight crack at the postseason. This is the Devil's arithmetic which will burn our team night after night as the points are handed out elsewhere.

After the resumption of play in the Steel City, the Flyers have four more contests before the April 3 trade deadline, a reckoning which may not hold much in the cards for the organization if the on-ice product continues its maddening inconsistency. The gauntlet includes games with the Rangers, Islanders, Boston and Washington and then a home date with Montreal after the deadline passes.

There will be no videos to boost morale, proclaiming "it gets better."

And let's not forget this one, later this evening at Tampa Bay Times Forum, before the break. It is a must-win as well against a Lightning club two points back in the standings and who embarrassed them, 5-1, in their last visit to the Gulf Coast in late January.

If you ground your teeth in your sleep over what the Flyers did (and more often did not do) while the games piled one on top of another like stacks of free weights, it's not going to be any easier scanning the internet or watching the highlight shows every night while they're resting this week.

Cue the old-school Tom Petty song...

* * *

“I’ve seen some good meetings with 'Homer' in the past in the room,” Simon Gagne said to the Courier Post on Friday. “He’s honest and he was right on. This was a good one. I think the message went through and we all understand what we have to do now. Not that we didn’t understand what we had to do before, but sometimes you need those little meetings to get the truth in your face a little bit to get to the next step.”

In another time and place, Paul Holmgren's angry, closed-door tirade to his underachieving troops last Thursday might have had the desired effect. Thirty years ago in Holmgren's prime, it was play-for-pay, be happy with what you get and be lucky you're not cut, traded or demoted lifestyle whether you were a veteran or rookie. A life out of hockey meant one of Regular Joe drudgery, actually having to work for your paycheck back in whatever small town you came from.

But it's 2013, and three-quarters of the team is making more than he is. A gesture of motivation in that vein might be more likely to be seen as one made in frustration or desperation. Still, a key veteran came to his boss' boss' defense:

“The best players have to be the best players,” Kimmo Timonen said in the same publication. “It’s not just tonight’s game. It’s for the majority of the games. That’s why you get paid the big bucks. Whoever makes a lot of money, they’ve got to be the best players … including myself.”

It's not likely that Claude Giroux is going to stare into those cold, Nordic eyes and see the daggers coming and dodge the Hellfire despite his public proclamation on Friday of being intimidated. Holmgren is 57. Is there any reason that finely-tuned athletes in the prime of their lives, who could fall upon the erstwhile AARP member with quickness and pound him into pulp, should feel the heat? I mean, other than basic respect for the chain of command.

The lack of a savvy veteran presence, one who really should be the leader both on and off the ice, highlights another totally-under-the-radar reason a player like Chris Pronger is so valuable. It's easily cliche and easily mocked to talk about what goes on "in the room," but Pronger is a guy who could put the fear into Giroux and others by translating the message if Holmgren can't do it.

Still, if they don't like it, or if their value is attractive to another team, they'll be traded somewhere else, make their money, play in an atmosphere that may be less comical and more successful, and possibly win a Stanley Cup.

In effect, the effort was comical. Setting aside Laviolette's role in this year's underachievement, Holmgren was a man raging at nothing short of his own failure. You can't just shake a stick at mistakes and hope they'll be scared straight. We can only hope he realizes he holds more power to fix things than what that meeting showed.

It's ultimately up to the man in charge, whose job we know is safe. A lot can happen in six days and perhaps a lot should happen. But it has to be the right moves if any are coming.

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