Monday, January 20, 2014

Confidence is Raffl's only obstacle

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

With his team leading 1-0 in the first period of Thursday's 4-3 shootout loss to the Predators, rookie and top-line forward Michael Raffl engaged in a 2-on-2 rush inside the Nashville offensive zone.

Skating on the left wing, he had an opposing defenseman roughly five feet in front of him, with the remaining ice to the side and behind the D vacant aside from goalie Carter Hutton inside his crease.

Instead of taking it wide, trying to challenge his counterpart or flipping a shot on net in hopes of a rebound or a cover-up and faceoff, Raffl instead cocked his head to the side and passed the puck backwards in the zone to where a marked Claude Giroux had trouble handling it to make a play happen.

Then, with the visitors up by a 2-1 count in the second period, Raffl was skating on a path up the middle into the Nashville zone while the puck found its way up the left-wing boards. Giroux again found the disc and shuttled it back around behind the attack net, with Hutton out of his crease to make a play. Instead, the puck caromed off a stanchion and into the slot, where Raffl was staring at a wide-open net and easy goal which would pull the Flyers even.

You can't blame the 25-year-old for failing to react, because chances like this one might not come more than once a year and are generally not planned for when practicing proper positioning in any zone.

That hesitation came at a cost, as Preds veteran forward David Legwand was able to put his stick in Raffl's skates as he shot, while the puck was smothered at the left post by Hutton, who contorted his body to make an incredible save.

"I would rather call it a miss. You’ve got the open net and the puck is bouncing right on my blade," said the pragmatic Austrian after the game. "He got his stick on me a little bit. It changed kind of direction. I wasn’t aiming there so you’ve got to give him credit he made a desperate save. It was a nice save."  

Despite winning the confidence of management and head coach Craig Berube to be placed alongside Giroux, Raffl has only collected four goals and 13 points in 36 games -- and two those three goals came in a three-game span in December after going scoreless in his first 17 NHL contests. He went 10 games before his last tally and had been scoreless in five games until his next goal, a memorable one dissected below.

It says that Raffl, certainly more than new organizational yo-yo Tye McGinn, is viewed by Holmgren as a viable long-term solution. That also means Raffl has to do more to make his bosses look smart.

As with McGinn's two early stints up from Adirondack when the Flyers struggled mightily early on, the top line goes as Giroux goes. When the 25-year-old leader is moving well and is able to read and react to defensive coverage, possessing the puck deep and getting it towards the net, it doesn't matter who else is on the line, they will benefit. When he's not, it's been clear in certain cases that his wingers are waiting on Giroux's cues on what to do -- and that's a habit his linemates have to grow out of to be successful.

In the second period of Saturday night's 6-4 against the Islanders, Raffl -- along with the rest of his line -- was largely absent through his first batch of shifts. On his second turn of that frame, with his team up 3-2, the puck found his stick along the right wing, and his shot fooled opposing goaltender Kevin Poulin and exited the crease on the other side. Again, the hesitatation was evident, and the disc was swept out of harm's way before he realized he could skate back around the net to retrieve it.

Then, there was his eventual game-winning tally late in regulation:

If you notice, Raffl holds the puck for only an instant at center ice, before deciding to dish off to Giroux on the left wing. The only problem with the choice is, Giroux looked like he was hemmed in on his side of the ice by three New York defenders. Who knows what might have developed if Jake Voracek had decided to carry up the right wing, or if Raffl had tried to take the puck wide and split the defense with Giroux cutting to the net.

We end up seeing an indifferent Isles blueline that allowed Giroux to back them in enough where he was able to generate a scoring chance which turned into much more.

"Yeah, 'G' took the puck, got a good shot off, it got blocked and then I don't know how he saw me but he put it right on the blade and went in," Raffl nonchalantly said of the sequence of events.

It all worked out as the rookie netted the deciding score, but why was Raffl following behind instead of trying to create more space? Instinct or design? I disagree with Coatesy's assessment of Keith Jones' assertion that Raffl simply "stayed with it."

With his speed and size, Raffl probably would have been wise to skate along with Giroux into the Islanders zone on the opposite wing to back off one of the defensemen on the opposite side of the ice. The captain's preternatural puck prowess might have found him for a tap-in anyway. But we saw the first-year player essentially assigning any play to be made out of the situation to the five-year veteran, and that's something Raffl needs to become more confident to do on his own.

Lucky for him, the historically slow start to the season, plus the slow ascent near the top of the division the club has seen since then has afforded Raffl time to develop. Also in his favor is the experience and confidence which may result from performing for his native country in Sochi next month.

Unlucky for him, the learning curve on the top line for a team expected to make the playoffs will become steeper once the NHL returns to action. It's up to Raffl, not Giroux or Voracek, or the coaching staff, to take the initiative and raise his game to the next level.

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