Thursday, October 16, 2014

Philadelphia Flyers in "Attack of the Screaming Outliers"

Last night, the Flames were outshot by a ridiculous 50-18 margin, but escaped United Center with a 2-1 overtime victory against the Chicago Blackhawks thanks to a misplay by Corey Crawford on a blistering unscreened shot from Mikael Backlund and 49 saves by Jonas Hiller.

Whether you believe in Corsi or the Easter Bunny, you're wondering how on Earth Calgary could have won a game like that. It's simple really -- one team can possess the puck all it wants, but unless they are able to do what counts i.e. put more pucks past the opposing goaltender than they throw past yours -- there's no other secret formula to winning in the National Hockey League.

To be sure, there are variables, chief among them the technical proficiency and overall performance of any goaltender in spite of the number of shots, but simple possession is only an indicator of itself and not a good predictor of shots on goal or scoring prowess.

The Flyers are no strangers to this phenomenon, having been memorably bitten by the inability to cash in despite control of the puck and of play. They've also confounded their enemies at times by scoring with a vengeance given little opportunity. Here are brief summaries from each side of the coin. First, the good:

December 18-20, 1986: Flyers 9, Islanders 4; Flyers 6, Penguins 4 -- In the span of three nights before Christmas of 1986, Mike Keenan's team unloaded for 15 goals on just 42 shots in 120 minutes of play.

In the opener at the Spectrum, they peppered Billy Smith and Kelly Hrudey with only 24 shots while New York dominated play in stretches and threw 38 shots at Ron Hextall. However -- typical for the era of defensive gambling and where goalies laden with waterlogged equipment were left in for 5-6 scores before getting the hook -- the hosts made good four times on 11 shots in the first period and then three more on eight shots in the second to lead 7-3 after 20 minutes.

Then, at the Igloo in Pittsburgh, the Orange and Black made mincemeat of Roberto Romano and Gilles Meloche, striking for six goals on only 18 chances while Hextall had to deal with 32 Pens offerings. Actually, six in 14 since they went scoreless on four third-period shots with the outcome already in hand. In the first period, Romano was victimized twice in 10 seconds by a Brad McCrimmon slapper and then a Pelle Eklund trickler on a partial breakaway. Dave Poulin scored when he banked a shot off Rod Buskas' skate, Tim Kerr welcomed Meloche to the game with a scorcher from the slot on a power play and the rout was on.

December 20, 2008: Flyers 7, Capitals 1 -- Simply put, the hosts were on the ice but weren't participating in the same game as Washington, being outshot by an incredible 25-7 margin in the opening period thanks to three full power-play chances and 48-28 for the game. Only the intervention of Antero Niittymaki (24 saves in the first, 47 for the contest) and the increasing passivity of the Caps' defense helped tilt the ice in Philly's favor.

Scott Hartnell recorded a hat trick on just five shots, Jeff Carter made good on two of his six and Joffrey Lupul scored on the first of his two recorded shots against the combined ineptitude of Brent Johnson and Jose Theodore.

February 1, 2014: Flyers 2, Kings 0 -- This Saturday matinee against the soon-to-be-Cup-champions should be fresh in everybody's mind. It was nothing short of a contortionist act by Steve Mason, who had to repel waves upon waves of Los Angeles rushes puncturing a plodding defense, and be alert for more than two dozen decent scoring chances.

Mason scooped up all 35 shots he faced while his offense struggled to produce 13 against Jonathan Quick. Two of those miraculously found their way past the two-time title winner, one each from Wayne Simmonds in the second period and Claude Giroux late in the third to seal it.

Now, the bad and ugly:

October 23, 1982: Penguins 4, Flyers 2 -- At the very start of Year 1 of two straight seasons trying to tank in order to assure themselves the highest possible picks in the draft, Pittsburgh won a game it had no business trying to win, and all evidence points to the fact that they weren't. The Cooperall-clad visitors were up 21-5 in shots after one period and 38-8 after two.

The final count was staggering in a 4-2 loss, where the winning goal, by the long-forgotten Doug Lecuyer, was a 35-foot slapper which today's goaltenders would have no excuses for letting in. The insurance goal was scored from along the goal line, a bank shot from Pat Boutette only 65 seconds later.

November 25, 1998: Islanders 4, Flyers 2 -- For those who remember the powerful juggernauts of the mid-to-late 90s, where Philly had the might and the skill to fend off any opponent on a nightly basis but not necessarily the firepower, this game is the stuff of nightmares. Tommy Salo was hit with a 46-shot barrage while John Vanbiesbrouck had one job -- to stop as many of New York's 14 shots as he could. Unfortunately, he did so only 10 times. Territorial advantage? Yup. Puck possession? Absolutely. Accuracy? Not so much.

You can't win when your three best shooters can't even hit the net or shoot right into the goaltender's midsection unabated. In that era, under Terry Murray, Roger Nielson and Craig Ramsay, a lot of play was dependent upon cycling along the boards and behind the net, puck possession in its dirtiest and less aesthetic form, and while we might excuse the odd player for failing with a rare wide-open chance, there were none on this night. Since it took place the night before Thanksgiving, it most likely drove many to hit the bars early in an effort to drown sorrows.

March 30, 2014: Bruins 4, Flyers 3 (SO) -- Another late-season game which came down to the wire only to see a crushing loss in the shootout, the home team had Tuukka Rask under siege for 65 minutes of frenetic action thanks to 52 shots, but tried to put a ribbon on too many chances. Boston hit Mason with 30 shots but only seven in the final 25 minutes. It took a Vinny Lecavalier tip of a Kimmo Timonen shot with 24-plus seconds remaining -- Philly's 44th of the afternoon -- just to get the game into overtime. Eight more shots were gobbled up by Rask before the breakaway competition benefitted the visitors.
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