Monday, March 16, 2015

Around the Rink: Cousins call-up conundrum edition

Right up there at the top of the list of hockey cliches, alongside "we have to play a full 60 minutes," "we can't get ahead of ourselves," and "we can't afford to watch the scoreboard," is one which applies to the Flyers and Phantoms at the moment.

"They know the deal."

As in, call-ups from the AHL to the NHL for a variety of reasons are a constant threat to team chemistry because the parent club has to be protected at all times due to injuries and suspensions.

Nick Cousins has caught the eyes of many observers thanks to hot stretches in January and February, during which he accumulated 31 of his team-leading 55 points this season. Included in this run of success are a pair of hat tricks (Jan, 17 vs. Binghamton and March 11 at Toronto), two four-point games, three three-point efforts and seven more two-point nights. He also earned Player of the Month accolades in January and added AHL Player of the Week honors to the ledger this afternoon after a four-goal, six-point surge in three games.

As a result, the 21-year-old Ontarian surged to the top of the Phantoms scoring list, breezing by second-place Brandon Manning by a count of 55-42 after All-Star selection and defenseman Manning led the club just after the new year.

Guess what? As the Phantoms try to break through the floor of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, Manning is up with Philadelphia, and Cousins is getting his first shot at the Show because the Flyers are suddenly one forward short due to the season-ending injury to R.J. Umberger revealed over the weekend.

That leaves Terry Murray in Allentown short two top point producers for a team ranked 11th in their conference and eight points out of a playoff spot with 16 games left, dead last in the league in penalty minutes and 10th in total offense out in the cold for an indefinite period of time.

It's made all the more confusing because the Flyers, perpetual leavers of points on the table, have been all but officially eliminated from playoff contention. After a 2-1 shootout loss in Ottawa on Sunday night, they're nine points back of Boston with 11 games to go. Do you believe in miracles? Yes?? Then that's what has to happen for the Orange and Black to make it.

But as Phantoms' veteran forward and chief mouthpiece Andrew Gordon said back in mid-November when Scott Laughton was the first of the farm team to get a look under the microscope, they "know the deal" and have to move on playing the game they know how to play regardless of who dresses.

How fair and how right is that? In the wake of Laughton's recall (which came shortly after Shayne Gostisbehere's ACL injury), Lehigh Valley struggled to get its bearings, going 3-3-2. Just about the time Cousins started heating up, the offense went cold for a prolonged stretch of two or fewer goals in eight of 13 games during which the club went 4-9-0.

Now, you're asking an offense on life support to pick up the pieces during a presumed postseason push because Ron Hextall needs an extra forward for a quixotic playoff race of his own?

Wait one second...are they all right or aren't they? After finishing a stretch where six of seven games took place at home, the Phantoms went 2-3-2. Currently in the middle of a five-game road trip, LV has posted wins at Toronto, Providence and Bridgeport with Hartford and Worcester to come.

The message sent is "hold on, brother, we're keeping things together until you get back." Which is nice, but what happens if Cousins is unable to maintain the pace which characterized his second half that earned his call-up in the first place? The house of cards is poised to collapse. Isn't it wiser to wait until one, the other, or both teams are eliminated?

Having presided over the mess that was the Phantoms in Glens Falls, Hextall should be acutely aware that the AHL team -- one housed in a state-of-the-art building with state-of-the-art facilities and packed by a fan base which waited five years for the moment to buy into the kids -- should be given the best possible chance to succeed without paying too high a cost up the chain.

Allentown places fifth in the AHL in average attendance (8,103) and has seen multiple sellouts with crowds twice as big as Adirondack ever received on good nights. The new batch of faithful fans have to be given a reason to stick around in numbers that large, and a playoff berth for the first time since leaving the Spectrum would look mighty good on that ledger.

Instead, the best player on the club, which allowed them to be this close to the final playoff berth, is suddenly spirited into the NHL universe, like some hockey version of The Rapture. Umberger wasn't a glowing example of a bottom-six forward, so why not elevate Jay Rosehill and make the remaining Flyers schedule at least entertaining while he causes havoc alongside the train wreck that is Zac Rinaldo?

If Cousins is up for more than five games, it costs the Flyers nothing but it very likely costs the Phantoms a shot at extending their season which has already been a hit on the bottom line. Philly continues its road trip in Western Canada this week unlikely to gain much ground. Besides, when is it ever a lock that a certain player will play significant minutes, or in certain games at all, during any given recall? And with Craig Berube calling the lineup shots, anything is possible. Cousins deserves better if he's going to be showcased, and buried on the fourth line doesn't cut it.

Recall that Vinny Prospal was tearing up the AHL in the Phantoms' initial season of 1996-97, and earned a permanent recall to the NHL in March of that year and never went back. In the long run, the Phantoms were stacked with offense to spare and eventually won the Calder Cup the following season. The relationship of Cousins to the Phantoms is too precious right now to keep him away for long.

With Cousins elevated, the best Hextall can do to fill the gap is ex-Cornell forward Cole Bardreau as the college season winds down and fresh-faced kids try to stick on ELCs.

If development is the goal one level down, and with several players supposedly set to audition come training camp, Hextall has to recognize that a full and complete roster unbroken by injury call-ups with a chance to take part in a playoff pressure cooker provides the best chance for that development to continue.

College Prospect Updates

For the fifth consecutive week, North Dakota was voted the No. 1 team in the country by the weekly poll, and that means senior forward Michael Parks has drawn increased scrutiny as part of the top team in the nation.

Unfortunately, the Flyers' 2010 fifth-round pick has struggled of late under the weight of increased responsibility. After senior scorer Mark MacMillan was lost for the second time this season due to injury, Parks went cold, going pointless in five straight even as the Fighting Sioux ended up winning the NCHC title and advanced to the conference semis.

Over the weekend, Parks finally got off the schneid with an assist in UND's series-clinching 3-2 win over Colorado College. The St. Louis native still ranks second on the club with 32 points fourth in goals, but Drake Caggiula, the Schmaltz brothers and Brendan O'Donnell have picked up the slack in the meantime.

North Dakota faces St. Cloud State this weekend.

Philadelphia's other senior prospect is Vermont defenseman Nick Luukko, who gets to prolong his collegiate career for at least one more night.

Luukko is not a defenseman where point totals will indicate success, as the Catamounts have taken a page from UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin's book and played textbook team-wide shutdown defense backed with solid goaltending. Nonetheless, he shares in the success of UVM's three-game quarterfinal take-down of second-seeded BC in the Hockey East quarterfinals last weekend.

After losing 4-2 on Friday, the Catamounts and goaltender Brady Hoffman allowed just one goal over the final two nights to seal their first trip to Boston in five years. UVM will take on UML this Friday at TD Garden.

Freshman defenseman and 2014 selection Mark Friedman has some more hockey ahead of him. His now No. 9 Bowling Green Falcons dismantled Northern Michigan in two straight over the weekend to advance to the WCHA's Final Five. Taking a backseat to more experienced blueliners, the Toronto native finished the weekend with six shots on goal and a plus-1. Up next, Michigan Tech in Friday's semifinals.

David Drake, UConn freshman forward and Flyers' 2013 pick, ended his season last weekend as the Huskies fell in two straight to New Hampshire. He ended the year with five points in 32 games, a minus-15 rating and 39 blocked shots.

Another frosh blueliner and 2013 Flyers draft selection, Terrance Amorosa, finished his first season with five points in 14 games along with a plus-5 in limited minutes. Clarkson's playoff hopes were dashed by RPI in a deciding Game 3 of the ECAC quarters last weekend.

And Merrick Madsen (6th round, 2013) continues his ride on the pine as Steve Michalek tends Harvard's goal. The Crimson reached Lake Placid and the ECAC semis after gutting out a 3-2 OT win over rival Yale on Sunday. Up next is 2013 national runners-up Quinnipiac.

Detroit Demolition Day 

In a surprise move, the Flyers ripped through the Red Wings, 7-2, on Saturday afternoon. A four-goal third period was marked by a Brayden Schenn hat trick that was and then wasn't, a goal from Zac Rinaldo off a no-look pass from Ryan White, and a ready-made internet meme of a Red Wings fan holding his head in his hands after the seventh and final goal eluded Jimmy Howard.

The Orange and Black have won 10 straight at home against Detroit, since dropping a 4-1 decision in the clubs' first-ever meeting in the "new" Flyers arena. In fact, excepting the Wings' two victories to open the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, they have only beaten Philly once here since 1993.

In that span, the Flyers claimed a Black Friday triumph over the team which set an NHL record for most wins in one season (62, 1995-96); had a player who quit hockey to become an actor record a hat trick (Alex Daigle, 3/14/98) in a 6-1 thrashing of the defending Cup champions; saw a guy who went 122 games without scoring beat them in a 1-0 game (Kent Manderville, 3/31/01); had a goon (Todd Fedoruk) score on a breakaway to cap a five-goal third period in a 6-1 rout (Feb. 2007).

Those seven goals marked the most for the Flyers at home against the Red Wings since Oct. 7, 1990 in a similar 7-2 final. That contest saw Detroit score the first two in the game's first 3:23, only to have Philadelphia roar back with seven in a row thanks to the first goals of the season from Norm Lacombe, Tim Kerr, Jiri Latal, Craig Berube and Tony Horacek. 

In an era where home-ice advantage doesn't mean anything, and with a generation now removed from the Flyers dominating teams like the Kings, Blues and Penguins for years in the Spectrum, it's amazing that the club's current great win-prevention run comes against a franchise it should be emulating more regarding front office operations and philosophy.

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