Archive for February, 2011

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Look Philadelphia, it’s the Flyers!

February 10, 2011

For many Philadelphia sports fans, the Eagles take precedence over all other teams.  From the time training camp begins until the Super Bowl is complete, these fans are focused solely on football.

But now that the Eagles have been eliminated for weeks and the Super Bowl is over, football fans can now safely turn their attention to the city’s other sports teams.

They may be pleasantly surprised to discover that while the Eagles may have fallen short, a parade down Broad Street is still a possibility this year.  The Flyers are currently in first place, and they look like a real contender to bring home the city’s first Stanley Cup in 36 years.

The Flyers’ success shouldn’t really come as a surprise since they were the Eastern Conference champions last season.  But many people discounted that success because it seemed a bit fluky.

Keep in mind that the following happened on the way to the Stanley Cup finals:

  • They were in last place in December, which led to their coach getting fired.
  • They had to win a shootout in the final game of the season just to qualify for the playoffs.
  • They trailed three games to zero in their second round playoff series, and fell behind by three goals in game seven before pulling out a victory.

This season, the Flyers have shown that their playoff run was not a fluke.   They are currently leading the Eastern Conference in points, and this looks like the strongest Flyers team since the peak of the Eric Lindros era

So what happened?  How did the Flyers transform from a team that barely made the playoffs into a powerhouse Cup contender?

For one thing, there is a feeling that their young core of players has grown up a bit.  Over recent seasons, there has been some criticism of immature behavior, both on and off the ice. 

There were reports of players partying too hard at night, and not being fully dedicated to the game.  Whether or not those rumors were true, the team did seem to lack an edge.  For most of last season, the team did not appear capable of handling success.  Every time they would get on any sort of run, they would suffer a setback.  They didn’t seem to play their best until their backs were up against the wall.

Perhaps the trials of a long playoff run sparked the maturation process, as those problems don’t seem to be present this season.

The Flyers’ front office has also done an incredible job of adding quality depth to the team.  While the team may not have a superstar goal scorer like Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, they do have a number of dangerous offensive weapons, including four players with over 40 points in Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Danny Briere.

Normally teams concentrate on shutting down an opponent’s top scoring line.  But with so many good offensive players, the Flyers have spread their scoring among several lines, making it harder for opponents to neutralize them.

The biggest improvement for the team may have come on defense.  Last season, the Flyers had two excellent defensive pairings, but things got a bit shaky after that.  It often seemed like their third defensive group was a disaster waiting to happen.

The Flyers addressed this problem in the offseason with the addition of veteran defenders Andres Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell.  As a result, the defense has been solid all year with few of the third pairing breakdowns we saw last season.

So do the Flyers have what it takes to win the Cup?

As it seems is always the case with the Flyers, the biggest question mark is goaltending.

For much of the season, the team has turned to rookie goaltender Sergei “Bob” Bobrovski.  Bob started off the year on fire, and looked like an early candidate for rookie of the year.  Since that blazing start, opponents seem to have scouted him well and spotted some weaknesses.  He hasn’t played horribly, but he has looked vulnerable.

Compensating for Bobrovsky’s recent dropoff has been backup/co-starter Brian Boucher.  Despite never being a long-term starter in the NHL, Boucher has had an unexpectedly excellent season.  There is speculation that when the playoffs start, it will be Boucher in the net.

Regardless of which goalie eventually gets the call in the playoffs, there are questions about the Cup-worthiness of either.  Bob is unproven, so nobody has any clue what to expect from him in the playoffs.  And most people consider Boucher to be a career backup, not the type of goalie that carries a team to the Cup.

Then again, recent playoffs have shown that a team doesn’t need a stargoaltender to win the Cup.  You don’t necessarily need a goalie to win games for you, but it’s absolutely crucial that they don’t lose games.

Considering how strong the Flyers’ defense is, neither goalie should need to steal games for the team.  They’ll just need to make the saves that have to be made.

There are a couple of other concerns:

The Flyers’ special teams have been inconsistent all year.  Considering how deep the team is, they should be able to put out consistently strong penalty kill and power play units, but the results been somewhat uneven.

Playoff games can often hinge on a power play, so if the Flyers can’t get this sorted out, it could lead to an earlier than expected exit from the playoffs.

And while the Flyers’ scoring depth can be looked at as a strength, you also have to wonder if they have a player who can carry the team in key situations.  Players like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Mark Messier won Stanley Cups because they came through in big moments.

The Flyers don’t appear to have a top level player like that on the roster.  If the team hits some adversity, do they have anyone who is capable of the superlative effort necessary to pull the team through?

Of course every team has some weaknesses, and the Flyers’ problems don’t look like anything that they can not overcome.  I’d say that this team has as good a shot as anyone at winning it all.

At the very least, the team should provide some entertainment for those Eagles fans still heartbroken over their loss.

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