SAN JOSE, CA - FEBRUARY 28: James van Riemsdyk #21 of the Philadelphia Flyers attempting to get his shot off in front of the net, trips over goaltender Antti Niemi #31 of the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavilion at San Jose on February 28, 2012 in San Jose, California. The Sharks won the game 1-0. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Amid recent criticism of the club's goaltending, the Flyers have stumbled because of another shortcoming. While the netminding has improved greatly, Philly has been shutout in two of their last three outings.
With the Philadelphia Flyers returning to South Philly following a 2-2-0 West Coast road trip in which they scored just nine goals, there may be cause for some concern. Despite what has been repeatedly publicized as the team's biggest shortcoming, the worry should not be directed at the club's crease area.
Sure, Ilya Bryzgalov gave up 11 goals in the four games and a few of them were of the soft variety. But most were early in games and his play was not only stronger as each individual contest progressed, the goaltender got noticeably more confident over the course of the trip.
Rather surprisingly, the area that has become a bit worrisome is in Philadelphia's goal-scoring department. After being shutout by Antti Niemi and the San Jose Sharks 1-0 last night, the Flyers have been blanked in two of their last three games. What's really disturbing is the Sharks had been struggling mightily coming into the game, posting a 3-8-1 record in their previous 12 games. In one of those losses, San Jose gave up six goals to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets.
Devan Dubnyk of the Edmonton Oilers did the honors last Thursday night, stopping all 35 shots Philly threw his way in a 2-0 Oilers' triumph. And yes, that is the same Edmonton club that finds itself well out of playoff contention.
It's somewhat of an irony that the power outage would come now, as this was something that many pundits had questioned following Paul Holmgren's trades of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards last June. But after the first 61 games of the campaign, the Flyers headed into last night's tilt with the San Jose Sharks tied for the overall NHL lead in goals with the Vancouver Canucks at 203.
Even though Scott Hartnell already has 30, it's been a very balanced scoring by committee in the City of Brotherly Love this year. The Flyers were the first team to have 10 players hit the double-digit mark in goals, and several new additions have contributed beyond anyone's expectations. In fact, tere have been 108 goals scored this season by players who were not on the Philly roster when the club was knocked out of the postseason last spring.
Rookies have accounted for 42 goals, and they have been a big part of the club's offensive output this season. During a stretch from January 8 through February 2 in which Philadelphia posted a 6-3-2 record, the club's freshmen players had scored at least one goal in 10 of 11 games during that time frame.
As the competition has gotten tougher and games have more of a playoff intensity feel to them, the well has since dried up from their first-year players.
Top rookie scorer Matt Read has been noticeably pressing. Following a Calder Trophy-candidate start with 15 goals and 31 points in his first 43 contests, Read has just one goal and four points in his last 16 outings. He has not scored a goal in the last 12 games, and has managed just three assists during that period.
Although having an excellent first NHL season, Sean Couturier has not dented the twine in his last 17 games, and has recorded just two assists during that stretch. Granted, he has been logging limited ice time since other players have returned from injuries, and much of that playing time has been on the fourth line. But even his chances are dwindling, as Couturier has posted only six shots on goal in his last eight contests.
After a two-goal night against the Detroit Red Wings on February 12, Brayden Schenn has not posted a single point over his last six games. The outburst against the Wings gave him six goals in nine contests and it looked as though he would be another weapon in the club's arsenal, but has since gone cold.
But it's not just the rookies who have come up small lately.
Danny Briere's nightmare season continued last night with his 17th consecutive game without a scoring goal, the second-longest stretch of futility in his career. During those 17 contests, he has managed only six assists. The 34-year-old hasn't gotten his name in the goal column since single-handely outscoring the Senators by posting a hat trick in a January 7 3-2 overtime victory. After notching 34 goals last year Briere has fallen off to 13 during the present campaign. He struggled for most of this season except for a few big outings, and has gotten his name on the score sheet in just 22 of the 53 games in which he has appeared.
James van Riemsdyk has not recorded a goal in his last nine games. Of course there was a month of inactivity sandwiched within the streak due to a concussion, but he continues to battle with taking the perimeter when given a small window of opportunity to take the puck to the net. This was on display a couple of times last night against the Sharks, and van Riemsdyk finished the night without a shot on goal as a result. The 22-year-old was the most requested name when other club's general managers called Holmgren before Monday's trade deadline, but the team believes he will take that next step in developing into the consistent power forward he has shown in brief glimpses over the past calendar year.
One problem Philadelphia has experienced over the last couple of years is they make opposing netminders appear to be incarnations of "Tiny" Thompson or Georges Vezina. The team has mediocre numbers when recording 40 or more shots on goal, as they are 5-4-1 this season and just 10-9-2 over the last two years when they have hit that number. Even though Philly did not hit the 40 shot mark in either of the shutout losses during the road trip, they were able to record 61 combined shots on Dubnyk and Niemi, but somehow came up empty.
As a result of the lost points during the trip, the Flyers have now dropped to sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings. By virtue of a 1-0 win last night over the Boston Bruins, the Ottawa Senators passed Philly earlier in the night, so the Flyers knew going into the game a big effort would be needed to regain the spot. Instead, the team shot blanks all night, and there seemed to be no real urgency in their attack until the closing minutes of the contest.
The good news is Philadelphia does hold three games in hand on the Sens, but the bad news is the seventh-place New Jersey Devils are just one point behind the Flyers. Any kind of continued slump could put Philadelphia in danger of finishing the year as the eighth seed, which would mean playing a New York Rangers team they have not been able to beat in five opportunities thus far in the first round, or possibly not even making the second season at all.
As the regular season progresses and each game becomes more paramount, this stretch drive is developing a similar feel to it to that of the 2009-10 campaign, when the team needed to pull out an improbable shootout victory over Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers on the season's last day just to qualify for the postseason.
The final days of early-April could produce the same sort of drama this year.
The Two Wins On The Road Trip Were...Improbable
The two victories the Flyers were able to muster during the trip came in two extremely unlikely situations:
- A game in which they trailed with less than 10 seconds remaining in regulation in an eventual 5-4 overtime victory in Winnipeg over the Jets, and,
- In a game in which they trailed Miikka Kiprusoff and the Calgary Flames, 3-0, before coming back to win 5-4 in a shootout. Yes, Bryz and the Flyers won in a shootout.
Briere Seemingly Alright After Unpenalized Vlasic Boarding Major
Briere has had a tough enough time this season struggling with his offensive slump, but a series of unpenalized hits have turned the year into pretty much of a nightmare. Last night, San Jose defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic provided the textbook visual for training officials to use as a guide when he sent an unsuspecting Briere, who was approixmately five feet from the wall, head-long into the corner boards with a shove to the lower back from behind.
Curiously, there was not even a minor called on the infraction, which likely will be reviewed by the NHL's head of discipline, Brendan Shanahan.
It would appear there may have been some kind of directive sent to officials regarding Briere attempting to draw penalties, because it's not the first time this has happened to Briere this year. He was drilled from behind by Devils' defender Anton Volchenkov last month, resulting in Briere hitting his head on the ice and suffering a concussion on another play that somehow drew no consequence.
Briere was sent head-first into the boards in one of his first games back on another hit that went unpenalized.
It's hard to imagine the Vlasic hit will not result in a suspension for the Sharks' blue liner, given the textbook variety of the play and the fact it is exactly the type of play the rule was intended to discourage -- and put into place to protect those skaters in vulnerable positions.