PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 07: Danny Briere #48 of the Philadelphia Flyers waves to the crowd after scoring the game winning goal in overtime and a hat trick against the Ottawa Senators at Wells Fargo Center on January 7, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Briere returns to the Flyers' lineup after a six-game absence due to a concussion on January 22. His insertion should help the Orange-and-Black attack in more ways than just his own offensive output.
While it's great news on a personal level for Briere, it also should provide a much-needed boost for a struggling Flyers' lineup. The team forged a rather nondescript 2-2-2 mark sans Briere, with the two regulation losses both coming this weekend at the hands of the division rival Devils and New York Rangers. And his talents in the breakaway skills competion could have come in handy in the shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets, when goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov allowed only one goal to a Winnipeg shooter, but Philly lost because none of the three Flyers' shooters could beat Ondrej Pavelec.
This has not been the greatest of offensive seasons for the 34-year-old Gatinueau, Quebec-native. With just 13 goals and 30 points in 43 games thus far, Briere is on pace for a 22-goal, 50-point campaign. Other than an injury-plagued 2008-09 in which he appeared in only 29 contests, those totals would all be lows for him since coming to the City of Brotherly Love.
Included in this 'off' offensive year is the fact that even before he took a blindside cheap shot from Devils' defenseman Anton Volchenkov that caused his head to hit the ice surface, Briere was slumping badly. He has posted only one assist in his last six games, and even with a hat trick game in which he outscored the Ottawa Senators, 3-2, on January 7, has managed just three goals and five points in his last 13 outings.
But even if he isn't producing at his usual level Briere provides the Flyers with another luxury, and that is some breathing room for leading scorer Claude Giroux. With Briere out of the lineup, Giroux has been relegated to a steady diet of the opposition's best defensive players each and every night. Just the knowledge that Briere is skating on a second line, likely with Matt Read and Jakub Voracek, changes an opponent's game preparation dramatically. And it will almost certainly give the top line of Scott Hartnell - Giroux - Jaromir Jagr more space with which to operate at even strength. While Giroux has been able to pile up two goals and 12 points in his last 13 games, much of the damage has been done with Philly on the power play. Of his two goals, one was via the man advantage, and the other with an empty net. Giroux's plus / minus during that span is a horrendous -13.
While Giroux will always be a key to any opposition's defensive strategy in preparation of playing the Flyers, Briere's return will keep them more honest.
Speaking of the power play, it has been red hot. The Flyers have tallied PP goals in seven consecutive games, and Briere's talents will only provide more firepower.
Having Briere centering a line with Read and Voracek would be a good move. Both skaters have been playing well as of late, and Briere's insertion should enable plenty of scoring chances from the trio. Throw in the fact that both Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds have been upping their offensive games and should have Max Talbot with them on the third line, there should be three lines which could cause opponents some additional worry. Briere's return should promote a formidable Flyers' attack.
Now if the Orange-and-Black can just keep the puck out of their own net.
Heading into the final 30 games of their regular season schedule, Philadelphia has yielded a staggering 156 goals. If the season were to end today, it would be the second-most total of any teams bound for the postseason in the East to Ottawa's 171. Only the Chicago Blackhawks (with 158) have yielded more of teams in playoff spots in the Western Conference.
We all know that in professional sports, defense wins championships. It's an inevitability that has been proven time and time again (even though it is pretty ironic that two times this mantra has been disproved was in 1985 and 1987, when the Flyers had a better defense than the Edmonton Oilers, who just so happened to possess the greatest offensive arsenal of any team in the history of the NHL).
Aside from any move(s) that GM Paul Holmgren may or may not be pursuing regarding any upgrades to the blueline, one key to the club's ultimate destination will be the play of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
The 31-year-old has been more of a puzzle than the answer to the questions that have perpetually plagued the Flyers' goal crease. His acquisition and subsequent signing was supposed to put an end to all of the uncertainty associated with the position, but this past weekend just compounded the frustration of his inconsistencies.
He has played much better since the All-Star break gave him an opportunity to step away from the daily grind, especially after the additional spotlight of the NHL Winter Classic and HBO's '24/7'. Bryzgalov was able to get his mind off all of the pressures and expectations and he has looked more solid in his performances.
In the games following the break, the Russian netminder has:
- Stopped 23 of 24 Winnipeg Jets shots in a 2-1 shootout loss a week ago. Heading into that contest, Bryzgalov had not stopped a shootout attempt in five chances this season, but he denied the first two Jets' shooters before Bryan Little beat him for the game-winner. You cannot ask any more from a goalie than what Bryz provided that night.
- Turned aside 26 of 27 shots in a 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators last Thursday. Bryzgalov's play early when the Flyers were not getting any shots on Anders Lindback held the fort for the club until they gained their legs and formulated a reciprocal attack. It was one of the netminder's best overall performances over the course of the entire campaign thus far.
- Came into a mess on Saturday against the Devils. With Philadelphia trailing 6-0 midway through the game, Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled in favor of Bryzgalov. Although it turned the momentum of the contest and Bryz faced just eight shots the rest of the way, he stopped them all and gave the Flyers a chance to win. The improbable comeback fell short, 6-4.
- Sunday's game against the Rangers may just be a perfect example of what the goaltender has been to the team, all wrapped up in one inconsistent nutshell. Again facing an early assault with his teammates seemingly skating in quicksand, Bryzgalov had yielded only one deflection goal in the first minute of the contest as the second period was nearing its conclusion. Schenn had scored a goal in the middle frame to get the Flyers even at 1-1, and it looked as if the clubs would be heading to their respective locker rooms tied, at the ready for a monumental third period. But a weak Marian Gaborik wraparound backhander somehow deflected off of Bryz's stick and trickled under his right arm and into the net with just 5.1 seconds remaining in the period. To say the goal was a back-breaker would be a tremendous understatement. The fact Simmonds was able to again knot the score less than a minute into the third was irrelevant, as the goaltender allowed what would seem to be a routine Michael Del Zotto shot squeeze through his equipment, and any air that the early third period tally had provided was taken away. The Flyers went on to a 5-2 defeat. After the game, Kimmo Timonen asked what the difference in the outcome had been, and he replied "The goaltending", without any hesitation at all. Henrik Lundqvist made some unbelievable stops to erase just about every New York miscue and while Bryzgalov had played well, he fell flat on two occasions that proved fatal for the team that day.
It's almost mind-boggling that there would need to be any discussion of the Philly net situation at this point in the season, especially after the aggressive approach Holmgren took in rectifying it during the summer. But here we are, approaching the midpoint of February, and it has been thrust to the forefront once again.
The good news is that Bryzgalov holds the key to righting the ship, and he has shown signs that he is ready to do so. It just becomes a question of if he will can refrain from putting so much pressure on himself that he cannot carry the weight of his own high expectations or not.