Flyers Renewed Commitment To Defense Bodes Well For Playoff Chances

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 22: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is sent flying by Erik Gustaffson #26 of the Philadelphia Flyers as Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov #30 watches the puck in the first period of Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 22, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

After a wild first four games of their first round meeting with Pittsburgh, the Flyers finally settled down and played postseason-style hockey, eventually grinding out an elimination effort in Game 6. This bodes well for the Orange-and-Black moving forward.

Maybe it was to be expected when two of the top-scoring National Hockey League teams got together for a playoff series, but if someone who hadn't watched was shown game film from the first four contests of the recenty-completed Philadelphia Flyers - Pittsburgh Penguins series, the time of year in which the contests took place would be seriously questioned.

Following several wild games that perhaps resembled pre-season hockey more than the postseason -- with a bevy of goals and plenty of fights -- over the weekend, Philadelphia put together their two best defensive efforts of their first round elimination of the Penguins.

Except for a three minute stretch in the second period on Friday, in which two goals were yielded and cost them mightily in an eventual 3-2 loss, the team showed it was ready to grind out the elusive fourth win to close out their arch-nemesis.

Sunday's 5-1 effort in Game 6 was a fairly textbook playoff victory, with forwards feverishly back-checking, and every player blocking opponent's shots.

Defenders Step Up Their Efforts

In addition to goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov's 30 saves, Flyers' skaters finished the game with 40 blocks -- which included seven by Erik Gustafsson, and six each from Brayden Coburn, Matt Carle, and Andreas Lilja, and four by Kimmo Timonen. All six defenders blocked at least one shot.

With a desperate Pittsburgh club attempting to get the puck to the net at every turn in an effort to further extend the series, everone chipped in.

"Well, somebody just told me that we blocked 40 shots and Bryz was happy," said Timonen after the game. It’s a great team effort, everybody was great."

Peter Laviolette was impressed with his team's performance.

"You look at the sheet and at the end of the night, when you see 40 blocked shots, you know that there’s a team that’s committed to something, that wants to get to the next round," the coach said after eliminating the Pens. "They were phenomenal with what they did, defensively we did what we needed to do."

Rising To The Occasion When Others Fall

Another thing to remember is the Flyers did it while shorthanded.

Already without captain and defensive stalwart for the remainder of the playoffs, Chris Pronger, Philly was also missing Nicklas Grossmann, the club's top defensive presence and shutdown blue liner, and Andrej Meszaros, who is still recovering from late-March back surgery.

This led to some big-time minutes for the club's top-two. Coburn skated for nearly half of the contest, as he logged 29:27 of time on ice, and Carle finished the afternoon with 27:18.

Meanwhile, Gustafsson came up with a huge effort. In addition to the game-high in blocked shots, he also scored a goal, recorded two hits, and ended up tied with Carle for a game-high +3 rating.

Claude Giroux, who maybe had his signature game in taking over as the on-ice leader of the Flyers, says it's just par for the course for how this team has responded to this kind of adversity all season.

"It’s kind of the story this year," said Giroux. "Our guys are going down and some other guys step up. Gus was unbelievable tonight."

Gustafsson had an up-and-down season -- his play was outstanding, but up-and-down in the sense that he was sent back to the Adirondack Phantoms frequently.

"Every time Gus gets sent back to the minors, I always say that it wasn’t about his play", Laviolette explaining it was never about his performances. "He never gets sent back because he couldn’t cut it here or he couldn’t do it. We had numbers and depth at the time and based on injuries right now and where we’re at, Gus had an opportunity to step in today."

Laviolette was understandably pleased with his effort.

"The way he handled his minutes and his opponent, because a lot of times it was the (Evgeni) Malkin’s and the (Sidney) Crosby’s of the world, and that’s not an easy task," the coach noted. "The goal was great, he walked in and shot one, he got a big goal for us. But the game that he played defensively was outstanding."

The rookie racked up the third-highest TOI total among the corp (22:09), which was important in allowing Timonen to be able to rest as the outcome became apparent as the third period wore on (15:44).

Keeping Timonen's 37-year-old body as fresh as possible for any playoff run is vital to the Flyers success, and the warrior welcomed the time between series as his team awaits the identity of their second round opponents.

"I don’t really care who we play against but, we’re a little banged up," he said. "So I’m sure we can take these couple of days off and make sure we heal and whoever comes, comes."

More Help Possibly On The Way

When the Eastern Conference Semis finally commence, Philly could have some additional help on defense.

Meszaros, who underwent surgery on March 21st, took an important step in making his return to the lineup, as he skated in Tuesday's practice. Even though his expected absence of 6-8 weeks could push his into mid-May, it has to be viewed as a positive that he is once again on the ice.

Also as of Tuesday, Grossmann's status had not changed. He still remains listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury after taking questionnable, unpenalized high hits from both Malkin and Tyler Kennedy in Game 4 of the opening round.

After a horrid stretch of defensive efforts in February games where Bryzgalov was left hanging out to dry, the turnaround in Philadelphia's play in their own zone just so happened to coincide with the arrival of the tough 6' 4", 230-pounder in a trade with the Dallas Stars.

The Flyers had given up numerous tic-tac-toe passing plays for open net tap-ins as opposing forwards were allowed to set up camp without repercussion around the Philly cage.

Grossmann immediately instilled a physical element to the blue line, one that had been sorely missed since Pronger was forced out of the lineup with a concussion in late-November. It seemed to become contagious when he was paired with Coburn. The defender began to use his considerable 6' 5", 220-pound frame to his greatest advantage of the entire campaign.

The extent of his post-concussion related issues are not known, but a return by Grossmann -- and Meszaros, for that matter -- would provide a tremendous boost for the club's overall defensive game plan.

Any hopes of a second trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in the last three years will no doubt depend on the way the Flyers take care of their own end. After dispatching of the run-and-gun Penguins in a high-scoring set, chances are the rest of the way will bring much more conventional playoff tilts.

If you look at every other series being played in both conferences, the early going against Pittsburgh was a big deviation from the style of play that Philly will see from any team from here on out.

Defend first, and create your own offensive chances when the opportunity for a counter-attack arises.

And you have to like Philadelphia's chances if they can continue to employ defensive performances as they did late in the first round.

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