In what could have been a preview of a first round playoff matchup, the Philadelphia Flyers put perhaps their best 60 minute effort together of the entire season in a 5-0 triumph over the Florida Panthers. It was Philly's fourth consecutive victory to give them 83 points and keep them right in between the Pittsburgh Penguins (85 points), and New Jersey Devils (81). The New York Rangers, who were once so far out of sight of the rest of the Eastern Conference but lost again tonight, are now only eight points in front of the Flyers.
And that's a great sign at this time of the season.
"I thought it was really good just from a team point of view," said Peter Laviolette in his post-game press conference. "Guys blocking shots, making smart decisions with the pucks, picking at the front of the net, not allowing a lot of second opportunities, so I guess in that sense it was pretty tight."
There were certainly many positives in such a game:
- Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov stopped all 28 shots he faced to post his fourth shutout of the season; it was his second shutout in the last three games, and third in the last 11. He has been in a zone over the past 16 contests not seen for most of the year, as he won his fourth consecutive decision and improved to 26-13-6 for the season. His goals-against average (2.65) and save percentage (.905) have reached their top levels of the campaign. 'Bryz' has stopped 99 of 101 shots in the last three games and seems completely on the puck at all times, which was evident on a sequence when a Florida power play point shot deflected several times along the way to the net, and Bryzgalov stayed square to the shot the entire way to him. During the current four-game winning streak, the goaltender has a sparkling 1.25 GAA and amazing .960 save percentage.
- Balanced scoring. There were five different goal-scorers -- Brayden Schenn (9th), Matt Read (19th), Scott Hartnell (32nd), Jaromir Jagr (18th), and Eric Wellwood (3rd) all hit the back of the net behind Florida starter Jose' Theodore. Even with Danny Briere, who was counted on to be one of the leading offensive contributors, mired in a 21-game goal-scoring drought, the Flyers became the highest-scoring NHL team with the output. Now having potted 218, Philadelphia has scored one more than the Boston Bruins.
- Read's 19th goal of the year moved him one ahead of Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche in the rookie goal-scoring race. Following a 12-game goalless drought, the Calder candidate now has three goals in his last four outings.
- Speaking of rookies scoring goals, there was a lack of freshman contributions during the Flyers' offensive difficulties a couple of weeks ago. After accounting for three of the five markers against Florida, rookies have posted a 22.7% of Philly's goal total for the campaign. "I've never been in a situation where there have been this many rookies available every game," Laviolette said. "There's lots of reasons why a team has success, but certainly they are a contributing factor. Where we're at right now, they've all been given roles and what we expect of them, they've done a really nice job."
With contributions coming from nearly everyone, Hartnell says it's a total team effort. "It's great," he said of the unique blend of the Flyers' makeup. "Rookies or 15-20 year veterans like Jagr, we all got to step up and play hard. For us to be successful down the stretch in the playoffs we've got to have everyone going, and that's the biggest thing right now. Everyone's pulling on the rope and it's exciting."
- Led by Matt Carle's game-high four blocked shots, Flyers skaters turned aside 18 Florida shot attempts.
- In his NHL debut after receiving an emergency recall from the Adirondack Phantoms earlier in the day, Brandon Manning played a very solid 14:59 paired mostly with Andreas Lilja. The 21-year-old was solid in his own end and even posted three shots on goal, finishing his first game as a +2 rating. When asked if he was able to get past the nerves of his first game pretty quickly, he said a familiar defense partner was one of the things that aided him. "I actually got in a game with Lils this year in Adirondack, so that helped," Manning explained. Laviolette was impressed with the youngster. "'Mandog' was terrific," the coach explained. "He moved the puck, he generated some offense and defensively he held his own out there. Coming in for the first time is never an easy thing and I thought he did a terrific job. Played regular shifts, regular minutes and he looked good out there doing it." Yes, Hartnell is nicknamed 'Birddog', and now the Flyers have a 'Mandog'. Life is good.
- A game-time decision as to whether he would even play or not, Jagr played well in sending four shots on goal, and scored a power play goal to boot. The continuing health of the 40-year-old is an issue when considering how deep this club can go in making a playoff run, and he appeared to be skating effortlessly in the game.
- Special Teams. The man advantage accounted for two goals in four opportunities, and the penalty killing continued its stellar play in thwarting all four Panthers' chances. For the Flyers to have any chance of advancing in the postseason, this is the way the special teams units will need to perform on a consistent basis. In addition to the excellent play of the PK unit, Laviolette says the man between the pipes also has a lot to do with the recent success. "I always think that it (the PK) starts with goaltending, and Bryz has been excellent as of late," the coach said. "That gives your penalty kill confidence and guys have done a nice job executing their roles, blocking a lot of shots as well."
- The play at home. Following a disappointing 2-2-0 road trip, the Flyers have finally taken advantage of home ice advantage, something they haven't done too well for much of the season. The 3-0-0 stretch at Wells Fargo Center since returning from the West coast swing is about the best the club has looked at any point in the schedule thus far. "It's been fun the way we've been playing at home lately," Briere said. "We're starting to make it a tough place to come and play. I don't know why it was the other way around earlier in the season. But I think we're getting a little bit of our swagger back." Somehow, it always comes back to the swagger. But that's a good thing...
- Claude Giroux added another two assists, increasing his career-high point total to 79 for the year. 'G' is third in League scoring, just two points behind Ottawa Senators' Jason Spezza, and three points behind leader Evgeni Malkin of the Pens. Giroux now has 55 assists for the season, moving him two ahead of Vancouver Canucks center Henrik Sedin for the NHL lead (pending the end of Vancouver's game against Winnipeg tonight).
- After a long stretch of games in which he was pretty much invisible, Briere was a force in the game against Florida. He had numerous high quality chances, recording three shots on Theodore and finishing the night with two assists. If he continues to play with the vigor exhibited tonight, Briere will be on the goal-scoring side of the ledger in short order. Giroux says it's Briere's time of the year. "Danny, every year down the stretch, he kind of finds his game," Giroux said. "Tonight was his best game in a long time. He was on the puck, he was creating turnovers. He had a couple shots. His line was great. It is great to see him play great like that. We all know he is a good player and down the stretch he is always our best player so we are pretty excited to see him play." And Briere is remaining positive. "I've had chances," he said. "The chances are there, I just can't finish these days. But I'm not too worried about that, it's going to turn around at some point. Looking at the last four or five games, our line has created a lot of chances and that's all you can worry about." Briere was also touched by the reaction of the Philadelphia fans when they gave a standing ovation in recognition of his 800th NHL game. "That was pretty cool," he said. "I remember when I started my career, I never thought I'd get to 10. The first 50 were tough, but hopefully there's a lot more and that was really cool, what the fans did when they announced it."
This next week will likely be huge in determining where Philadelphia ends up in the East standings. After taking on the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night, they play an all-important home-and-home series with New Jersey on Sunday and Tuesday. They conclude next weekend with games against the Bruins and Penguins.
Watching the team thrive with all of the adversity being thrown their way with recent injuries can only make the team stronger as the second season approaches.
Jagr Is A Pretty Funny Guy
When asked after the game how he felt physically, Jagr said his inclusion in the lineup only had to do with his nationality.
"I had to play because there were no other Czechs," joked Jagr. "All of the Czechs were out and everybody knows, if there are no Czechs in the game, it's kind of a boring game. It's like when you want to make food without salt, you know what I mean? I was pushed."
The future Hall-of-Famer played on the fourth line and was moved around, something Giroux said is to see what works best for the club.
"He (Laviolette) is just switching it up a little bit to see how it works," the team's leading scorer said. "In the playoffs, sometimes you gotta switch it up. Jags can pretty much play with anybody, that's how good he is. You saw his line had a lot of chances and he is a threat now on the power play."
Bryzgalov Sums Up The Effort Pretty Well...
We all know Bryz's universe is a pretty wild place, but his description of the complete team game was spot on. And he was quick to point to his teammates for the success.
"I think all 60 minutes was a great effort by the team, not only just the last five minutes," he said. "They played the whole game diving for the pucks to blocking to protecting the passing lanes. They tried to make my job as easy as possible. Remove the players from this slot to let me see the shot. I think it was an unbelievable team effort tonight. That's why we had success tonight, 5-0. This is all part of the team job, the shutout, the team deserved it."