The Philadelphia Flyers recent good fortunes can be attributable to the way they've played in their own end. Last night's 3-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils was more evidence of that fact, as Philly has now shut out their opponent in four of the last six contests, yielding just six goals over that span.
While the Philadelphia offense is tied with the Boston Bruins for the NHL high in goals scored (223), one name had been curiously absent from the score sheet for some time.
It's amazing to think the team could produce that much when Danny Briere, who was being counted on to supply much of the offense lost coming into this season when Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were shipped out of town last summer, had gone for more than two months without scoring a goal. After netting a career-high 34 last season, Briere scored just his 14th last night -- his first in the last 24 games. His last goal was a big one, scored in the overtime period on January 7 to cap off a hat trick in a 3-2 triumph over the Ottawa Senators.
Never mind the fact that last night's goal was scored with Devils' netminder Martin Brodeur on the bench, pulled for an extra attacker with the Flyers leading 2-0 with five minutes left in regulation. It was just good to see the team's highest-paid player back in the goal-scoring column again, and the relief in his resultant celebration as he jumped up against the corner glass was obvious for all to see.
When asked about it after the game, he confirmed as much.
"Relief, probably," Briere said was what he felt when the puck actually hit the net. " I think that was a perfect example of someone who's not playing with a lot of confidence on the first shot (which was blocked before he put the next one into the empty cage). 99% of the time I would have faked a shot and gone around the defenseman, but I was nervous. I tried to rush it, just like I've been the last few games."
Briere's struggles have been apparent for a good portion of the season, but seem to have worsened since he suffered a concussion after taking a hit from New Jersey defender Anton Volchenkov back in January. After missing six games, his offensive rhythm has been missing in action.
Most observers have maintained that it would only be a matter of time before he breaks out of it, because "his time of year" is coming up. This, of course, refers to the propensity shown by Briere to raise the level of his game when things matter the most. While he has averaged .36 goals (116 goals) and .80 points per game in the regular season (256 points in 320 games) in his five years in Philly, his average jumps to .50 goals per game (29) and more than a PPG (1.03) with 59 points in the 57 postseason tilts he has suited up for with the Flyers.
His 30 points during the club's run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals is the team record for points during one playoff year, and Briere's seven goals in the 2011 postseason tied James van Riemsdyk for the team lead.
The feeling of "If he can just get one, then the flood gates could open up!" has permeated the mindset of Flyers Nation for some time, but Briere had not been getting too many chances to break free. He showed signs of life last Thursday against the Florida Panthers, as he had a long-missing jump in his legs and created numerous offensive chances for both himself and his linemates, finishing the night with two assists.
Last night saw Briere have a glorious opportunity to score on Brodeur in the second period when Jakub Voracek sent a pass that left the center with a good portion of the net with which to shoot, but the puck went past him and harmlessly into the corner.
It was frustrating lately, especially when the chances were there," Briere said. "The one in the second period when Jake fed it back door, I mean, it was flat all of the way and then at the last second it hit a rut, went and jumped over my stick. That's exactly the way it was going lately, but I guess this is a big relief (his goal) and a huge win for us, too."
Voracek, who returned from a head injury last night after missing the last three contests, deserves a lot of credit for setting Briere up for the empty-netter. He had already scored one earlier and had a multiple-goal game on his stick, but knew his teammate had been gripping his lumber a lot tighter with the long drought.
"To be honest, I had no clue (that Brodeur had been pulled for the extra attacker) until Jake got the puck and he rushed it out of the zone," Briere confessed. "Just by the reaction of the crowd I knew there was something going on and I looked up and there was no goalie. All I was thinking was try to get open for him. I had the feeling, knowing Jake, he's gonna try to get me out of the slump, so I owe him a dinner at least."
The recent play of netminder Ilya Bryzgalov is proof-positive regarding the affect condfidence can have on a player's performance, and skaters are no difference than goalies in that fashion.
"We saw Bryz earlier said kind of the same thing," Briere noted. "When things aren’t going your way, confidence is something that can carry you a long way or take you out of the way."
There were a couple of things that gave Briere a boost that occurred prior to Tuesday night's showdown with the Devils.
"Yes, you know what, I'll be honest with you guys, Peter (Laviolette) had a pretty good talk yesterday," Briere said of a meeting he had with his head coach. "Gave me a lot of confidence with the talk that we had, I give him a lot of credit for the way he made me feel coming into tonight's game. It was a good feeling."
"Just about my game," Briere said when asked exactly what his coach had talked to him about. "Just trying to tell me to stay with it, good things were gonna happen if you worked the right way and keep creating chances. At some point, it's gonna work."
Laviolette's pep talk was one factor, but there was also another, and it dealt with Briere's linemates he would be skating with in the tilt.
"Playing with Jake, too, I’m hoping that we’re able to build something," he said of the chemistry everyone in Philadelphia is hoping will flourish. "You have to give a lot of credit to Wellwood, too. I thought Eric played tremendous. He was skating, created some chances, was first on the forecheck all over the ice."
In the last 17 games, Philadelphia has been shutout four times (including the 1-0 shootout victory in Toronto), scored just once on three occasions, and netted two goals in one more. The attentiveness to the defensive end of the rink has paid off in a huge way as of late, but the offense has sometimes sputtered.
If the trio of Wellwood-Briere-Voracek can get on a roll, it would most-likely free up the top line of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr, who have been seeing opponent's best defensive players every night. They almost certainly would continue to face the top defensive units each game, but another line on a hot streak would give opposing coaches something else to think about other than shutting down the Giroux line when formatting their respective game plans.
While Bryzgalov and the Flyers have posted four shutouts in the last six games -- and posted a 5-1-0 mark in the process -- the Flyers goal production has been held to just one goal in three of the six, as well.
As the calendar nears April and the importance of each game grows exponentially, Briere will continue to be counted on as one of the club's veteran leaders.
"Hopefully now I can relax a little bit and start scoring more goals."