Evaluating the Flyers at the quarter mark

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Evaluating the Flyers at the quarter mark

Its all there for the Flyers.

Sure, its just the quarter mark of the season. Yet heres no denying the Flyers are in position to win the Atlantic Division and maybe even the Eastern Conferences top seed.

Whatever doubts there were over the summer about how this team was going to gel with so many new faces seem to be a distant memory.

Remember how we fretted who would make up for the 78 goals lost among Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Ville Leino?

Well, with 77 goals already, the Flyers lead the NHL in scoring as we reached the officials quarter pole (21 games) with Wednesdays 4-3 overtime victory at the Islanders.

Chris Pronger and his aching back and surgically repaired wrist? Neither has been an issue, though a right eye injury coupled with a virus has seen Captain Warmth miss eight games.

Recall how people wondered if Jaromir Jagr, about to push 40 years old, had anything left? Or whether his centerman, Claude Giroux, could elevate his play to generate chemistry with Jagr?

Their success speaks for itself as Giroux is second in the NHL in overall scoring with 27 points while Jagr has been wonderful to watch on the ice until recently when he missed two games with a groin pull and then reinjured himself against the Islanders.

Given the Flyers alarming history of groin pulls, this bears considerable watching in the weeks ahead because Jagr rushed his comeback and the next time could see a complete tear. Even he admits he didnt err on the side of caution.

His value to Giroux at this point is incalculable.

Are there too many rookies and not enough veterans?

Coach Peter Laviolette has used 10 first-year players. His top one, versatile forward Matt Read, is third in rookie scoring with 14 points while first round pick Sean Couturier, acquired in the Carter trade, has been a steady and effective contributor on the penalty kill.

Once again, goaltending remains a puzzle. Ilya Bryzgalov has been up and down and had a recent five-game stretch that seemed to suggest he had gotten his game back. Yet over the last two games, hes looked pedestrian.

Backup Sergei Bobrovsky has bailed him out a few times and saved two points for the Flyers at the Island with late heroics.

Overall, the Flyers goaltending numbers are very poor, but taken in smaller recent amounts, its far better than it was. Still, it remains an area that has to get better as the season moves on.

Right now, both Bryzgalov and Bobrovsky have save percentages under .900, which wont cut it for a team with Stanley Cup ambitions.

About the only thing to truly dislike about this team is its overall discipline, something that has nagged the Flyers for several years.

Its probably a character flaw in the kind of aggressive players the Flyers stockpile, but they once again lead the league in penalties, averaging 17.1 minutes a game while their 115 minors are, by far, tops in the NHL, which is inexcusable.

And the trickle-down effect of all these penalties is an overworked penalty kill unit that has sank in recent days. Penalties have plagued the Flyers the entire quarter even though it hasnt doomed them. Yet.

Theres been a lot of good things weve done the first quarter, Laviolette said. I think weve started to really understand the identity by which we need to play. Weve won a lot of hockey games.

I think the offense has been good. Defensively, we get ourselves in a little bit of trouble through penalties and were working on that. Thats one thing Id like to see a little bit better.

Despite all the good things he does with the puck, Danny Briere is one of the players who needs to better control his stick.

When the Flyers looked about cooked in Long Island on Wednesday, he rescued the offense with two late goals. Goals, not stick fouls, is what Briere needs to provide more of in the months ahead.

We have a team that plays with an edge, Briere said. Right now, it is learning how to do a better job tip-toeing that line of when to be aggressive and when to take that extra shot and when to back off.

Thats certainly a thing now to be more successful in the second quarter to improve. Weve talked about it. Weve all been responsible for doing it at times.

Most the Flyers infractions are stick-related and lazy penalties hooking, tripping, interference.

Sometimes we dont move our feet, Giroux said. We take too many stick penalties. We have a lot of players who can skate. When you skate, you should be in position and you should not be taking penalties. Weve lost games this year because of penalties.

Still the Flyers (12-6-3) have won more than they have lost because, well, theres a lot of talent on this roster.

Eleven players are in double-digit scoring. Giroux could become the first Flyer to win the Art Ross Trophy (scoring title).

Theres a lot of hockey to be played, Giroux said. Thats not really on my mind right now. I try not to think about that stuff. When everybody knows what they are doing on the ice and are together, thats when we play our best.

It becomes easy for everyone to do their job. Were in good position in the standings. We can better and have things to improve upon in the second quarter.

Jagr, who had a tendency to be very moody in his younger days, seems content as age 40 approaches.

I love it so far, Jagr said. A lot of young guys and a lot of fun ... Its a lot of fun and I want to be part of the team. You can see the guys have so much potential. You can help them. Tell them things they dont know because I didnt know them when I was younger.

Jagr speaks every day to Giroux, Read and Jakub Voracek, on and off the ice. He instructs.

He teaches. Hes the perfect playercoach on the ice.

Im very lucky to have him, Giroux said. As a young player, I wasnt sure what to expect from him. Hes dominated the league for a lot of years. For him to come and help our young players and help us get better, it was something that we needed, pretty much.

The leadership group has been much better under Pronger and this year welcomed Giroux to its ranks. The one thing the Flyers seem to have an abundance of is resiliency. They often overcome their own shortcomings most nights.

Even when they dont win, its usually a fairly close game.

Their attack style with and without the puck is consistent. Their defensive coverage, as a five-man unit often wanes, but the d-pairs have changed in recent weeks because of injuries and their salary cap restraints with defensive replacements from the minors.

Among the players who have been a pleasant surprise is James van Riemsdyk. He has eight goals, which is right more than he had last season at this point.

Its a little bit different this year, JVR said. Im playing with some different guys, so it takes time to get used to. When you look at like that, things look pretty good so far.

I know I have a lot more to give. Its just about getting better day by day and I think a lot of that comes from the chemistry you get with your linemates.

What stops JVR from taking that so-called next step is every night consistency. He can be a dominating power forward if he harnesses the mental aspect of playing a certain way every shift.

When he plays with that edge, hes a talented guy and becomes very difficult to play against, Laviolette said. You saw it in the playoffs where he elevated his game.

Though its been beaten to death, there is no denying there is an internal bond in the dressing room a camaraderie, if you will that has been missing for several years.

Even more noticeable, no player in the room wants to talk about the past. Its gone and forgotten about.

The group of guys we do have, it's a good mix, Braydon Coburn said. It's a good mix of everything, we have four lines who can play.

We have to all get on the same page and play Lavi's system, which I think the coaching staff has done a good job of implementing that and letting us know what's expected of us.''

Added van Riemsdyk, Weve got a tight-knit room that should help us get through tough times.
E-mail Tim Panaccio at tpanotch@comcast.net

NHL Playoffs: Penguins back in Cup Final for first time since 2009

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NHL Playoffs: Penguins back in Cup Final for first time since 2009

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- The hours before the biggest game of Bryan Rust's life were restless. The nap he tried to sneak in never materialized. The Pittsburgh Penguins forward's mind was simply too busy.

"I was just sitting up there looking at the ceiling," Rust said.

Yet even those daydreams didn't compare to the reality: the rookie forward who began training camp hoping just to make the team scored both of Pittsburgh's goals in a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night.

Pittsburgh will host Western Conference champion San Jose in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

In a building littered with stars, it was the relentlessness of the 24-year-old Rust and the steadiness of 22-year-old goaltender Matt Murray who provided the difference as the Penguins reached the final for the first time since 2009.

"I'm in that mode where I'm getting the bounces and the breaks right now," Rust said.

Ones Rust and his teammates are earning. The Penguins rallied from a 3-2 deficit by controlling the final two games of the best-of-seven series, winning 5-2 in Tampa Bay in Game 6, then backing it up with what coach Mike Sullivan said "might have been the most complete 60-minute effort we had."

In disarray in December when Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston, the Penguins have sprinted through April and May and will head into June with a chance to win the franchise's fourth Cup, one that would serve as a bookend to its last triumph seven years when stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were still in their early 20s.

They're older now. Wiser. And undaunted by a series of postseason failures that made it seem the window of their primes were closing. Yet here they are after dispatching the New York Rangers in five games, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six and the defending Eastern Conference champion Lightning in seven.

"They played better hockey than us the whole series," said Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman, who lost a Game 7 for the first time after starting his career 7-0 when pushed to the limit.

Jonathan Drouin scored his fifth goal of the playoffs for the Lightning and Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves, but it wasn't enough to send Tampa Bay back to the Cup Final for a second straight year. Captain Steven Stamkos had two shots in 11:55 in his from a two-month layoff while dealing with blood clots, his best chance coming on a breakaway in the second period that deflected off Murray and trickled wide. One of Murray's teammates deftly guided the puck out of harm's way, emblematic of Tampa Bay's inability to keep the puck in Pittsburgh's end with any sort of consistency.

"I thought I beat him," Stamkos said. "It just went through him and out the other side. It was close, but we didn't generate enough offensively in order to win a game."

Mostly because the Penguins didn't let them. It's part of what Sullivan calls "playing the right way," a way abetted by the influx of speed brought in by general manager Jim Rutherford. That group includes Rust, who forced his way onto the roster thanks to feverish skating and a self-confidence that belies his nondescript 5-foot-11 frame.

That effort -- or "desperation level" as Crosby calls it -- provided the Penguins with the boost they needed to overcome a bit of unfortunate history and the return of Stamkos. Pittsburgh had dropped five straight Game 7s at home, including a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in 2011 in a series in which both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed due to injury.

That loss had become symbolic of the franchise's postseason shortcomings following that gritty run to the Cup in 2009 that culminated with a Game 7 win in Detroit that was supposed to be the launching pad of a dynasty.

Seven long years later, with an entirely new cast around mainstays Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins have returned to the league's biggest stage.

"We've always believed in one another," Crosby said. "Trying to get back, it's not easy."

Not by a long shot.

Vasilevskiy, a revelation while filling in for injured Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, spent most of the night facing barrage after barrage as Pittsburgh controlled the puck and the pace of play for long stretches.

The Penguins finally broke through behind Rust, who managed all of five goals in 55 regular-season games, a total he's matched in just 17 games during the postseason. He gave the Penguins the lead 1:55 into the second when he raced down the slot, took a feed from Kunitz and beat Vasilevskiy over his glove.

Drouin's fourth goal of the series tied it at 9:36 of the second, a wicked wrist shot from the circle that zipped by Murray and seemed to blunt Pittsburgh's momentum.

Only it didn't.

All of 30 seconds later, the Penguins were back in front. Ben Lovejoy's slap shot from the point caromed off the end boards to the right of the net. Rust jabbed at it, squeezing it between Vasilevskiy's left arm and his body.

Their season on the brink, the Lightning recovered but Murray never wavered. His teammates in front of him kept Tampa Bay from getting in his way and when the final horn blared, Pittsburgh's metamorphosis was complete.

"The biggest challenge is ahead of us," Crosby said. "We have to finish it off the right way."

Notes
The Penguins went 0 for 5 on the power play. The Lightning were 0 for 1. ... The team that scores first is now 124-42 all-time in Game 7s, including 5-0 this year.

Flyers Stay or Go Part 5: R.J. Umberger to Ryan White

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Flyers Stay or Go Part 5: R.J. Umberger to Ryan White

In the final installment of our five-part offseason series examining the future of the Flyers, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster. We go alphabetically. Here are links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Today, we begin with R.J. Umberger.

R.J. Umberger
2015-16 stats: 39 GP, 2 G, 9 A; Contract: Signed through 2016-17, $4.6 mm cap hit

Dougherty: At the end-of-the-season media availability, Umberger said he expects to be bought out. And he will, unless general manager Ron Hextall can work some magic. He’s a goner.

Verdict: GO

Hall: Umberger expects to be bought out. It seems imminent at this point. Either way, the Flyers need to move on from Umberger.

Verdict: GO

Paone: To his credit, Umberger was a total pro as he went through his immense struggles this season. But to say the writing is on the wall for Umberger in Philadelphia is an understatement. It's like he sees a skywriter spelling it out in the clouds above him everywhere he goes. He even said himself that he expects the final year of his contract to be bought out sooner rather than later. His premonition will come true and the Flyers will take the $1.6 million cap hit that comes with it for next season.

Verdict: GO

Chris VandeVelde
2015-16 stats: 79 GP, 2 G, 12 A; Contract: Signed through 2016-17, $712,500 cap hit

Dougherty: VandeVelde is a Dave Hakstol disciple. He played for him at North Dakota and he played for him here. He was a cog on the fourth line, playing with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White all season long. But while VandeVelde kills penalties, he doesn’t do anything else. He has no offensive ability and, simply stated, is an AHL player playing in the NHL. The Flyers want to add scoring and to do that, someone has to go. And VandeVelde should be that guy.

Verdict: GO

Hall: Debating a fourth-liner’s status shouldn’t be one of the harder decisions, but it is in this case. That’s because Dave Hakstol adored his final unit of VandeVelde, Ryan White and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. However, the Flyers need better depth and VandeVelde is super cheap, so sending him to the AHL to clear a roster spot wouldn’t be a stomach-churning move. With a tiny cap hit, even an offseason trade is conceivable.

Verdict: GO

Paone: This is a tougher call than one would think for a role player of VandeVelde's ilk. On one hand, he, Ryan White and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare formed one of the most effective fourth lines in the entire league this season and an effective fourth line can be such a valuable weapon in today's NHL. There's chemistry there that you shouldn't want to mess with. On the other hand, VandeVelde is probably the most expendable and interchangeable of that trio. And with the Flyers needing as many roster spots as they can create, another younger and more effective player may be able to fit in there (Scott Laughton to start, possibly). That's why I lean toward saying VandeVelde won't be with the big club to start the season, despite his longstanding ties to Dave Hakstol. Roster spots are becoming more and more valuable in Philadelphia.

Verdict: GO

Jakub Voracek
2015-16 stats: 73 GP, 11 G, 44 A; Contract: Signed through 2023-24, $8.25 mm cap hit

Dougherty: This is a no-brainer. He signed an eight-year contract extension last summer, and that kicks in July 1. He had confidence issues this season and battled injury, but there’s nothing of concern there. He should be healthy and back to his productive self next season.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: Obviously, this isn’t really a question. What is, though, are Voracek’s health and rebound.

Verdict: STAY

Paone: It's no secret the Flyers' star winger struggled with both production and injury this season, a year removed from his spectacular 81-point campaign that earned him a massive eight-year, $66 million extension. That extension just so happens to kick in this year, by the way. You're crazy if you don't think a motivated Voracek will be back in orange and black next season.

Verdict: STAY

Jordan Weal
2015-16 stats: 14 GP, 0 G, 0 A; Contract: Restricted free agent

Dougherty: Weal was basically a throw-in in the Vinny Lecavalier trade. Los Angeles didn’t want him because there was no room for him on its NHL roster, but the Kings would have lost him for nothing had they placed him on waivers. He came to Philly and didn’t do anything to impress. He’s a restricted free agent. He’ll probably get qualified, but shouldn’t. Let him go.

Verdict: GO

Hall: Ron Hextall knows a lot about Weal. The 24-year-old was often the first player on the ice for extra work before practice. I think there was more than one reason why Weal was included in the trade that sent Vinny Lecavalier and Luke Schenn to the Kings. I say he’s back at a minimum rate but will head to the minors.

Verdict: GO

Paone: What exactly is Weal capable of at the NHL level? That's a really good question and one we don't have an answer to considering his lack of playing time with in both Los Angeles and Philadelphia this season. His injury after becoming a Flyer did him no favors, either. As I mentioned above when talking about VandeVelde, roster spots in Philadelphia are becoming more and more precious as the influx of talented prospects begins. Weal is really going to have to prove himself during camp to earn one of those spots. But, for right now, starting the season with the big club is a hazy picture for him.

Verdict: GO

Ryan White
2015-16 stats: 73 GP, 11 G, 5 A; Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Dougherty: White is everything the Flyers thought Zac Rinaldo would be. He brings energy, he’s physical and he can even score. He displayed the ability to play on the power play, which is a plus with a player in a fourth-line role. White should be back at least for another season.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: White epitomizes what you want. He cares more about the Flyers than money. He’s a terrific teammate willing to do anything. And he’s understanding more and more how to score ugly. A perfect fourth-liner for the Flyers who will be re-signed.

Verdict: STAY

Paone: You want to talk about an almost-perfect fit? That's what White has been with the Flyers over the last season and a half. In 107 games as a Flyer, White has recorded 17 goals and 11 assists for 28 points. In his first five seasons in the league with Montreal, the 28-year-old forward had just five goals and 12 assists for 17 points in 117 games. Even in a mostly fourth-line role, he's made an impact to the point he's earned Hakstol's trust enough to be the net-front presence on the Flyers' second power-play unit. He's a UFA who'll be due a bit of a raise, but White just meshes way too well to not bring back. He knows it, too, saying in his end-of-season media availability that money is necessarily the determining factor in negotiations with the Flyers. He'll be back in his familiar roles next season.

Verdict: STAY

Remembering the Lindros hit from Stevens 16 years later

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Remembering the Lindros hit from Stevens 16 years later

All it took to end the Flyers career of Eric Lindros was one devastating shoulder to the chin from Scott Stevens.

This day, in 2000, just 7 minutes and 50 seconds into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, Stevens, the most intimidating defenseman in New Jersey Devils history, caught Lindros in transition coming across center ice in the Flyer offensive zone … with his head down.

In real time, measured against today’s standards, Stevens’ hit on Lindros is nothing compared to what seems to occur nightly in the NHL at breakneck speed.

The difference is, back then, the Stevens’ hit was deemed legal.

Today, it would draw a five-minute major, game misconduct and possible suspension because the principal point of contact from Stevens’ shoulder was the chin and forehead of Lindros.

Stevens was 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. Lindros was two inches taller — but smaller when he tucked his head down, as he often did when he skated hard and fast. He weighed 25 pounds more. Didn’t matter. Stevens dropped Lindros to the ice and a hush came over the arena now called Wells Fargo Center.

The significance of the hit is obvious. It marked the end of Lindros’ career as a Flyer. Recall, he had missed more than two months because of headaches, and came into the series in Game 6.

The Flyers lost Game 7, 2-1. They lost a series they once led 3-1. And they lost perhaps the greatest power forward of his generation. No player dominated the ice like Lindros. He was unique in that NHL coaches actually had to design game plans around defending him.

Stevens’ hit resulted in Lindros’ sixth concussion as a Flyer, but more significantly, it was his fourth in five months. He would sit out the entire following season with post-concussion syndrome while demanding a trade that would eventually come with the New York Rangers.

Lindros' impact in eight years as a Flyer can’t be understated. He is among the club’s all-time top 10 in goals (290) assists (369) and points (659) and is the third-highest scoring centerman in Flyers history.

Tragically, he was also the NHL’s poster child for post-concussion syndrome. At the time, the Flyers, the league and many neurologists weren’t sure of the ramifications of this medical term, but in coming years, it would become synonymous with head injuries in every sport.

Medically speaking, this remains the biggest impact Lindros had on hockey — he brought much-needed focus to concussions.

Sadly, during his 13-year career, Lindros missed the equivalent of two more seasons because of injuries, most of which were concussion-related.