Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Posted: 12:01 p.m.
By Jim JacksonCSNPhilly.com Contributor
Two weeks from now, we will be analyzing the Flyers first-round playoff opponent. There will be strengths and weaknesses to dissect, trends to figure out and season series to review to see if there is anything of value that could affect the upcoming series. There will be that incredible anticipation of the first puck drop. Its almost here.
However, there are still roughly two weeks remaining to the marathon that is the NHLs regular season. Over the final seven games of the Flyers season, there are still some rather important questions that need answers.
Here are five of them:
1. Can they avoid any more major injuries?
Throughout the NHL, every day seems to bring news of another key player going down. The Los Angeles Kings have lost both Justin Williams and Anze Kopitar in the last week. The Blackhawks lost Patrick Sharp. Pavel Datsyuk went back onto the injured list for Detroit. Washingtons Alexander Ovechkin is missing games (although hes expected back). The list goes on and on.
The Flyers are without Chris Pronger and Jody Shelley. Pronger is expected back (see below). Peter Laviolette and his coaching staff have to be saying their prayers that no other players are lost to major injury as the regular season comes to a close. There will be bumps and bruises for sure, but they have to be hoping nothing of a serious nature comes forth.
2. Will Pronger return in time to get some games before the postseason?
He has missed 25 games this season with three different injuries. The Flyers have more than held their own without him, going 14-6-5 in games hes been out of the lineup. Still, though, his absence is felt, especially late in games, whether the Flyers are leading or trailing.
It would seem to be important for the 36-year-old Pronger to get at least a couple of regular season games in before the playoffs begin. Expecting him to be sharp without any game action would be a reach. He will play in all key situations once the postseason arrives. Rust would not be welcome.
3. Will either goaltender emerge as the guy to run with in the playoffs?
It certainly is not written in stone that a team has to rely on only one goaltender to carry them in the Stanley Cup tournament. But it probably is at least written in erasable ink. Every coach is hoping that their goalie gets hot come April. You want a goalie at worst not to cost you games and, at best, to steal two or three.
The Flyers have two (or is it three?) candidates. Sergei Bobrovsky has recently shown the ups and downs that should be expected with a 22-year-old rookie to pro hockey. His ups are tantalizingly impressive. His downs are cause for concern. Hes had two very strong starts in a row heading into this week. Can he get on a confident roll heading into the first round of the playoffs?
If not, is Brian Boucher the steady veteran who can step up and take the team where it wants to go? Since hes been part of two long playoff runs in Philadelphia, I would venture to say Boucher is capable. It does seem as though he has to prove himself all over again every year though. Outside observers seem to lose faith quickly.
Is there a third choice in current Adirondack Phantom Michael Leighton (you remember him)? He did a great job stepping in during the second round last season and getting the Flyers to within two games of the Cup. After injury issues earlier this season, hes playing well in the AHL. However, he would have to pass through re-entry waivers and theres no guarantee another team wouldnt claim him.
The Flyers safest bet is for either Bobrovsky or Boucher to shake their recent inconsistency and take command over the seasons final seven games.
4. Can the Flyers hold off the competition and take the Easts top seed?
They have been at the top of the Eastern Conference standings since Jan. 8. But their lead has been shrinking throughout March. Heading into the final two weeks, Washington, Pittsburgh and even Boston suddenly feel they have a shot at the top spot.
The conference champ gets home ice throughout the Eastern portion of the playoffs. That is important, although as the Flyers proved last season, not vital. With the Flyers piling up road wins this season, they have plenty of confidence that if they have to win a big postseason game away from home, they can get it done.
However, having led the East for so long, it would be a shot to their confidence to lose their grip on first place just as the regular season winds down. Additionally, if they are caught by Pittsburgh, their seeding drops all the way to fourth at best. That just does not seem to be the springboard into playoffs that any club would want.
5. Can they rediscover their identity and play with some consistency?
The answer to this question trumps those of the other four. Thats because, even with a healthy team including Chris Pronger, a hot goaltender, and home ice advantage from the conferences top seed, without an affirmative answer to this question, the Flyers will not have a long postseason run.
They spent the first 50 to 55 games of the season establishing an up-tempo, hard working, in-your-face identity. They were almost impossible to check with a myriad of offensive weapons. Their defense was also deep, physical and as good at moving the puck as any blue line corps in the league. The goaltending was solid and relatively consistent.
However, over the last month, the tempo has sagged as has the work ethic. They have become much easier to play against. The puck seems to be in the Philadelphia end a lot more than in opposition territory. Are the Flyers tired or just bored?
No one seems sure. In recent seasons, this corps group has had a habit of taking any margin for error they build and using every last bit of it. That seems to be the scenario again this season.
Still, in these last two weeks, the Flyers have the opportunity to get back to basics and re-establish the qualities that have put them in such a good position to begin with. If they finish the season strong and then carry it over into the playoffs, they will have answered the most crucial question and this somewhat maddening month of March will all be forgotten come June.
E-mail Jim Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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