A look at how once again, scoring depth has been the key to a strong Philadelphia Flyers team. But, another spate of Pittsburgh Penguins injuries begs the question, how deep is any NHL team?
The story underlying the success of the 2011-2012 Flyers to date is that they are once again a club characterized by great scoring depth. Yesterday's chapter saw Danny Briere score three goals, giving him 13 on the season. The game before, James van Riemsdyk was the multiple lamp-lighter, scoring a pair, including the game winner. Prior to those bursts, fans had aired frustrations about each player's lack of production, particularly that of JVR.
What a difference a game makes. While both players are still a bit off pace, they each have the talent and surrounding cast to see their numbers turn around in a hurry. JVR has a ways to go before quieting his doubters, but his brace, Briere's hat trick, and the continued progress of a handful of rookie forwards has sparked a fast turnaround to a sluggish end of 2011.
Aside from losing Chris Pronger for the season and experiencing the usual complement of players missing a few games here and there, the Flyers have been downright lucky compared to their cross-state rivals. Injuries have plagued the Penguins again this season, with Jordan Staal and James Neal joining Sidney Crosby as significant offensive contributors on the shelf today.
Neal, who has stepped up in Crosby's absence and leads the Pens in goal scoring with 21, has a broken foot. Staal could miss 4-6 weeks with a knee injury suffered after a collision with Mike Rupp of the Rangers. Neal's timetable is uncertain, but head coach Dan Bylsma places it at "weeks, not days," per the team's web site.
Penguins.com clocks the number of man-games lost so far this season to 210, on pace for 431 and counting.
The Pens were able to weather last season's storm and finish with a share of the division lead, but they've sunk to fourth place after four straight losses to Atlantic foes. On December 29, the Flyers snapped a four-game Pittsburgh winning streak, and the Pens haven't won since, losing four games and three players in a week. While they're far from dead in the water, the Penguins are at least momentarily on the ropes.
With any luck, we won't have to see the Flyers' depth tested in a similar context. But, even if they don't pile up the man-games lost quite at Pittsburgh's pace, the Pens' struggles are a reminder that the Flyers could—and likely will—still face an uphill battle in the war of attrition.
Last season, the Flyers crumbled in the second half, clearly missing Chris Pronger's dominance on the blue line. It was harder to gauge, but it is assumed his lost voice of leadership was also a key void as the team lost momentum, having peaked in January.
As opposed to last season, this Flyers team began its campaign with depth questions. Not necessarily doubts, but questions nonetheless. Pronger's current injuries are new, but his health was never a certainty. And, despite the prevailing sentiment that the haul Paul Holmgren received for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter was somewhere between solid and excellent, it was hard to say whether we'd see the potential of the lineup this season.
So far, we certainly have. Despite massive turnover in the forward lines, the Flyers are currently second in the league in goals per game. Last season, they finished in a dead heat at the top, third in total goals but just two below the league-leading Vancouver Canucks. Claude Giroux trades the NHL points leadership with Henrik Sedin and Phil Kessel on a nightly basis, leading a Flyers team that has eight double-digit goal scorers just 39 games into the season.
Heading into the season, it was believed that for the post-apocalyptic Flyers to succeed, Giroux and JVR would have to ascend to the cornerstone positions vacated by Richards and Carter. Giroux certainly has, arguably already eclipsing the impact either player ever made on a given season. While JVR has rarely shown the dominance he displayed in the 2011 playoffs, which in part earned him a new contract, the fact that the Flyers are still as potent as ever even without him being their 1-B star might actually be a good thing. As dangerous as they currently are, they're not even scoring at their full potential. Plus, one of hockey's top young players, Brayden Schenn, has in the past three games started to turn heads as well while Matt Read continues to hang with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins among rookie goal leaders and Sean Couturier currently anchors an all-rookie fourth line that can hit, defend, and score.
From the players on the ice to the man behind the bench and the oft-criticized GM up in the press box, there's plenty of credit to go around. But we don't have to look too far back to the moment when Wayne Simmonds' knee connected with Claude Giroux's head, or more recently, to what's going on in Pittsburgh, to see how quickly the Flyers' depth could disappear.
It's pointless to dwell on that though. For now, the story is that there is sufficient scoring depth on a nightly basis. One or two lines consistently step up, and the Flyers are in virtually every game they play, the outliers being few.
However, their depth on defense is among the best in the league even without Pronger, and yet still feels perilously thin. Fortunately, blue line anchor Kimmo Timonen was able to keep his ironman streak alive and suit up somewhat surprisingly yesterday, contributing more than 25 minutes of ice time. The back end would look a whole different everywhere from even strength to both special teams units without Timonen, so hopefully he's weathered his wrist injury.
The overall depth of the team will be tested again today, the 5 PM start in Ottawa coming just 25 or so hours after the two teams left the ice in Philly. The Senators will obviously be facing the same tight turnaround, which could make for an interesting third period.
Any guesses as to which Flyers step up to carry the scoring torch this evening? Picking the Standout Star must be as simple as throwing a dart at the lineup right now.