Storylines and notes on Saturday's tilt between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center. Are the rebuilt Flyers ready to beat the team that blew them to pieces in May?
When I see the Flyers have a game scheduled on a Saturday, I scan to the time and hope it's either 1 PM or 3 PM (preferably 1). Not that a Saturday night game isn't a good time whether down at the Well, on the TV hanging over the bar, or at home in the living room, but particularly around the holidays, that early start just sets a good tone for the day.
Especially when it's a matchup like this one. The Bruins are in town, bringing the best record in the Northeast Division to face the top team in the Atlantic. The Flyers have gone through a lot in the past few weeks, including getting the news that they'll be without Chris Pronger for the rest of the season and playoffs. They also haven't lost in the month of December, a seven-game streak that marks their longest run since 2002.
Can they make it eight straight today against a Bruins team that hopes to have its biggest threat back in the lineup? Whole lotta notes on both teams below.
Pronger's Out, But Chara Likely to Return
A seven-game winning streak in December is plenty of fun, filling us with confidence in a team that began its season filled with question marks. But we don't have to look too far into the history books to see that a team's plight isn't decided in December. We also know that last year, the Flyers were a better team with Pronger than without. I'm not going to spend much time raining on the great parade that's currently going on, but let's just say there's a lot of hockey left on the schedule, and the Flyers are down an undeniably big piece.
The Bruins, meanwhile, appear set to have their big blueliner on patrol after a week on the shelf. Zdeno Chara hurt his knee last Saturday against the Blue Jackets, but he's been skating and should be ready to go today, reports Sean Farrell of the Boston Globe.
Blistering, Balanced Beasts Square Off
The Flyers currently lead the league in generating goals, producing at an amazing clip of 3.7 per game. Second place in that stat? The Bruins, who CSN NE's Joe Haggerty points out are actually a relatively distant second at 3.3 goals per game. However, the B's have the league's top goals against average, a paltry 2.0 allowed per game. As if last spring's postseason run left any doubt, the Bruins are an elite hockey club, blending dangerous attackers with solid defense and the best goaltending in the league.
The Flyers' own goals allowed mark is still affected by its earlier woes on defense and in goal. The back line has been improved lately, and Ilya Bryzgalov has found a groove as sweet as a Stuart Zender bass line. After a night off saw backup Sergei Bobrovsky play admirably, Bryz is back between the pipes this afternoon to face the other apple of Ed Snider's eye—Tim Thomas.
Thomas… Well let's just admit that this old bastard owns the Flyers. He's lost just three times against Philly, one of which was the 2-1 season opener, hardly his fault.
Mike Morreale of NHL.com dug up a good stat that shows the Bruins have been leaning on the men in the masks quite a bit, particularly this past week without Chara. Both Tuukka Rask and Thomas set season highs in saves, with Rask stopping all 41 shots he faced in a 3-0 win over the Kings and Thomas stopping 47 of 49 against the Senators the next night. The shot totals were particularly heavy late in the game, so that's something to watch for in the third period today.
Everybody Is a Star
Pronger's done. Claude Giroux is trapped in indefinite like the two-dimensional prism in Superman II. That means other guys need to continue to step up at both ends of the ice. Matt Carle is logging bigger minutes and has been on the scoresheet in four straight games, including a three-assist night in Montreal. Kimmo Timonen is playing some inspired hockey, Andrej Meszaros is fresh off pounding a point shot home, something the Flyers will need more of down the stretch with no Prongs. Coburn is his usually steady presence, and the kids are alright in Kevin Marshall and particularly Marc-Andre Bourdon.
The attack hasn't been slowed either, buoyed by young talent up and down the lines as well as steady gamesmanship from guys like Max Talbot. Just as the shipping off of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter opened a huge channel for Giroux to shine, G's own absence forces other guys to step up. Sean Couturier has been the guy positionally given that task, centering G's usual linemates. We didn't get to see much of that against the Habs though, as three minors to #14 kept him off his regular shifts throughout much of the game. If he gets another shot today, we'll be looking forward to seeing what he can do between 19 and 68.
Danny Briere is quietly having a solid season, but could be in line for another big game this week. It might not come against the Bruins, but it'll come. He's been consistently putting up points, and he'll be relied on even more now. Jake Voracek has had some great pace on the ice, another guy who might start a run soon, like fellow newcomer Wayne Simmonds has done lately.
The guy we'd most like to see step up and get dominant? James van Riemsdyk. Like Briere, he's had a quietly successful season, but he's been more quiet than successful lately with only two assists to show for his past six games. Here's hoping a matchup with the Bruins sparks him. JVR was one of the few Flyers to show up at all in the four-game sweep by Boston last spring, scoring three goals over the first two games. We haven't quite seen that JVR this season so far. Even when he was hovering around a point-per-game average, he wasn't skating with the ownership we saw in April's Buffalo series.
Flyers fans and media have spent a lot of time wondering about the reasons Paul Holmgren blew most of the team up this past offseason. Some of it probably had to do with chemistry, a need for change within the locker room, although who knows what role that played. One of the biggest reasons Homer likely hit that reset button has nothing to do with the team in the home locker room today, and much more to do with the one getting dressed in visitors' whites. The Bruins are the NHL's benchmark, and Mr. Snider wanted a team more like theirs (he likely wasn't the only owner with that sentiment). Homer went out and got a #1 goalie, sacrificing pieces that needed to go for the cap space, among other reasons. In so doing, he netted quite a few very talented hockey players, Bryzgalov among them. While he's not quite at Thomas' level, it's time for him to show he too can dominate. What better stage for that to play out than a visit from the Bruins?
The Flyers have kept pace with the team they were rebuilt to compete with at a better level than the shitshow we saw last spring. Are they good enough to do it without their two best players?
It won't be easy, but it should be entertaining. These two teams aren't fans of each other, and both sides want to be the top dogs, even in December, and they'll need to win today to do it.
Photo: Mark L. Baer-US Presswire