Positive Takeaways from a Lost Flyers Season

Positive Takeaways from a Lost Flyers Season

The Flyers have officially missed the playoffs for just the
second time in 18 years, which despite being a run that has likely left us a bit spoiled, it only adds to the disappointment when expectations are high to begin
with. Cheer up though, because it wasn’t all bad. There were several
developments as the season marched along that bode well for the future, so
before we jump into an offseason of finger pointing and blame games next week, let’s take
a look at those.

The Claude Giroux/Jakub
Voracek connection

It took Peter Laviolette 16 games to put Jake Voracek on the
top line with Claude Giroux, but the combination was worth the wait. Both
players got off to slow starts – Giroux with one goal and three assists,
Voracek one tally and seven helpers at even-strength. In the 29 games since
they’ve been paired together, G has gone for 5 and 13, while Jake has benefited
the most with 11 and 8.

With his All-Star linemate, Jake even managed to a set career high for goals with 20. Not too shabby in a shortened season.

And that’s with a revolving door at left wing. They've already tried Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Tye McGinn, Matt Read, and Simon Gagne. Imagine how
potent the line could be as a whole with a little consistency from a third party.

Obviously the captain isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and
Voracek signed a four-year extension last summer that keeps him in
Philly until 2016, so Flyers fans should be enjoying this paring for seasons to
come. It doesn’t get a lot more positive than that.

Special teams are
special

Philadelphia has the third-best power play in the NHL in
2013, with practically all of the key components expected to return. They also
feature the league’s sixth-ranked penalty kill, and although Ruslan Fedotenko
(free agent) and Max Talbot (broken leg) may not be available in the future,
the unit continues to get the job done so far.

Clubs with quality special teams at both ends generally find
themselves in the playoffs. As long as these numbers hover around where they
are at now, you have to like the Flyers’ chances to get right next season.

At least there’s
another option in goal

How do we know heading into this season with only Michael
Leighton and Brian Boucher behind Ilya Bryzgalov was a mistake? Both guys were
so bad, Lavvy was afraid to put either one of them on the ice. In fact, it only
took a combined five appearances to reach that conclusion about the backup
netminders.

That didn’t do Bryz any favors, who at one point started
22 games in a row. For the season he’s posted an 18-17-3 record with an
unflattering.898 save percentage and 2.84 goals against average.

Enter Steve Mason, a 24-year-old trade deadline addition.
After just five games himself, it’s much too early to tell whether he’ll ever regain
the form that led to his winning the NHL’s award for rookie of the year in
2009, but at least it’s another warm body to throw out there. So far Mason is
2-2 with a .931 SV% and 2.09 GAA, and his mere presence alone is giving
Bryzgalov detractors a little hope that amnesty is on the way.

A compliance buyout for Bryzgalov is far from assured at this
point, but like we said: at least they finally have another realistic option.

Simon Gagne still has
“it”

Once we got over the initial excitement for a true fan
favorite’s homecoming, we had to wonder what Simon Gagne would bring to the
table. The truth is at 33 Gagne is not the same player who posted 74 points
while wearing Orange & Black as recently as 08-09 – nor does he look as out
of place as he did with the Los Angeles Kings either.

Gagne’s numbers (four goals, five assists, -3 in 24 games)
aren’t going to light the world on fire, but he hasn’t exactly been useless since
rejoining the organization in a mid-season trade, either. He helps out on
special teams, and has further proved his versatility most recently by skating
on the Giroux line. As long as the impending free agent is willing to take a hometown discount, Gagne could potentially be a flexible, low-cost solution for a
franchise that is sure to be up against the salary cap once again.

Young defensemen are
stepping up

It’s kind of amazing to think amid the absences of Braydon
Coburn, Nicklas Grossmann, Andrej Meszaros, Kent Huskins, and Bruno Gervais due
to injuries, the defensive unit has actually seemed to stabilize somewhat in
recent weeks. It’s especially surprising given how chaotic they looked at times
when all those guys were healthy.

Luke Schenn deserves a ton of credit for that, as he’s
become an absolute workhorse since the blue line depth has taken these hits. He’s
regularly been skating for 25-plus minutes most nights, including almost 33
against Montreal last week, and the all-around performance is solid as well. The
fifth-overall pick of the ’08 draft leads all NHL players in the combined
category of hits and blocked shots with 260.

But it hasn’t just been Schenner of late. Call-ups from
Adirondack are looking competent as well. Oliver Lauridsen has no lack of confidence
and a bit of a nasty streak at that. Erik Gustafsson seems far more comfortable
in his latest stint with the big club. And while it’s only been three games,
Brandon Manning has shown some jump in his step already.

The sample size isn’t large enough for the Flyers’ young
D-men to call it a problem solved and move on. However, these kids – all 24 or younger – are giving observers
hope that some of the answers to the problems on the back end are already here,
and that this is not the complete disaster it appeared to be at the beginning of the
season.

Sean Couturier is
still here

One of the most popular refrains leading up to the trade
deadline was, “The Flyers better not trade Couturier!” The concern was the
20-year-old forward would be shipped off in a panic move for some rental
or middle-of-the-road player.

That Cooter is still here is a small victory of its own.
Reports had several teams asking for the eighth overall pick from the 2011
draft, but Paul Holmgren refused to release his death grip on this particular budding
superstar, even despite a horrific sophomore slump.

What’s more, Couturier has rewarded the organization’s faith recently
by turning his season around. Since March 30 – just prior to the deadline – his offensive
output has increased with eight points in 12 games, and he’s a +2 over that
span despite being a -10 for the year.

If nothing else this season, we should all be
grateful Couturier made it through the year and will remain in Orange & Black.

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Best of NBA: Rockets overcome Westbrook's 7th straight triple-double

Best of NBA: Rockets overcome Westbrook's 7th straight triple-double

OKLAHOMA CITY -- James Harden scored 21 points, and the Houston Rockets overcame Russell Westbrook's seventh consecutive triple-double to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 102-99 on Friday night.

Harden also had 12 assists and nine rebounds to help the Rockets win their fifth straight. Houston withstood Harden's 6-for-23 shooting effort.

Westbrook finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He has the longest triple-double streak since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989. The most in a row is nine by Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain in March 1968.

It was Westbrook's 12th triple-double this season and the 49th of his career. He is the NBA's active leader in the category and ranks sixth all-time.

The Thunder had won the previous six games during Westbrook's triple-double binge (see full story).

James moves into 9th on scoring list as Cavs top Heat 114-84
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James scored 27 points to move into ninth place on the NBA scoring list, and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Miami Heat 114-84 on Friday night.

James passed Elvin Hayes on a driving layup with 6:58 remaining and has 27,315 career points. The four-time MVP was removed about a minute later and received a loud ovation from the Cleveland crowd.

Kevin Love, a game-time decision because of back spasms, scored a team-high 28 points and had 15 rebounds for the Cavaliers. He missed the morning shootaround but was in the lineup after warming up on the court about an hour before tip-off.

Kyrie Irving added 23 points for the Cavs, who have won three straight after losing three in a row.

Derrick Williams scored 17 points to lead the short-handed Heat, who have lost four straight (see full story). 

Schroder has career-high 33, Hawks rally past Bucks 114-110
MILWAUKEE -- Dennis Schroder scored a career-high 33 points and the Atlanta Hawks rallied from 20 down in the second half to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 114-110 on Friday night.

Paul Millsap had 23 points and 14 rebounds for Atlanta. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 18.

The Hawks, who ended a seven-game losing streak Wednesday with a win over Miami, trailed by 20 at halftime. A 40-point third quarter put them back in the game.

Jabari Parker scored 27 for Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo, in foul trouble throughout the game, had 14.

Atlanta pulled ahead 105-103 on Kyle Korver's jumper with 3:15 remaining, giving the Hawks their first lead since early in the game (see full story). 

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets top Red Wings to notch 5th straight win

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets top Red Wings to notch 5th straight win

DETROIT -- Brandon Dubinsky scored a tiebreaking goal in the second period and the surging Columbus Blue Jackets won their fifth straight game, 4-1 over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night.

Lukas Sedlak got his first NHL goal for the Blue Jackets, who have earned at least a point in 12 of their last 13 games. Cam Atkinson contributed a short-handed goal in the first period for Columbus.

Dylan Larkin's power-play goal in the second was the only scoring of the night for the Red Wings. Sergei Bobrovsky had 32 saves for the Blue Jackets.

Sam Gagner scored into an empty net with 13.9 seconds remaining (see full story). 

Staal scores in 6th round of SO to lift Wild over Oilers
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Eric Staal scored in the sixth round of a shootout and the Minnesota Wild beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 on Friday night.

Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker scored in regulation for Minnesota, which has won three straight.

Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk made 25 saves. He entered with a league-best .946 save percentage and 1.65 goals-against average.

Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had goals for the Oilers, whose four-game losing streak began with a 2-1 home overtime loss to the Wild last Sunday.

Staal scored on a backhand deke before Nugent-Hopkins fired wide in the sixth round (see full story). 

Raanta, Rangers beat Blackhawks 1-0 in overtime
CHICAGO -- Nick Holden scored 55 seconds into overtime, Antti Raanta made 26 saves against his former team and the New York Rangers beat the Chicago Blackhawks 1-0 on Friday night.

Derek Stepan passed from the boards to a streaking Holden in the middle of the ice, and he beat Scott Darling on the stick side for his fourth goal of the season.

Darling was going for his second straight shutout while subbing for injured starter Corey Crawford but had to settle for another solid performance.

Raanta, who made his NHL debut with Chicago in 2013 and played for the Blackhawks for two seasons before he was traded to New York, improved to 15-0-3 in 20 career appearances at the United Center.

The 27-year-old Raanta had 17 saves in Thursday's 2-1 victory at Winnipeg, and coach Alain Vigneault opted to give him a second straight start over Henrik Lundqvist because of his recent play and his success in Chicago (see full story).

Oshie, Johansson, Grubauer lift Caps over Sabres 4-1
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- T.J. Oshie and Marcus Johansson each scored a goal, Philipp Grubauer made 27 saves and the Washington Capitals beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-1 on Friday night for their third straight win.

Jakub Vrana and John Carlson also scored, helping Washington beat Buffalo for the third time in 15 days.

Kyle Okposo scored and Robin Lehner made 25 saves for Buffalo. The Sabres have lost three of their last four.

Oshie gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead 6:43 into the second period when he lifted a shot from the right edge of the crease past Lehner. Jay Beagle drew two defenders into the corner and sent the puck back to a wide open Oshie for his ninth goal of the season (see full story).