Are Flyers falling back into old tendencies?
Craig Berube's Flyers have lost three straight are struggling to break out of their own zone. (USA Today Images)
Flyers coach Craig Berube has said it many times before.
You don’t always have to be the faster team to get pucks up the ice. You have to make good passes and correct decisions.
Among the common threads during the Flyers' three straight losses has been their sloppy breakouts.
Granted, the Flyers' defensemen are slow, but their reaction times can be better to start the breakout. That can offset some of the speed issues.
From the attempted puck exchange to the breakout itself, the Flyers are getting trapped in their own end, making blind plays under pressure and not supporting each other.
“You can’t just say it’s the forwards," defenseman Nick Grossman said, "because we have to go back quicker, talk to the goalies, make a quick play. ... You can’t just pass the puck and say, ‘Well, my job is done.’
“[We've] got to support each other all over the ice, do it together. We’re a little spread out right now. Just executing the plays in our defensive zone is the key. That’s going to happen when teams pressure hard and forecheck.
"You gotta chip it out once in awhile, but when you do it all the time, it’s tough to sustain [offensive] pressure. It’s something that is creeping into our game, and we need to clean it up. It’s everyone -- five guys need to do it together to make it work.”
On Saturday, the Flyers host the Boston Bruins in what begins a very difficult stretch of eight games against some of the best clubs in the NHL (see story) leading into the Olympics, when the league shuts down for two weeks.
The stretch could make or break the Flyers in the Metropolitan Division standings. The Flyers' games have been choppy, and their ability management of the puck in both zones has been careless.
Braydon Coburn says puck management is the difference between how the Flyers are playing now and how they were playing five weeks ago, when they went 9-2-0 against some tough competition.
“We were managing the puck a lot better [then],” Coburn said. “When you manage the puck, you control what you do with the puck instead of going with ‘hope’ plays or trying to chip it out and stuff. There’s a big difference in the quality of your breakouts and how you’re going to start your forecheck.
“We just have to manage the puck, [and] make better decisions when we have the puck. Maybe setting up a battle when there is not a play to be made instead of forcing a play, maybe using reverses more or closer support, things like that. It depends on the forecheck. You want to control the puck through the forecheck and move it out of your zone into the neutral zone.”
Berube says the same things but also adds that the communication between the five skaters and the goalie has to be better.
Ray Emery relies more on his defense to start breakouts while Steve Mason tries to jump-start them whenever possible by handling the puck himself. Lately, however, Mason hasn’t been sharp with the puck, either.
“We were doing a better job at that earlier in the season and our trend right now and play in our own zone is not very good right now,” Mason said.
“When you are not breaking out of your zone cleanly and having trouble like we are, you spend more time in your zone. When that happens, it tires out everybody quicker. Guys start running around and they are out of position. The opposition creates chances and you’re behind the 8-ball even more.”
Mason says he is constantly talking to the defense, letting them know how much time they have to retrieve pucks, or how many forecheckers are coming, or asking them whether he should play it.
“It’s easy to do those in practice when there is no crowd noise drowning it out,” he said, referring to exchanges. “We have to shore it up when I go out and play it and make it cleaner.”
A common buzzphrase at Friday’s “optional” practice, in which most of the team skated, was “move faster.” That is: Get back to retrieve pucks with a sense of urgency to leave the zone.
“If they dump the puck, and they are coming hard with three guys like [Columbus], it’s tough and you need to get back quick and support each other,” Mark Streit said.
“We didn’t do a good job lately in support and getting back. Sometimes we wait instead of just skating. If we glide, it doesn’t work on the breakouts.”
The Bruins come hard on the forecheck. If the Flyers glide back there for pucks, as Streit says, it could be a long afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday.