Recap: Ho-Hum... Game 1.

Recap: Ho-Hum... Game 1.

A lot of you were prepared for this.  I read it in the comments here and on other hockey forums.  You kept telling yourself “After ten minutes, I’ll know which team shows up for this game.”  You were referring to the Jekyl and Hyde that is the Philadelphia Flyers.  Would the team that backed into the playoffs while losing home ice and seeming disinterested face the Penguins in Game 1 of Round 1, or would the tenacious team with 6 twenty plus goal scorers that beat the Penguins and Devils a few weeks back show up?  That answer can be derived from the 4-1 final score in favor of the Penguins.  But along with that sobering bit of bad news, there’s always a silver lining.

Truth be told, you didn’t have to wait 10 minutes to know which Flyers team was set to face the Penguins.  At 4:41 of the first period, the most hated of all Flyers killers, Sid the Kid, notched a power play goal that will be scrutinized for quite some time.  It all began with Malkin dishing a pass out front to a cutting Crosby.  Sid kicked the puck from his skate to his stick, past Biron, off the post… back off Biron and into the net. 

“Upon further review, the puck was not kicked in with a distinct kicking motion.”  This was Van-whosit-whatsits’s call that gave the Pens the early lead.  First of all, if there was no distinct kicking motion, you’re fooling yourself.  I’ve read quite a few post-game comments from Pittsburgh fans saying it was a hockey stop or it was directing, not kicking.  Crosby was KICKING the puck to his stick with the intentions of shooting the puck in.  Now, as a Flyers fan who thinks the goal wasn’t good… you’re also delusional.  While Donnie Van-Mass might have given an invalid or incorrect reason for the goal standing, word from the War-Room and further inspection gave alternative reasons for the 1-0 lead.  Some say it hit his stick “ever so gently.”  The rest of you will take notice of the puck hitting the post and then nicking off of Biron’s pad and going in.

What may have been more controversial was the call that gave the Penguins the power play to begin with.  Aaron Asham, at the end of his shift tapped the arm of a passing Penguin and was called for hooking.  When Billy Clement says its weak, you know its weak.  But regardless, when you’re the most penalized team in the league, you gain a reputation, and all those seeds the Flyers planted during the regular season are appearing to bloom.  Despite the fact they didn’t show up till late in the first period and despite the fact they took three minor penalties, the Flyers left the 1st down by one goal.

I have to say that I was more impressed with the Penguins’ third line than the ones that were centered by the league’s top two points getters.  Staal in particular gave the Flyers fits throughout the game and skilled pest Tyler Kennedy scored on a 3 on 1 to make the score 2-0.  The second period was actually a good one for the Flyers and as it progressed it seemed the ice was slowly but surely tipping in their favor.  But a common theme of the Flyers’ season returned in the form of bad bounces and bad penalties.  Any time the team gained momentum, something would happen to force them back on their heels.  One instance in particular, a goalie interference penalty on Scott Hartnell comes to mind.  To be completely honest… I thought this one was also weak.  Hartnell crashed the net and got a decent shot off, and was shouldered into “MAF” by Kris Letang.  In retrospect, I wish Hartsy had gotten a little more bang for his buck, knowing that his team would eventually lose the game.
Mike Knuble’s attempted wrap around the boards paved the way for Pittsburgh’s third goal, basically ending the game.  The puck took a funny bounce right out in front of a bewildered Biron.  The league’s top scorer and potential MVP was there to collect it, delay, and slip a backhander into the yawning net.  This came just after the announcers had mentioned that they HADN’T mentioned Malkin’s name in forever, which further solidifies the point that both Crosby and Malkin, each with an goal and assist, didn’t have their best games.  And they didn’t need to.  Add former Flyer/current Penguin Mark Eaton’s goal for good measure, and you have a 4-0 game.

Mike Richards provided the only real Flyers offensive threat in this game, which kinda reminds you of the way last year’s eastern conference final ended up.  All told, he hit three posts, with the last one leading to a power play rebound shot and score by Simon Gagne.  Yay… no shutout for the Pens fans to boast over.  Throw in a smidge of final minute tomfoolery and penalties and that was pretty much the game.

Bad News
Kimmo Timonen looked gimpy, courtesy of a Charlie horse from early in the game.  You have to know he’s a target of the Pens forecheckers, just like Gonchar will be for ours.  To see him limping around EARLY in the first period was not a good sign.  Another concern for the Flyers has to be that both Crosby and Malkin had okay games, but are both capable of much more damage.  That being said, Philadelphia STILL lost the game 4-1.  Not a good sign.  The biggest bit of bad news I received was when I watched Game 2 of the Vs double header, Vancouver/St. Louis.  If you wanted to see what playoff intensity means, watch that game.  It was physical, fast, and exciting.  I realize the score was not in our favor last night, but even more than that, the game wasn’t all that interesting.  This malaise that the Flyers have suffered from during their most inconsistent stretches in the regular season was present in Game 1.

Good News
The Flyers lost game one in all three series last year.  Two of them they went on to win.  Also, there is room for improvement.  It isn’t like the Flyers played their best game and still couldn’t beat the Penguins.  They played a so-so game and for the most part were losing by 2 goals.  I also thought the play of Biron was somewhat encouraging.  Three of the four goals he has absolutely no chance, with the second goal trickling through his five hole.  Replays show the puck deflected off Matt Carle, but you’d still like to see Marty keep it 1-0 at that point.  Biron faced a lot of shots from the Pens in the slot and was up to the task.  It must be encouraging to say “Biron didn’t lose us game 1…”  right?  

Playing with 'swagger,' Gostisbehere flashes glimpse of rookie self vs. Canucks

Playing with 'swagger,' Gostisbehere flashes glimpse of rookie self vs. Canucks

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The Flyers’ “Ghost” headed home Monday on a high note — for a change.

Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere recorded three assists for the first three-point night of his NHL career Sunday as the Flyers edged the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in the final game of a three-game Western Canada road trip (see story). In one night, he matched his offensive output of his previous 10 games played. 

He was a healthy scratch for three games in the meantime. On many other occasions, he has struggled while dealing with the NHL’s proverbial sophomore jinx following a standout rookie season. 

“It’s been a while coming,” Gostisbehere said. “It’s good to get some points, but I thought it was more important to get two points for our team.”

The win moved the Flyers (28-24-7) within a point of the eighth and final playoff spot, currently held by Toronto, in the Eastern Conference. With considerable thanks to Gostisbehere, the club’s much maligned power play scored on two of three man-advantage opportunities. 

“He played great,” Wayne Simmonds said of Gostisbehere. “He had his confidence and a little bit of swagger.”

Gostisbehere’s first assist enabled the Flyers to get off to a quick start offensively as Simmonds deflected in his point shot only 1:11 into the game. On the Flyers’ second goal, Gostisbehere head-manned the puck to Sean Couturier on a rush. Jakub Voracek easily put Couturier’s big rebound into a gaping net with Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller caught out of position.

One minute and 27 seconds later, Brayden Schenn took Gostisbehere’s pass and put in a shot from the slot. Altogether, Gostisbehere’s assists enabled the Flyers to build an insurmountable 3-0 lead in the game’s first 23 minutes.

“Ghost has had his ups and downs this year, but he's a heck of a player and has unbeliveable skill,” Simmonds said. “He can be a catalyst offensively for us, that’s for sure.”

Gostisbehere now has four goals and 18 assists on the season. Until Sunday, the 23-year-old had seemed like an apparition of his former self. 

He had a less-than-ideal recovery period from offseason hip (labrum) and abdominal surgeries, due to his participation with Team North America in the World Cup. Then he suffered a facial cut in the Flyers’ season opener and took a bruise on his right hand in December.

He also struggled defensively to the point where he was scratched — for the first time in his NHL career — in November and was later benched and pulled out of the lineup again. Heading into Sunday’s game, he had a woeful minus-22 mark, but he was only on the ice for one Canucks' goal.

He helped the Flyers shut out the Canucks in the first and third periods. 

“We don’t like how they came back, but we held the lead and, like I said, we got the two points,” Gostisbehere said.

Ghost’s offensive showing evoked memories of his seemingly other-worldly 2015-16 season. In 64 games last season, he notched 17 goals, the most by an NHL rookie defenseman since Dion Phaneuf, then with Calgary, who scored 20 over a full 82-game schedule in 2005-06. Gostisbehere also enjoyed a historic 15-game point streak in 2015-16, the longest ever for a first-year rearguard, and he was a runnerup for the league’s Rookie of the Year award.

His return to form Sunday bodes well as the Flyers face two Metropolitan Division rivals this week, first Washington at home on Wednesday and then the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Saturday in an outdoor game that will pack plenty of hype and pressure. 

After those games, the Flyers face a more compressed schedule than they have lately. The Feb.12-27 portion of their calendar contains only five games. But starting Feb. 28, they will play their final 21 games of the regular season over 41 days as they push to make the playoffs.

“We definitely know we’re a playoff team, for sure,” Gostisbehere said. “It shows. It’s a big test for us (this) week, playing these really good teams.”

Flyers, at this point, should sell a few valuable veterans ahead of deadline

Flyers, at this point, should sell a few valuable veterans ahead of deadline

Dave Hakstol’s Flyers returned home from Vancouver on Monday not quite resembling conquering heroes.

Sure, they salvaged two points from their three-game trek to Western Canada, but for a team that supposedly sees itself as a wild card, that just ain’t gonna get it done.

The Flyers required at least four points — ideally, five — from the trip to give us some proof they’re a legit contender for the wild card.

Right now, their wild-card hopes remain on life support.

Yes, they’re only two points behind Toronto. Thing is, the field of wild-card contenders have officially caught up and even passed them.

When the Flyers left for the trip, they were even in points with the Maple Leafs while holding down the 9-seed in the Eastern Conference. Toronto had the second wild card.

Hakstol's team is the 11-seed now. Toronto, Florida and the New York Islanders are ahead of them with games in hand.

This trip should offer enough evidence to general manager Ron Hextall that his team is still floundering.

There are no moves Hextall can initiate at the trade deadline that will guarantee a playoff spot without mortgaging the future.

Since their return from the All-Star break, the Flyers are 3-5-1. Those numbers don’t suggest they’re headed to the playoffs.

And even if the Flyers were to qualify as the second wild card, they would face a very early exit against the Washington Capitals.

Again.

At this point, with the March 1 NHL trade deadline staring Hextall in the face, he has to be a seller at the deadline.

If you trust Hextall’s long-term plan of patience, you understand that what this is about is preserving assets and preparing young players to be integrated into the system next year and the year after, and the year after that.

Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto are two unrestricted free agents who could help someone else right now.

Streit has been strong this season on the power play, which is his forte. He’s the perfect deadline rental.

Even if Hextall would like to have Streit’s veteran leadership on the blue line next season on a one-year, low salary to “tutor” Robert Hagg or Sam Morin or Travis Sanheim, he could still move Streit now and re-sign him later this summer.

Del Zotto, at 26, will get a nice return in draft picks or a prospect. Del Zotto is going to want a big contract this summer (he’s making $3.87 million now).

There’s no incentive for Hextall to go that direction given the sheer number of young, outstanding defensive prospects in the system that will be arriving shortly, all of whom come with very low salary cap hits.

Don’t blame Hextall for not getting involved in the Matt Duchene/Gabriel Landeskog saga that is going on in Colorado. GM Joe Sakic is asking a lot.

Hextall seems reluctant to part with any future prospects or young players just to get the same in return.

Much of the fan base has been saying for a while now it’s time to move team captain Claude Giroux. He's in the midst of his fourth consecutive season in which his numbers have declined, and in some respects, dramatically from his two best seasons — 2011-12 (93 points) and 2013-14 (86 points).

Yet there is no indication from Hextall or anyone in the Flyers' organization that such is even being contemplated.

Or that the organization feels Giroux’s leadership abilities have been assumed by Wayne Simmonds, who is arguably the most popular Flyer, two years running now.

Hextall still sees veterans such as Giroux, who is only 29, as a player who would help the transition of younger pups coming along — Travis Konecny, German Rubtsov, Nick Cousins, Jordan Weal, etc. — and he also believes Giroux can recapture his offense.

In short, Hextall is not going to tear his roster apart nor is he going to make a blockbuster trade next Wednesday. But he will likely try to sell veteran assets that make the team younger in some way.

Which is the correct thinking for the Flyers now and right into this summer, as well.