The Honeymoon Is Over, Union Have Problems

The Honeymoon Is Over, Union Have Problems

For the first two seasons of its existence the Union led a charmed life. Sure, there were natural growing pains the first season, but fans were simply grateful to have a club to support. Season two brought an unexpected playoff berth. Union supporters could point to the progress the team made as a harbinger of good times to come.

Everything was lining up beautifully for the franchise. They opened a soccer-specific stadium. Attendance, buoyed by the rabid support of the Sons of Ben, was robust. They seemingly announced a new corporate partner every week. They secured television and radio deals. Then came the coup de grace, the announcement that the Union would host the MLS All-Star Game.

There was nary a misstep along the way. Yes, Peter Nowak made the occasional odd choice of lineup or formation, but by and large the organization and fans were in lockstep. Then the Sebastien Le Toux trade happened. The fallout from the trade was bigger than just the reality that Le Toux would no longer be racing up and down the field in the familiar blue and gold #9 shirt.

Looking back, the Le Toux trade marked the moment when the honeymoon between club and fans ended. Le Toux’s post-trade comments to Chris Vito shook the foundation that had been built between the team and its fans. He accused the organization of being cheap and cash-strapped. The most cutting remark was when he said “I would be happy to just retire than play for Peter again”. Perhaps he was simply lashing out in anger at being traded, but when the most likeable player on your team lobs Molotov cocktails at the organization you cannot help but take notice.

Truth be told, the honeymoon period between the team and its fans was going to end at some point. It’s simply the nature of the business. Organizations make unpopular decisions. It happens. That it happened so spectacularly and so publicly was shocking. For the first time there was reason to question the decision-making of the team. On Sunday, the Danny Califf situation provided another opportunity to wonder what was going on.

Califf, the captain of team, did not start against Colorado. After the game Nowak revealed that he opted to sit Califf because he underwent an offseason procedure on his knee to remove meniscus and had a shot in the knee on March 5th (the shot was later revealed by Califf to be Synvisc, which apparently is a joint lubricant). Despite the offsesason procedure he was fit enough to play the full 90 minutes in the season opener against Portland the Monday before. In fact, prior to the home opener on Sunday he started all 62 games in which he appeared. He was apparently fit enough to be included in the gameday 18 against Colorado, but not fit enough to start.

Upon learning of Nowak’s rationale for omitting him from the starting XI Califf told Chris Vito “I guess I found out. Supposedly I have a knee injury.” Califf went on to say:

“I have no idea what’s going on in Peter’s head because he hasn’t said a word to me. To be honest, I don’t really have any idea. I would’ve thought that he at least would have a conversation with me. But he didn’t and maybe that’s his style and that’s the situation right now.”

Whatever Nowak’s motivation was for sitting Califf the reality is that, in light of the fallout from the Le Toux trade, fans are no longer willing to simply accept Nowak’s decisions (and by extension the organization) at face value. This isn’t to say there’s an adversarial relationship between fans and the club, but the blind faith from the first two seasons is a thing of the past.

I wouldn’t characterize this new reality as a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of things that makes following sports enjoyable. This tension provides talking points. Fans are able to debate the efficacy of front office decisions. We can question the tactics of the coach. It’s sports.

Califf doesn’t get the starting nod and his replacement, Chris Albright, is beaten for the game-winning goal. Starting right back Sheanon Williams was just called into the US U23 Olympic Qualifying camp. Who is going to step in and take his place? Did the Union leave themselves exposed and overburden Zac MacMath by not bringing in a veteran back-up?

The Eagles are cheap and disloyal. The Phillies and Flyers hide injuries. The Sixers started Jodie Meeks for the majority of the season. We deal with these issues year round. Now the Union gets to join the fun.

There’s a great old Chris Rock bit where he talks about why he likes Bill Clinton. He points to the fact that Clinton’s got real problems like running out of money, his wife being a pain in the ass, and how his friends are going to jail. These are real folks problems; not presidential problems.

Well, the Union now has real folks problems.

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers vs. Hurricanes
7 p.m. on CSN, Pregame Live at 6:30

Another season, another slow start for the Flyers.

After dropping their home opener Thursday, the Flyers (1-2-1) welcome the Hurricanes (1-1-2) to the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night looking to snap a three-game losing skid.

Here are five things to know for Game 5 of 82.

1. Slow starts
Through four games, there are a few areas behind the Flyers' lousy start.

The defense continuing to abandon the goaltending and the lackluster power play are near the top of the list, but look no further than the first period of games.

The Flyers have been outscored, 6-1, in first periods through four games. Only Tampa Bay and Vancouver have scored fewer first-period markers with zero. The six first-period goals allowed are tied for the second most in the NHL. Only Calgary has more with seven.

It was an issue last season as well. In 2015-16, the Flyers were outscored, 62-50, in first periods, and the 50 goals ranked in the bottom five of the league. We've talked about slow starts in terms of wins-losses, but this issue extends to first periods too.

While the Flyers have exerted far greater efforts in second periods — leading the league with eight second-period tallies — getting behind so early results in playing from behind, and while resiliency is a trait of winning teams, it's ultimately cost them thus far.

On Saturday night, it doesn't get any easier for the Flyers, either. Carolina is an improved club from last season, which it, too, struggled scoring in opening periods.

That hasn't been the case this season. The 'Canes have outscored opponents, 5-2, in first periods, so it'll be important for the Flyers to come out of the gate with more authority.

2. Read-emption Song
One of the highlights of the early season for the Flyers has been the play of Matt Read.

Read scored his team-leading fourth goal of the season during the Flyers' 3-2 loss to the Ducks on Thursday, dusting off a play that brought back memories of years past.

The 30-year-old got behind the Anaheim defense on the backhand, drove to the net and deposited the puck into the net past John Gibson for a go-ahead score. It was very much a play we saw Read make a few years ago, but has been missing the last two seasons. Read came into training camp early this season hungrier than the previous two seasons, and on Wednesday, general manager Ron Hextall said Read knew he had to get back to the brand of hockey he was playing in 2013-14.

After the game Thursday, Read said his self-evaluation this offseason resulted in him realizing he has to get into the greasy areas to score and avoid playing the outside.

"I think that's something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player," Read said Thursday. "It's easy to be a perimeter player if you're going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you've got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks."

3. Not so special
Special teams so often decide hockey games and it should factor into Saturday's game, too. Carolina comes into the game with a power play and penalty kill both in the top five.

The Hurricanes' man advantage has found twine five times in 16 chances, and their penalty kill has killed off 15 of 16 power plays against. On the other hand, the Flyers have had their struggles on special teams in the early going.

On Thursday night, the Flyers’ PP played a huge role in their loss. They finished 1 for 7 on the man advantage against Anaheim but were 1 for 5 in the second period alone. With Anaheim asking to be beaten, the Flyers couldn’t make the Ducks pay. 

“I thought we had pretty good power plays, our first power play,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I thought we had a good power play during the second, scored a good goal. Had opportunities to stretch to 3-1. It’s disappointing we couldn’t.

“We had one poor power play at the end of the first, where we weren’t able to get set up at all. Our power play was OK. The bigger thing for me is the goal we gave up a few seconds after the last power play in the second period. Those are the type of goals that as a team we can’t give up.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: It hasn't been the smoothest transition to the NHL for Ivan Provorov, one of two 19-year-olds on the roster. Provorov has shown glimpses, but there have been hiccups, as expected. He had a nightmare of a game in Chicago on Tuesday, and followed it up with a not-so-great effort against Anaheim. But we have to remember he's a teenage rookie. Patience is important. Still, the spotlight should remain on him Saturday. How does he respond after a pair of games in which he's made visible mistakes?

Hurricanes: Carolina has a few young players that are a joy to watch, but let’s highlight defenseman Justin Faulk, who quarterbacks the power play. The 24-year-old has a goal and three assists in four games, with two of the helpers coming on the man advantage. An extremely gifted blueliner, Faulk has scored 15 and 16 goals, respectively, the last two seasons, but that wasn’t enough to get him on Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey. We all know how that panned out.

5. This and that
• Read has 14 points in 20 career games against the Hurricanes.

• Dale Weise was suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Anaheim defenseman Korbinian Holzer. Roman Lyubimov will replace Weise in the lineup.

• Carolina has killed off its last 11 penalties and has scored at least one power-play goal in three of its four games and two power-play goals in two of its four games.

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

To Matt Read’s credit, his hockey education never stopped.

Through a second straight subpar season with a murky summer ahead, Read realized he had to change, even on the cusp of his 30th birthday.

It was in late April when the much-maligned winger met with head coach Dave Hakstol and turned in his homework, almost like a student-teacher conference to address troubled grades.

Read vowed he had learned.

Now, nearly six months later, he’s off to the best start of his six-year career.

“He has always been a hard-working guy,” Hakstol said Thursday. “He is a guy that is doing things with a lot of confidence. For me, it started with Reader back in late August. He was in here working early, getting ready, getting prepared and he has carried that through everything he has done so far this year.”

What he has done is rip off a team-high four goals in four games, attacking the net at will and with an undeniable bravado. Really, it’s a Matt Read we haven’t seen before. On Thursday night in the Flyers’ 3-2 home-opening loss, he took a bouncing puck at the blue line, careened toward the net on a sharp, decisive angle and buried his fourth goal with skilled stick work.

“For myself, I’m just trying to play with speed and get to the net,” he said. “I had all the speed and kind of beat the goalie to the back post.”

Last season, the bottom-six forward needed 26 games to score four goals. The year prior, it took 54 games.

So Read studied. What exactly did he grasp?

“Even my linemates, we talk about that if we’re in the offensive zone, we’ve got to get somebody in the blue paint there,” Read said Thursday. “I don’t know the stat, but I think it’s near 90 percent of all goals are within 10 feet of the net. So if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get in that area.”

This offseason, Read looked in the mirror and, with some self-evaluation, knew what had to be done.

“I think that’s something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player,” he said. “It’s easy to be a perimeter player if you’re going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks.”

A new outlook has brought renewed confidence. It’s fair to question whether over the last two seasons if Read ever makes the play he made Thursday. He also knows it’s early and more can be accomplished.

“I feel good out there right now,” Read said. “Hopefully I continue to have good health, keep working out and being strong on my feet. A lot of it has to do with confidence. If you’re shy or not having the confidence, you probably won’t go to that far post.

“I know for myself in the last two years, I know I’ve got to be better. Even going into last year, I knew I had to be better and I did as much I could in the offseason to have a good season and I guess it didn’t go my way, or over the course of the season, it took its toll.”

Read amassed 11 goals and 15 assists in 79 games. The 26 points were a personal low for a full season. Those figures didn’t sit well with Read and general manager Ron Hextall noticed.

“You know what, Reader came in early before camp, he's absolutely worked his tail off,” Hextall said Wednesday. “He understood that he hadn't been as good a player as he should have been last year. He understood it, he took it upon himself, put in a great summer, came in early, got himself in great shape, and he's a hungry hockey player right now and he's been back to where he was.”

When signed by the Flyers in 2011 out of Bemidji State University, it was uncertain where Read projected. Over the past two seasons, he’s fallen to a fourth-line role and was even healthy-scratched last season. More buzz surrounding his status within the organization heated up entering training camp as the Flyers made additions and Travis Konecny blossomed.

Thus far, however, Read has won himself a promotion to the third line because of his early success. He played only 16 power-play seconds Thursday, but if goals keep coming and the Flyers produce more 1-for-7 results on the man advantage, maybe Hakstol increases the 30-year-old’s minutes there, as well.

“When Matt Read is playing like he can play,” Hextall said, “he's a helluva player.”

Not a bad student, too.