by Jason Myrtetus
For those who love a good Roller Coaster full of breathtaking drops, incredible speed, twists and turns and most importantly EXCITEMENT!!! Now is the sports equivalent. It is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In a normal NHL postseason any team in the field of 16 can go on a run. Even 8 seeds have gone on to not only reach the Cup Final, but win it. In 2012 the Los Angeles Kings did exactly that. Last year the Columbus Blue jackets were an 8 seed and swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round when the Lightning were the best regular season team by leaps and bounds. The Flyers in 2010 were a 7 seed and had the home ice advantage in the Eastern Conference Final against the Canadians, who were an 8 seed. That is the unpredictability of the NHL playoffs. Regular season success gets you to the dance, but it doesn’t mean a playoff run will happen for any team. The Flyers enter this unique playoff with their game in fine form. They swept their way through the Round Robin games against 3 of the 5 top regular season teams in the NHL. They outscored the Bruins, Capitals and Lightning 11-3. They only allowed 3 total goals against the #1 (Lightning), #4 (Caps) and #8 (Bruins) scoring teams from this NHL season. Yeah, those were not your typical playoff games and the teams were not playing for their playoff lives. But they were playing for seeding and that does matter. In theory, with the NHL reseeding after each round, the higher seeded team will get a more inferior opponent based on this past season. With no “Home Ice” advantage per se, the tactical advantage is nuanced yet very important. The Home team gets the last change and a savvy Coaching Staff with tremendous feel for his own team and the matchups against the opposition can drastically benefit. That is where Alain Vigneault excels. In talking to many players through the season, during the pause and now that they are back, when I ask what their experience has been like playing under AV. They all cite his communication and how he runs a bench. How he puts them in an advantageous position. Vigneaults resume speaks for itself. He is one the winningest coaches in the history of the game. He has taken 2 teams to the Stanley Cup Final. His level of preparedness and expectations on players accountability are his hallmarks to success.
While Alain Vigenault has been a huge element to the Flyers resurgence as a top NHL team, his players are the ones that ultimately determine success or failure. When you consider the roster construction of youth and veteran players, depth at all positions and the level of “Buy In”, the Flyers are a team well positioned to do some damage. So what are the keys to beating the Canadiens in round one? First and foremost it will be to match the urgency and intensity we saw the Habs play with in their upset of the Penguins in the best of 5 play in series. The Canadiens out skated and displayed a much higher level of compete. With some good young players in Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Phillip Danault coupled with veterans Shea Webber, Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron the Habs look like a different team than the one that finished the NHL regular season 31-31-9. Carey Price is obviously the Canadiens X-Factor. Price stole game 1 against the Penguins. He had 126 saves on 133 shots, a GAA of 1.67 and .947 save % with a shutout in game 4 making just 22 saves. Carey Price may not be the goalie he was in his prime when he was a Hart Trophy winner and Vezina winner, but he can get into the oppositions head more than any goalie on the planet. His reputation is well earned and players facing feel like they need to be perfect to beat him. Sometimes that makes the player try that extra pass when they should shoot or miss the net when they shoot trying be so accurate in order to get one by him. Every goalie including Price hates is traffic around the net and players disrupting his ability to read the play and track the puck. That is the strategy the Flyers need to employ. Not every shot in hockey is created equal. A goalie of prices caliber welcomes a clear sighted shot from the point. That is like playing pitch and catch in the back yard. If the Flyers can match the intensity and disrupt Price that will go a long way to advancing.
The Flyers also need to get consistent offense from their top line of Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek. None of the top line players scored in the Round Robin and the Flyers still won all 3 games. Make no mistake though, the top line needs to be a factor on a nightly basis. Perhaps veteran players didn’t play with the same urgency in a round robin game as some of the younger players. Perhaps it takes a little longer for veteran players to get their game where it needs to be. Now with the actual playoffs beginning, they must perform and execute. Also the Flyers Power Play has to find its rhythm. While the PP had some decent looks, it did not result in goals. That could be a potential door opening for Shayne Gostisbehere to be in the lineup come Wednesday. Gostisbehere played in only one game of the Round Robin, but looked like the Ghost of years past. He said he feels healthier now than any time in the last 2 years. He had 2 assists in the game vs the Lightning and was shifty on his skates and solid defensively. Also with Michael Raffl “unfit to play” from an injury vs the Bruins, that opens the door for Rookie Joel Farabee. Farabee scored a beautiful goal vs the Lightning and is a skilled player. He is a player that needs to play with other skilled players and not as a checking forward. How Alain Vigenault decides who is in and who is out will be fascinating.
At the end of the day the Flyers have returned from the “Pause” looking every bit of the team that won 9 of its last 10 games. The one that had not lost back to back games since January 4th and 8th. And perhaps most importantly one that has the goaltending required to be a very successful playoff team. Carter Hart didn’t just look solid in his 2 performances, he looked GREAT!!! It wasn’t that he made 34 saves on 35 shots against the Bruins and 23 saves on 24 shots vs the Lightning. it was the manner in which he did it. He looked incredibly calm and relaxed. His heart rate never looked like it exceeded 70 BPM. He was always under control, efficient in his movements, tracking pucks well and never overwhelmed. Of all the things to take away from the Flyers Round Robin, that is my biggest takeaway.
It is time to strap in as we go up that first hill of the roller coaster and prepare for what we all hope is a long and wild ride that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
by Jason Myrtetus