The Philadelphia Flyers began their second half of the 2009-2010 season schedule tonight in South Philadelphia, playing host to a reeling Toronto Maple Leafs squad. Coincidentally, the Flyers began the second half of their season identically the same way they began the first half: by beating their opponent in resounding fashion. On October 2nd, the Ray Emery notched his first win in Orange and Black as the Flyers blanked the Carolina Hurricanes by a score of 2-0 the begin their season’s slate. Tonight, Danny Briere tallied his 500th NHL point in helping the Flyers thump the ‘Leafs 6-2. However, while the victories that followed that Hurricanes win early in the season (Devils, Caps) were nice confidence builders, a victory following tonight’s second half kick-off is of the utmost importance. With tonight’s win the Flyers find themselves as the 10th ranked team in the Eastern Conference, and the 5th place team in their native Atlantic Division. It’s safe to say neither of those rankings cut it in the minds of the Flyers’ brass, and it’s also safe to say the Flyers will own neither of those numbers next to their names when everything is said and done, but it’s up to the Flyers to make sure that truly is the case. A team can go on a hot streak in October and then hit the wall and render that earlier winning surge irrelevant. However, it’s the teams that make that surge worthwhile in the second half that tend to go places come playoff time.
I hate to use it as an example, but take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season, they were in nothing short of panic mode. They reacted appropriately: they fired their head coach (Michel Therrien) and replaced him with a guy who could relate more to the players (Dan Bylsma). They also got back a few key players from injury around the same time (Sergei Gonchar) that helped off-set the struggles and translate the coaching change into newfound success. Granted from top to bottom the argument can be made that the squad in Pittsburgh is somewhat more talented than that of the make-up of the Flyers’ dressing room, but it goes without saying that the Flyers’ situation this season is eerily similar to the one that existed in the Steel City yesteryear. Not coincidentally, it is those same Penguins that come calling for the Flyers on Thursday night. It’s a Penguins team that has struggled (losers of 5 of their last 6), but a team that will be raring to go as the two sides renew their rivalry.
Speaking of the rivalry, the color of gold seems to have worked better with black more so than that of orange in recent match-ups. The Flyers have been shown the playoff door by the Pittsburgh Penguins twice in as many years, with last season’s exit taking place on their home ice. This year, the Pens have beaten the Flyers every time they’ve matched up, taking two of the contests on the Wachovia Center ice. Tomorrow, when the Flyers play the second game of back-to-backs on their schedule for this week, fatigue will not be an excuse. Being out worked will not be an excuse. In fact, at this point, there are no excuses. Am I saying that the Flyers are a better team than Pittsburgh? At the current moment, perhaps. Overall, no chance. Could they be a better team come playoff time? That’s a question that will be answered over the course of the next few months. In those months, the Flyers need to completely grasp the run ‘n gun system of head coach Peter Laviolette. In those months, the Flyers will need to continue to maintain a persistent forecheck, that forces opponents to turn the puck over in the defensive end, thereby creating offensive opportunities for Philadelphia. In those months, the Flyers need to find out if Michael Leighton is a goalie they can trust for the long term, or better yet: if a healthy Ray Emery is the answer between the pipes.
The Flyers have a lot to learn, but if tonight’s performance is any indication, they are certainly on their way. They dominated Toronto throughout the game, controlling the play and often making the ice look slanted at times. Their newfound discipline was clearly evident as it was the Maple Leafs, and not the usual suspects of the Flyers, taking the “stupid” penalties on Wednesday night. Discipline is a habit that would behoove the Flyers come playoff time. Their Penalty Kill is currently awful, sitting at about 78%, which is good for 24th in the league. For those math wizards out there, the top 16 teams in the NHL (8 in the East and West) are your playoff teams at season’s end. 24 is not even close to 16, and ideally the Flyers want to get that down to top 10 in the league. A successful team is great on both the power play and penalty kill. Now while the Flyers do rank in the top 10 in Power Play efficiency, their penalty kill needs work. Staying out of the box would certainly be good start. The Flyers continuously give their opponents multiple power plays in a game, consistently shooting themselves in the foot, and lowering their rate of killing power plays as a result. Improved special teams is key to the Flyers being successful in the NHL’s second half. Starting off 3 for 6 tonight was a great beginning.
As the players emphasized in post-game press conferences, the Flyers are looking at the season’s final 41 games (now 40) as a new season. The team is focused, gelling, and feeling that they are grasping Coach Laviolette’s system. However, the final 40 games will provide a grueling test for this Flyers club, as they are currently on the outside looking in on the playoff picture. Teams are battling for postseason play and want April-into-May hockey just as much as the Flyers do. Because of that, their will be tested. Their resolve will be tested. Most of all, however, this team’s character will be tested; a character that has looked nothing short of shaky at many points of this season. The Flyers are convinced they’ve righted the ship, and they started off with a bang by destroying Toronto Wednesday evening at the Wachovia Center. However, Toronto is the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference, and one of the worst in the NHL. I’m looking for something more. I’m looking for a better judgement point. Come to think of it, there’s one way the Flyers can get my confidence level to sky-rocket: knock the Champs off their high-horse tomorrow night in the Steel City.
But as Flyers fans have come to learn harshly this season, the feat is much easier said, than done.