With Berth on the Line Tonight, Flyers’ Ceiling Still a Mystery

Posted: April 8, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

070413_girouxFor a team that began the season 1-7, the Philadelphia Flyers have done pretty well for themselves. With a victory against the lowly Florida Panthers on Wednesday night, they will officially clinch a playoff berth for the 16th time in 18 seasons. Still, this Flyers team remains somewhat of a mystery. They’ve played the good teams quite well. But, Philadelphia also has a few stinkers on their schedule in which their offensive struggles were magnified. It remains to be seen whether or not the Flyers that we saw pummel the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday and hang with the Boston Bruins for two periods on Saturday will be the team that shows up come playoff time. This is a hockey team that could conceivably contend for the cup if things break their way. They’re also a club that could be swept by New York in round one. That’s the beauty of hockey and the ugliness that is the erratic nature of this Flyers’ bunch.

Offensively, Philadelphia is way too reliant on their top scoring line and #1 power play unit. While Claude Giroux is one of the best players in the world, he’ll need some help from veterans like Vincent Lecavalier as well as the continued emergence of youngsters Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. Schenn had struggled mightily post-Olympic break until his two goal performance against Buffalo on Sunday. More of that type of play from the physical forward would give the Flyers an added dimension, scoring prowess from their second line. Meanwhile, Couturier has been a rock defensively. Counted on to defend the opponents’ best line, the 21-year old Phoenix native is a player than Philadelphia could not do without. Still, his offensive game has yet to develop. Couturier does has 10 goals this season. But, none since March 1st vs. New York (17 games). The goals will eventually come. After all, this is a kid that scored 96 points in back-to-back seasons with Drummondville of the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League). If “Couts” can find a few offensive sparks here-or-there, it would add a valuable piece of the puzzle to Philadelphia’s offense that hasn’t been seen over the past month.

The youngster’s improvement could also fuel the second power play unit, which has been absolutely atrocious this season. Typically manned by Schenn, Lecavalier, and Matt Read (with a cameo or two by Couturier), the second unit has become more prone to giving up short handed goals this season than scoring a few themselves. If Philadelphia is to go anywhere this spring, it will need to become more well-rounded offensively, and that begins with the man-advantage.

Defensively, the Flyers improved wholeheartedly by acquiring Andrew MacDonald at the trade deadline. A-Mac has proven to be a valuable contributor, often logging the most minutes of any defenseman on the team since being acquired. The continued presence of he, Kimmo Timonen, and Braydon Coburn makes up for the average performance of Niklas Grossman this season. While he may be battling through a nagging lower-body injury, Grossman’s lack of any offensive polish really inhibits the team during breakouts, and especially when the puck is on his stick in the offensive zone. One would wonder why Erik Gustafsson, a much more proficient two-way defenseman, hasn’t played much this season. But, that’s a matter to ask Craig Berube, who continues to scratch the young Swedish blue-liner despite his success at times. While Philadelphia’s lack of an elite, number one defenseman in the mold of Chris Pronger is evident, the group as a whole is a lot better than analysts and fans lead you to believe.

maseOf course, all of this could be moot. As it often does, the Flyers’ playoff success will likely hinge on the ability of Steve Mason to perform when it matters most. The young netminder, enjoying a renaissance campaign in orange-and-black, has only played in the postseason once. That was following his Calder Trophy 2008-09 season, when he and the Columbus Blue Jackets were unceremoniously swept in four games by the eventual Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings. Mason has been steady this season, and Philadelphia should at least feel confident that the 25-year old goalie won’t pull a Bryzgalov. But, the lack of experience between the pipes, coupled with the team’s knack for going into prolonged scoring droughts, could leave the Flyers’ season short of their desired goal.

Whatever happens, one has to consider this campaign a success. Few believed that Philadelphia had a prayer following an 0-3 start that left Peter Laviolette fired and brought in the era of Berube. Even fewer thought the Flyers would be playoff bound after their 1-7 beginning under their new head coach. But, as they often do, the Flyers surprised us all. Just as they did when they upset the Penguins two years ago behind Giroux and a rag-tag group of physical yet talented youngsters. Can they do it again? Maybe, maybe not. That’s the beauty of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and tonight, the Flyers can book their ticket for the greatest show on Earth.

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