Flight Plan: Week of 10.24.2010

Flight Plan is a new column that will take a more in depth look at the Flyers’ upcoming opponents every week here at Flyers Faithful.

After winning their home opener, the Philadelphia Flyers were absolutely abysmal in two of the three losses against teams that had played the night before. The Flyers lost in regulation against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Anaheim Ducks before exploding offensively on Saturday night against a team off to one of the hottest starts in the league in the Toronto Maple Leafs who they beat 5-2. Mike Richards notched his first goal of the season and had two assist for three points, while Ville Leino is starting to get his timing and rhythm back with his second goal in as many games, and then there is Danny Briere who is scorching, scoring his fifth goal of the season.

It seems as if things are finally coming together as the last two outings against the Ducks and Maple Leafs were much better and more consistent efforts on the attack in both the offensive zones and the defensive zones. During the Ducks game, the Flyers dominated possession time but could not put pucks past Curtis McElhinney more than twice where they had about triple the scoring chances and almost double the shots of their opponents. The Flyers allowed the Leafs only 14 shots and nearly tripled that number with 40 of their own. This week the Flyers play four games in six nights starting on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets, coming back home to host the Buffalo Sabres, then heading across the state to face the Pittsburgh Penguins and finishing the week out against the surprising second place in the Atlantic Division New York Islanders.

Columbus Blue Jackets:
10.25.2010 at 7 p.m. in Columbus

The Columbus Blue Jackets are 4-3-0 through seven games and two of them came against the Western Conference finalists in the San Jose Sharks and the Chicago Blackhawks.  They are a team in the early going who seem to win close games or get blown away. The only close loss was the first of two games played in Sweden to start the season against the Sharks. The Blue Jackets other two big-time losses were scores of 5-2 and 6-2 against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks and the Calgary Flames.  This is a team that can keep games close will rely on former Calder Trophy winner, goaltender Steve Mason.

Mason is a good, young goaltender at 22 years of age. In 2008-2009, his first NHL season Mason started 61 games, posted a 33-20-7 record, had a .916 SV %, a 2.29 GAA, and led all NHL goalies with an astounding 10 shutouts. Mason carried the Blue Jackets to their first playoff appearance in the club’s short 10 year history, but had a bad draw as they would face the red hot Detroit Red Wings and be swept in four games. Last year was a different story as the entire team struggled to find an identity under former Flyers coach Ken Hitchock who was fired mid-season and replaced by assistant coach Claude Noel. Noel was also let go over the summer and Scott Arnell has taken the reins as head coach, a position he has never been in before in the NHL, having only served as an assistant with the Buffalo Sabres.

The Blue Jackets are not completely devoid of guys who can tickle the twine. They are led by their captain Rick Nash, who has scored at least 40 goals twice, 30 or more goals three times, and 20 plus goals once in his seven year career. Nash is only 26 and thus far has three goals in seven games. Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselias, Chris Clark, Jakub Voracek, former Flyer RJ Umberger, and the 20 year-old former 6th overall pick Nikita Filatov round out the forwards who can present some danger in the offensive zone. RJ Umberger leads the team with 4 goals and is tied for the team lead in points with 5.

The Blue Jackets’ defense corps is decent and most of them are just hitting their prime. They are tough defensively but not very skilled puck movers so if the Flyers can pressure them and keep a constant attack that has been apparent in the past two games, they have a good chance at wearing this unit down. Look for a relatively low scoring game unless the Flyers really have gotten their game together and find some offensive consistency.

Buffalo Sabres:
10.26.2010 at 7:30 p.m. in Philadelphia

The Buffalo Sabres won the Northeast Division last year by hopping on Ryan Miller’s back and riding him all the way to the playoffs where they were eliminated in just six games by the Boston Bruins. This year has had a tumultuous start to say the least. The Sabres won their first game of the season against the Ottawa Senators, then went on a 4 game losing streak and lost by only one goal in four of those five games.

Miller was the best goalie in the NHL and won the Vezina trophy as a consolation prize after losing out to Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games gold medal game as well as being bounced in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Miller’s numbers wouldn’t really scare anyone as he currently has a 2.27 GAA and a .919 SV% as well as a 3-4-1 record, but he is one of the league’s elite netminders and will get going as the team around him does as well.

The Sabres’ offense is not full of household names but a few of them are off to hot starts. Derek Roy jumps out in particular as he leads the team with five goals and four assists for nine points in as many games.  Tied for second on the Sabres with seven points a-piece are Drew Stafford who has three goals and four assists, and Tyler Ennis who has two goals and five assists. Coming off a disappointing season and coming in with a somewhat slow start is former 40 goal scorer Thomas Vanek who has just three goals and two assists for five points in 9 games.           Tim Connolly led the Sabres in points last year with 69, but has only five points so far.

The Sabres’ defense is comprised of three guys over 30 one over 25 and three under 25. They are led by Sabres Captain Craig Rivet who is the oldest player on the team at 36, but the most impressive defenseman in the group is also the youngest player on the team. 20 year-old Tyler Myers is a towering 6’8” and weighs in at 227 pounds. He has, obviously, a long reach and a big shot from the point, but he is fundamentally and technically strong defensively.

The Sabres are a better team than their record shows and the Flyers will have to match their intensity as well as find a way to get shots on Miller and a lot of them if they hope to win this game and improve to 3-3-0 at home.

Pittsburgh Penguins:
10.29.2010 at 7 p.m. in Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Penguins limped their way to the top of the Atlantic Division where they stand with 11 points and a 5-2-1 record including a blowout against the Flyers in Philadelphia last week where the Penguins won 5-1. The Penguins have split starts between Brent Johnson and Marc-Andre Fleury much like the Flyers have between Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky. Johnson has, to this point, outplayed Fleury and has terribly terrific numbers. In five games Johnson has a 4-0-1 record, with a mind-boggling 1.39 GAA, and an other-worldly .951 SV%. Fleury’s numbers have been below average at best where he holds a 1-3-0 record, a ghastly 3.25 GAA, and a brutal .859 SV%. The Penguins figure to start Johnson in net against a divisional rival so look for him in net this upcoming Friday.

The Penguins offense have started to find the back of the net recently and are getting contributions from both their top two players in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, but the improved defense corps has stepped up offensively as well. Though Crosby leads the team with six goals and five assists for 11 points, Malkin is tied for second with Kris Letang with eight points, and defensemen Paul Martin and Alex Gologoski both have seven points. Malkin and Gologoski both have three goals. This team is highly offensively powered and after having early troubles on the man-advantage, they seemed to have found a rhythm and have scored five power play markers in as many games. Jordan Staal is still out, so the Penguins are without their top two-way center and faceoff guy and the Flyers should try to take advantage of that in any and every way possible but absolutely need to get their power play going and will need to win the special teams battle if they want to take the lead in the season series.

New York Islanders:
10.30.2010 at 7 p.m. in Philadelphia

Well if this isn’t the biggest surprise at the beginning of this season, what is? The New York Islanders are second to only the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Atlantic Division and are looking very good. This is another team in the midst of a possible goalie controversy as franchise netminder Rick DiPietro has not had the best numbers while backup goaltender Dwayne Roloson’s numbers are stellar. DiPietro owns a 2-1-2 record, an awful 3.31 GAA, and a dastardly .882 SV%. Yikes! Roloson is 2-1-0, has a 1.65 GAA, and a .942 SV%. Tough to say who will start in net, but Roloson has clearly had a better start to the season allowing only five goals in three games while DiPietro has allowed 17 in five.

The Islanders offense is fairly young, but under the guidance of a few veterans, has performed admirably in the absence of both Kyle Okposo and last year’s first overall selection in the NHL draft John Tavares.  Tavares was diagnosed with a concussion but has since returned to action and is on a tear. Tavares leads the Isles in goals with five while Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau is leading the team with nine points, though he has never played more than 22 games for an NHL team and is 27 years-old. Other forwards off to hot starts for the Islanders are Matt Moulson, four goals and three assists for seven points, Blake Comeau, three goals and four assists for seven points, and both Josh Bailey and 39 year-old captain Doug Weight have six points a-piece. The Islanders have a balanced scoring attack and the Flyers defense will have to shut down their multiple weapons in order to come out with two points.

In the absence of Mark Streit, the Islanders defense has been good enough to win games, but they are heavily reliant on their high-powered offense to score a lot of goals. If the Flyers can keep the pressure up and avoid going into an offensive shootout with this team, they have a chance at knocking them down a peg especially with how well the Flyers defense has played of late. The other thing the Flyers will have to do is stay out of the box as the Islanders currently own a 26.2% success rate on the power play and have scored 11 goals on the man-advantage. Keep your Saturday night open for this game as it figures to be a fast-paced, offensively intense game between these two divisional rivals.