Flight Plan week of 10.31.2010

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.

The Philadelphia Flyers seemed to have wanted to start celebrating Halloween early this past week and got off to a rough start by dropping a 2-1 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Flyers showed up in their hockey player costumes unfortunately they were also dressed as mindless, decaying, flesh hungry corpses while the Blue Jackets were dressed up as Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson playing Columbus and Tallahasse, their respective characters from Zombieland. In the post-game interview, and it’s been beaten to death with a baseball bat to the brain at least twice, Peter Laviolette called his team of zombies “mindless” and “passionless” in the media and arranged a team meeting with the players.  Since then, the Flyers seemed to have turned a corner and not only won their first back to back games of the season, but are officially on their first winning streak of the season, are currently tied for points with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Atlantic Division lead at 13. The Flyers have have been playing Laviolette’s system perfectly but with emotion, intelligence, and most of all: attitude. In the past three games there have been at least one fight including two in Pittsburgh and a whole mess of scuffles last night against the New York Islanders. They are finally starting to resemble the team that they look like: big, bruising, brash, and balanced with a knack for shutting teams down and tons of scoring flair up and down their lineup. Jeff Carter has turned his play up a notch and seems to be building chemistry with Claude Giroux as Carter has had two three point games in three nights, and Giroux is leading the Flyers with six goals and five assists for 11 points.

The upcoming week has them pitted against two teams they have not seen this season in the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers, as well as a rematch against the Islanders which should be good for some sparks if not fireworks.

Carolina Hurricanes:
11.1.2010 at 7 p.m. in Philadelphia

The Carolina Hurricanes are off to a decent start at 5-5-0. The Hurricanes play better on the road and although their home record says they’re 1-2, they’ve actually played just two games on their official home ice, of which both have been losses. If you count both games in Finland, the Canes are 5-3-0 in buildings not named the RBC Center and not located in Raliegh, North Carolina. Carolina has been relying on Cam Ward and a name you might want to be familiar with going forward, forward and freshly turned 18 year-old Jeff Skinner.

Cam Ward is back to form after an injury plagued start to last year’s season. He owns a .923 SV% and a 2.75 GAA, which isn’t bad as well as all five of the Hurricanes’ wins. Ward was in a similar position to young Flyers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky when he got his chance under Laviolette and ended up backstopping the team to its first ever Stanley Cup victory in 2005-2006. He is a hybrid goaltender, as most successful goaltenders in the league are anymore, but he is very good post to post, can be acrobatic, but his best asset is one of the fastest glove hands in the league. You don’t have to look through too many highlight reels to see Ward’s lightning quick left-handed-larceny as it’s on display a lot.

The Hurricanes rely on scoring more goals than other teams to win games. By that I mean they need to score three or more goals to win games. Of the games they’ve played, only once have they won without scoring three or more goals and that was in a shootout against the Minnesota Wild. In every other game this season they’ve been held to less than three goals they’ve lost, and they’ve lost just one where they’ve scored at least three goals. This could come back to bite them against a particularly stingy Flyers defense corps and a much more confident Sponge Bob Bobrovsky who might be in net due to his fantastic play of late, or he could be allowed to rest a game if Laviolette thinks Boucher who is 5-0-1 all time against the Hurricanes with a 1.67 GAA and a .921 SV%.

The Hurricanes’ offense is mostly tightly packed within their first two lines coming from the likes of team captain Eric Staal, Jussi Jokinen, Erik Cole, and surprising rookie Jeff Skinner. Skinner and Staal lead the team with three goals and four assists for seven points apiece. Staal is a premier center in the league and is capable of putting up large numbers. He is big, fast, skillful, but most of all he has a wicked wrister which is accurate and very quickly released. Impressive through the first 10 games has been rookie Jeff Skinner. He’s moves, he’s got grit, he’s got determination, he’s got just about everything a hockey player needs and when he was drafted 7th overall in the 2010 entry draft, it’s safe to say the Hurricanes were expecting him to be. Do yourself a favor and look at his shootout goal against the Wild and the move he made last night against one Henrik Lundqvist. I mean I’d write home about something like scoring against two of the better goaltenders in the NHL.

Carolina’s defense is nowhere near as good as it was when they won it all in 2006, and that means it’s not even in the same league as the Flyers. Notable names are Tim Gleason, Joe Corvo, Anton Babchuk, and former Flyer Joni Pitkanen. Pitkanen and Babchuk have combined for five points each and both have a +/- rating of +1.

The Flyers have to shut down the attack and get on Ward early if they want to take two at home and improve to 5-3-0 at home this season.

New York Rangers:
11.4.2010 in Philadelphia

The New York Rangers are another team off to a surprising start in the Atlantic Division given that all of their big names up front are out with injuries. Chris Drury has a broken left index finger, Marion Gaborik has a separated shoulder, and Vinny Prospal is out after having successful knee surgery on October 18th and will be out for the next six to eight weeks.  Still, the Rangers own a 5-4-1 record mostly due to the steady play of netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

Flyers fans recall last year Brian Boucher outdueling Lundqvist in a shootout to end game 82 and clinch the Flyers a playoff spot which they certainly made the best of. What people might try to forget is that Lundqvist almost singlehandedly won the game for the Rangers, or at least kept them in it long enough to get to the shootout.

This year Lundqvist is off to an pretty good start as he boasts a 4-3-1 record, a 2.76 GAA, a .921 SV%, and one shutout. King Henrik is good, very good. For as long as he’s been in the league he’s been good and will probably stay that way until he leaves. The worst part about this is that he’s just 28 years-old so as an NHL goaltender, he’s just starting to hit his prime. Lundqvist has had considerably more work over the past two seasons as the Rangers have been ranked 15th in shots against per game, allowing averages of 29.5 in 2008-2009 and 29.7 in 2009-2010 while prior to those two seasons the Rangers were ranked in the top 10 in that category. The fact is, Henrik Lundqvist can steal games and will.

The Rangers still have weapons. Though they are missing three of their top forward talents in Drury, Gaborik, and Prospal they’ve still scored 31 goals which is good enough to tie the Islanders for third in the Atlantic.  Right winger Ryan Callahan is off to a blazing start with four goals and seven assists for 11 points in 10 games, while center Brandon Dubinsky has five goals and four assists for nine points in 10 games. Of course one would have to think that with their top three being healthy, the Rangers would be better served, they aren’t doing too bad without them offensively. Their issue is defense, and boy is it an issue.

First of all, the Rangers have allowed 30 goals, just one more than they’ve scored, and are currently 21st in the league. Secondly, they are 24th in the league in shots allowed at an even 33.0 shots per game. For a team that shoots as much as the Flyers do, this does not bode well for one of the youngest defense corps in the NHL with just two defensemen over the age of 26 in former fleeting Flyer Steve Eminger (27) and Michal Rozsival (32).  The Flyers will absolutely have to fire a lot of shots, but will also have to take advantage of a struggling PK unit which is in the bottom 10 at 21st in the league with a 77.3% success rate. The Flyers have improved on the PP over the past three games and would do well to draw some penalties as long as they capitalize on their opportunities as they have six power play markers in their last three games.

New York Islanders:
11.6.2010 at 7 p.m. in New York

The last time these two teams met there were two complete regulation hockey games worth of penalty minutes doled out. 120 minutes between two teams is a mind boggling stat that is seldom the case in the NHL anymore because of all the rules against starting fights in late stages of decided games and instigator penalties and such, it’s just a rare occurrence and personally… I love it. These two teams hate each other. The Islanders have something to prove and have lost all but two games against the Flyers in their last 20 meetings dating back to 2.12.2008. The Islanders last win came in the dying days of last year’s season and it came in New York by way of a 6-4 outcome and the one before that was a 4-3 victory on 2.12.2008.

The Islanders are a scrappy young team and as was seen this past weekend, can be a physical. I would bet that the Flyers will see a much better effort as another 6-1 type of loss on home-ice would be unacceptable. I would look for the Islanders to come out like they have a giant chip on their shoulder and I think we can look forward to seeing more old-time hockey when these two teams clash for the second time in seven days.