Flight Plan week of 11.07.2010

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.

Two weeks ago, the Philadelphia Flyers had not won two games in a row and had been playing sound in maybe one or two areas of their game.  Other than the Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Ville Leino line, nothing seemed to click on a nightly basis for this team and something just seemed off. Now the Flyers have not only won two straight, but are in the midst of a six-game winning streak. The Flyers have improved in every single area of the ice and, despite a few injuries and a suspension to leading goal-scorer at the time Danny Briere, they have been winning games due to a level of consistency nobody has seen out of this team in awhile. Four of the six games have been against divisional opponents and while these “four point” games seemed ever so important last spring, now this team seems to have gotten it and the best part? It’s only November.

This week the Fly guys take on three of the five Southeast Division teams: the Washington Capitals, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Florida Panthers.

Washington Capitals:
11.07.2010 at 5 p.m. in Washington D.C.

Make no mistake about it: the Washington Capitals are one of the best teams in the NHL. They have one of the highest powered offenses in the league and can hurt teams in a number of ways. The Capitals have a stellar cast of forwards led by arguably the best player in the NHL over the past four regular seasons, Alex Ovechkin. We should make that distinction because, while he hasn’t been invisible in the playoffs, the Capitals’ captain has yet to win anything other than personal hardware and has not yet found a way to alter his game to inspire his team to come together when it matters most. This is his first full year as a captain and right now, he has the Capitals in second place in the Eastern Conference with 18 points with only 13 games played to the Flyers’ 19 points through 14 games.

The Capitals have three guys that regularly score about 80 points a year over the last two seasons in the aforementioned Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin. These three are without a doubt the most highly skilled players on the team, conference, and league. They can make people look silly with savvy puck handling, they can make a pretty pass, and they can snipe a smaller than small opening in the net from just about anywhere. These three are the definition of dangerous. They account for 20 of Washington’s 43 goals thus far this season, and have a combined 43 points to their collective names. To beat the Capitals the Flyers will have to shut these three down and also find a way to get some shots on another sensational rookie goaltender, Michael Neuvirth.

Neuvirth is also 22 years-old and has logged the majority of the starts for the Capitals since their original 22 year-old starter, Semyon Varlamov, has been out of action. Neuvirth’s numbers are good. He owns an 8-3-0 record in 12 starts, has a .914 SV%, a 2.41 GAA, and one shutout. He is plenty capable of stopping the puck and since the Capitals allow the eighth fewest shots in the league, he doesn’t have to stop a whole heck of a lot of shots, about 28 shots per game. The Flyers will need to pepper Neuvirth and find a way to bar Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Semin from making the kind of impact that they normally do during games.

This should be a very fast-paced, heavily offensive game and should be a thrilling one to watch, so keep your eyelids stapled open and glued to your TV’s or you might miss something. Danny Briere makes his return from a three-game ban and will look to continue his hot start.

Carolina Hurricanes:

11.11.2010 at 7 p.m. in Raleigh

This will be the second meeting between these two teams and if last game was any indication, it should be a good one. The Flyers took two points in the last game but only won by a goal difference, and did not, by and large, out play the young and talented Hurricanes. The Canes have only won two games in a row once this season, and seem to come off big losses with a real good performance the next night.

The Flyers will have to do exactly as they did last game but this time, will likely face Cam Ward in net. Any goalie between the pipes for the Hurricanes has to stop a lot of shots. A team who tends to take a lot of shots, like the Flyers, will only make things more troublesome for Carolina in that category as the Hurricanes currently allow more shots per game than 27 other teams in the NHL at about 35 per game. The Flyers will also need to pay special attention to impressive rookie Jeff Skinner who leads the Hurricanes in points with 12 and, of course, team captain Eric Staal who leads the team in goals with six.

Florida Panthers:
11.13.2010 at 7 p.m. in Philadelphia

The Florida Panthers are bottom feeders in their division and in the conference. These are the types of teams the Flyers have notoriously not gotten up for and paid for it. Last year, the Flyers had a dismal 1-3-0 record against the Panthers, a team that should have been easy for them to beat on any given night. Some of the Flyers’ difficulties against the Panthers could be traced back to an infamous and now famous incident between Mike Richards and David Booth.

Richards, while back-tracking through the neutral zone, found Booth going east-west and admiring a drop pass just inside the Flyers’ blue-line. Richards made Booth pay with a brutal blow to the head mostly because Booth stopped watching his pass and turned his head just in time for Richards to have his shoulder clip Booth’s jaw. Booth lay motionless on the ice for a few minutes and had to be carted off.  Booth ended up only playing 28 games last year due to post-concussion syndrome symptoms, and when he finally was cleared to play again, he suffered another concussion by running right into Jaroslav Spacek’s shoulder with his head down going north-south across the blue-line during a game against the Montreal Canadiens. Richards was ejected from the game for the hit, but was not subject to supplemental discipline as it was not a rule yet, but by the end of the season would become one. So far this season there have been quite a few players tossed and suspended for illegal blindside hits to the head, including upper-tier players like Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan and San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton.

Either way, the Panthers do not have a stellar lineup and aside from Tomas Vokoun, do not have any elite players. Vokoun has been their rock for the past three seasons and has been the best player on the team by far since 2007.  He starts a ton of games, always gives the team a chance to win, and even on a bad team, has not had lower than a .919 SV% by the end of any year while playing for the Cats. Vokoun has had a tough start as has the team which is in a re-building phase under new GM and Chicago Blackhawks architect Dale Tallon. Vokoun currently owns a 4-5-0 record with a .907 SV%, a 2.74 GAA, and two shutouts. Vokoun is 34 years-old but is still amongst the elite netminders in the league. He can and will steal games for the Panthers from time to time, and if there is any lingering animosity from last year’s events, he and the team might get up to play this one from the get go, so the Flyers better be prepared to start and finish this game and pickup valuable inter-conference points.