Christmas Eve: A time for reflection

By now I think you get the idea that I’m the historical standard-bearer for the site as I’m required to write about childhood experiences with hockey, or I’m dashing off the occasional piece comparing the plight of current athletes in the city to old-school Flyers.

I want to continue in that vein this Christmas Eve, and lay out my own state of mind, as a fan, regarding how the 2010-11 Philadelphia Flyers season is progressing.

The buzz around this team after playing less than one-half of their schedule is one that I don’t think has been as constant and as upbeat since the first year after the cancelled season. Five years ago, it was Simon Gagne and Peter Forsberg leading the offensive onslaught that had the club near the top of the league during their torturous and record-setting 11-game road trip.

Coming within two wins of a Stanley Cup after slipping into the playoffs on the final day, and then following that with a battle atop the NHL standings with a despised division rival as Winter encroaches will do that.

So will beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in three of the four matchups already, including two in their new building.

Even though the vagaries of the NHL schedule matrix gave the Flyers one game this week and the Pens three, and even though the Flyers got blanked in a bad performance to Florida and the Flightless Birds won all their tests, it’s hard to be too upset at the way things are.

As the standings in the newspaper look like this today:

Pittsburgh              24-10- 2   50     118     83

Philadelphia          22-8-5       49     117     87

I’m reminded of two other battles in the Flyers’ division around this time of year, one 15 years ago and the other 26 years past.

For the former, it was the burgeoning era of the Legion of Doom. December, 1995 saw the Orange and Black in a three-way tug-of-war in the Atlantic Division with the hated Rangers and the upstart Florida Panthers – who took the league by storm in Year Three thanks to the neutral zone trap.

After a sluggish start that saw Eric Lindros miss seven games with a knee injury in November, the Flyers ripped off eight straight wins into December. Despite two crushing one-goal losses to the Devils and Rangers, plus a tie at Hartford before their yearly Western holiday jaunt, here’s what the standings looked like:

Florida                         25-8-2      52     125      81

New York Rangers  22-10-6    50     132    103

Philadelphia              21-10-5    47     131      90

Philly had an all right road trip, then hit the skids with a bunch of ties – including a 4-4 deadlock at Madison Square Garden on January 24 that was one of the best games of the year between any two teams — and disappointing losses for the remainder of January. However, both the Panthers and Rangers faltered in March as the Flyers, led by Lindros’ only 100-point season, acquired depth down the stretch and soared to the top of the conference standings by the end of the regular season.

Florida finished third in the division, but those of us old enough to remember know it got the last laugh in a six-game Conference Semifinal victory that temporarily cemented Ed Jovanovski as a vulgarity that rivaled the other seven deadlies and their offshoots.

In December of 1984, rookie head coach Mike Keenan had the new generation of Flyers kids (at the time the youngest by average age in professional sports) battling with the anointed Washington Capitals (who were picked to lead since sun on the four-time champion Islanders dynasty had begun to set) for first place in the Patrick Division.

Though the two teams hadn’t played since the first two games of the year, the stakes were high for third edition of the seven-game season series as both Philadelphia and Washington were challenging defending-champion Edmonton for the top overall spot in the NHL.

On that Sunday night, December 23, at the Spectrum, the Flyers broke out the proverbial whoop-ass on the star-spangled unfortunates with a 7-4 victory only made close by two Washington goals after the home team blasted their way to a five-goal advantage.

Tim Kerr began his ritualistic torture of the Caps with a hat trick, Murray Craven tallied twice  and Pelle Lindbergh made 27 saves. Christmas Eve dawned and the ledger appeared like this:

Philadelphia      19-9-5    43    142     96

Washington     18-10-7    43    141   111

With the exception of one blip that I will reference later in this column, the Flyers held the upper hand all season on the DC denizens, taking 5 of 7 that year with one tie. Those 11 points were key as it was a 12-point gap between first (Flyers) and second place (Capitals) at the end of the 1984-85 season.

So, what does this mean for the present? Who really knows, is the best answer I can give you.

In stark contrast to the old days where a rabid, gesticulating fan base hoping to will your team to victory was your best defense against the opposition, the thing for teams to do now in order to shake off a bad loss at home is to take advantage of some rest, then end up thousands of miles away to let the club’s collective psyche focus on something different.

Tuesday night in Vancouver starts a time-zone spanning five-game road trip that also sees Los Angeles, Anaheim, Detroit and New Jersey on the itinerary. I haven’t had the pleasure of saying this too often, but all five games are winnable and it is possible that the Flyers can pull it off.

However, it is the start of a grueling stretch of nine out of 10 contests on the road. There is a fine line between the refreshing course of a road trip and the relentless grind of constant travel.

Peter Laviolette is really going to have to…um…let’s say…”coach” to the best of his ability to make sure things stay on an even keel – meaning not only the tactical approach but also the motivational approach. He’ll get a good sense of how they will respond to adversity, especially without defensive quarterback Chris Pronger out at least until this 10-game stretch has finished.

That said, on to the final portion of this word-o-rama, which is my personal Christmas Wish List for the rest of the season.

5) No Pre-Christmas Bag Skates: Keenan infamously cracked the whip on his young charges the day after that win over the Capitals. When the Flyers showed up Christmas Eve morning for what they thought was going to be a short practice followed by gag gift exchange, their head coach cracked the whip and skated them until many vomited from the effort.

Two days later, in the rematch down in Landover, the fresher Capitals ripped off a 6-0 victory that dropped the Flyers into second place. Sometimes these things work, sometimes they don’t, and a head coach needs to use that weapon judiciously. Even though a five-goal home shutout loss is nothing to laugh about, let’s hope Lavvy eases off the gas in recognition of what got them here.

4) A resolution to the goaltending situation: I don’t care what ends up happening, just get it done ASAP, and make sure it’s close to being the right choice. Short of giving up on Sergei Bobrovsky or immediately giving a healed Michael Leighton 15 starts in a row, I’m cool with whatever’s coming down the pike.

I don’t care if there’s three goaltenders on the roster at the expense of an extra forward or defenseman. Don’t care if Bobrovsky has to be sent down to the minors to get more technically sound as Boucher and Leighton carry the load. Don’t mind at all if Boosh or last year’s playoff hero is dealt due to salary-cap woes. Just get it done before it becomes more of a tangled mess. They’re going to have to find out who will be their Number One in roughly eight weeks anyway, so spin the wheel, raggedy man, and see what comes up.

3) The continued destruction of the Penguins and Capitals “Empire:” Let’s be honest, shall we? Sidney Crosby has basically been shouldering the scoring load for Pittsburgh this entire season.  One man can’t do it forever and even if he does, I hope nobody else is able to contribute besides Evgeni Malkin so other teams know exactly where to attack. Alex Ovechkin is on pace to have his worst statistical year since he entered the NHL and the Caps recently lost eight in a row and were bumped out of first place last night.

I only wish there were still ties so I could witness a game between these Golden Franchises that ends with neither of them actually winning – and that goes for the Winter Classic eight days from now. Let them bash each other’s brains in over their final three meetings so either club gets nice and gooey soft for an inevitable playoff matchup with the Flyers in the Spring.

2) The Devils to be complete and total laughingstocks: In a 30-team NHL, when your number is up, it’s up. Even with 15 teams in one mediocre morass in the middle of the season, there’s always one or two teams that have to flat-out suck year in and year out. This year, it’s the Devils’ turn.

Maybe it’s karmic retribution for the years of trap-inflicted torture that decimated the sport, or maybe it’s a sign that Lou Lamoriello needs to quit fiddling while The Rock burns, but it’s just sweet to see the Horned Ones suffer so badly. When you have to thumb through the media guides and the databases just to see how bad it is (here’s a hint: start from 1984-85 and go backwards), you’ve got a historically-significant collapse on your hands.

So, I’m confident in saying I hope it all goes down the drain…not because I’m a Flyers fan mind you, but because I’m all about the annals of this great sport and New Jersey’s provisional spot therein.

1) Your continued patronage: Yeah…this is a blatant call for your attention as well as an appreciation. Since Marcello D started this thing back in the late Summer, we’ve gotten around quite a bit. While we didn’t see London and we didn’t see France, we did get noticed on Comcast SportsNet and so we did a little victory dance. Keep writing, keep commenting, keep liking, keep linking and keep up the buzz. It’s what makes us want to contribute more, and more often with a broader range of content and things you won’t find anywhere else.

Many thanks in particular to the boys of Broad Street Hockey for their interest in our site. We promise, the next group hockey game, we’ll show up and stay the whole time.