Flight Plan week of 12.26.2010

‘Tis the season for road trips as the Flyers head out west on their annual post-Christmas visit to the other conference and try to regain the top spot in the NHL after losing it to Pittsburgh as they remained idle during the Penguins’ last two games. The Penguins hold just a one point lead over the Flyers and the Fly guys have two games in hand as they’ve played 35 to Pittsburgh’s 37.  The Flyers obviously would love to forget what happened a week ago at home, but alas, they would do well not to as they got smoked in a 5-0 shutout loss to the Florida Panthers.

The only reason the Flyers should have wanted to get up for that game was to at least stay atop the Atlantic Division standings, but they pretty much mailed it in after a few moments in the first where one might have believed they were coming. After the Panthers scored their first goal, it was all downhill as the Flyers beat themselves. They were lazy, unemotional, completely devoid of any type of passion for the game and in front of a hometown crowd no less. You’d think these guys have no respect at all for their fans the way they played this game last week. I mean they are, as Sean O’Donnell put it, “human beings” and there are going to be games like that in the year where teams don’t play well enough to win. But after quotes like: “That’s what Peter has been stressing because we’ve played a lot of emotional games, lately. In Toronto, in Boston, in Montreal, Pittsburgh and the Rangers. Our last five games have all been emotional games. We have to find a way to get into this game and get motivated for this one.” You thought they might find a way to not do what this team always seems to do before a long break: fall completely flat on its face.

Either way, the Flyers will look to right this wrong and move ahead as they have since last season after tough losses. They have some really tough games this week against the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night and then back to back games against the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday and Friday night. They’ll have to play the Dan Cleary and Pavel Datsyuk-less Detroit Red Red Wings before returning home next Sunday at 5 P.M.

Before the abomination against Florida, the Jeff Carter centered line with James van Riemsdyk and Nikolay Zherdev had been red hot accounting for eight goals over their past five games.  Zherdev in particular has picked his play up of late scoring four goals and accruing five points in his last five games.

Vancouver Canucks:
12.28.2010 at 10 p.m. in Vancouver

The most sought-after free agent this summer had to be Dan Hamhuis. His negotiating rights had been traded for twice and twice he denied signing his John Hancock on the dotted line. Those two teams were both in the Atlantic Division and both are doing better than his Vancouver Canucks. Fancy that. Of course, one could always argue that it’s not about doing well in the regular season, as long as you make the playoffs anything can happen, but it’s nice to be atop the NHL and both the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins are looking down on the rest of the league right now with 49 and 50 points respectively to the Canucks’ 47. Not too far behind and hey, they’ve only played 34 games to this point, so they could overtake the Flyers with a couple of wins. Right now the Canucks sit just one point out of first place in the Western Conference so you can bet they’ll be ready for this game.

The Flyers will have their hands full with Vancouver. The Canucks are deep all over the place. They have scored 115 goals to the Flyers’ 117 and have only allowed 88 to the Flyers’ 87. Both teams are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games. The Canucks are led by the Sedin twins as Henrik has 44 points (eight goals, 36 assists) and Daniel is off that mark by only one point with 43 points but is also leading the team with 18 goals. Ryan Kesler, often noted for his stellar two-way play and playmaking ability, has racked up the goals this season as he trails Daniel Sedin by only one goal with 17 which puts him on pace for 41 goals. That would far surpass any previous totals he has put together throughout his NHL tenure, but he hasn’t lost his playmaking touch as Kesler has 14 assists to go along and is on pace for around 74 or 75 points, that would tie his career high last year of 75.

With the addition of Dan Hamhuis, the Canucks’ defense looks good but they still have some issues keeping the puck out of the net. None of their +/- numbers look all that great and while that never tells the whole tale, it also can be a pretty good indicator as to where a team’s defensive corps stands. Leading the way with a +8 is Kevin Bieksa who is trailed by Alexander Edler with a +7 rating. Keith Ballard and Christian Ehrhoff are both a +6 while Hamhuis is just a +4.  Those numbers just aren’t all that great when you consider that the Canucks have scored so many goals. Explanation? Power play goals. The Canucks have scored 33 goals on the Power play and currently have the second ranked unit in the entire league which is clipping along at 23.91%. Pretty good. The Flyers will absolutely have to stay out of the box as the Canucks are dangerous on the man-advantage, even if they are less dangerous at home as they have just a 18.75% power play percentage at home and operate at a gnarly 28.38% on the road.

The Canucks are backed by Roberto Luongo who has given up the “C” this year and has pretty pedestrian numbers for a team as good as the Canucks are. To Luongo’s credit he does have 16 wins as his record sits at 16-8-3, and with two shutouts to boot, that 2.50 GAA and that .913 SV% well, they don’t seem too important when you’re racking up 35 of your team’s 47 points in the standings. Sometimes it’s more about stopping the puck when necessary than stopping it all the time.

What will be interesting to see is whether the Canucks are as good as their home record indicates or if the Flyers are as good as their road record would imply. The Canucks are 12-3-2 at home and the Flyers are 10-2-3 on the road, so in theory this should give the Flyers a pretty good test to see whether or not they can compete on the road and against one of the best in the West. I would DVR this game for sure as it could be a great one.

Los Angeles Kings:
12.30.2010 at 10:30 p.m. in Los Angeles

The Kings are a good team and they are just three points out of the Pacific Division lead with two games in hand. They’ll probably be ready to take it to the Flyers and with their personnel, they could definitely do so.

The Kings have one of the better young defense corps in the league. Promising third year guy Drew Doughty had a rough start, but seems to be back on track.  Doughty was nominated for the Norris Trophy last year and ended up with 59 points (16 goals, 43 assists) and a +/- rating of 20. He’s already a +13 this year with two goals and 14 assists for 16 points.  So while his point totals may come down from this year, he’s on pace to surpass his +/- rating for sure. The thing you have to remember about Doughty is that he’s only 21 and will have some growing pains, but he’s definitely one of the best blue liners in the league and will only get better as he ages.  The other names on the back end for the Kings include Davis Drewiske, Matt Greene, Peter Harrold, Jack Johnson, Alec Martinez, Willie Mitchell, and Rob Scuderi. Only Mitchell and Scuderi are over 30 at 33 and 31 respectively. This group can only get better, so the Flyers will have to find a way to outwork them and get some rubber towards the net.

Though their defensive group is good, the Kings have a decent bunch of forwards as well. Leading the way in both points and goals is Anze Kopitar who has 35 and 15 respectively. Dustin Brown and former Flyer Justin Williams both have 14 goals and 17 assists for 31 points. While not quite as deep as the Flyers are up front, the Kings definitely have guys who can put the puck in the net and will make you pay if you don’t play defense so the Flyers will have their work cut out for them there.

In goal the Kings have backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier and starting goaltender Jonathan Quick. Quick was definitely on Santa’s Nice list this year as he owns a 17-7-1 record, has three shutouts, a pretty great .929 SV% and an otherworldly 1.93 GAA. This kid is good. By no means should the Flyers sit back and try to wait for their opportunities because Quick obviously won’t give them many. Bernier has had a rough go of it this season posting a 4-5-0 record, with a below average .903 SV% and a yucky 2.78 GAA.  Quick will likely get the nod as this would be a really good test for him and vice-versa for the Flyers.

Anaheim Ducks:
12.31.2010 at 8 p.m. in Anaheim

The Ducks have played more games than any team in the NHL with 39. Currently they are two spots out of the top 8 in the West but trail by only one point. Again though, their issue is that they’ve played four more games than the three teams above them, so even though they’re technically tied for 9th with Nashville, the Predators can easily jump back into the playoffs while the Ducks would need to win a few games and any of the teams in front of them would have to lose a few to even things up a bit.

The Ducks are a pretty good team though and definitely a tough one. Their biggest asset has been Corey Perry who has really started to pour it on lately. Right now he leads all Ducks players in goals and points with 19 and 41 respectively. This is the first time in his career that Perry has been on pace to be a more than a point a game player and if he continues at his torrid pace, will easily surpass the 30 goal mark for just the second time in his six years in the NHL. Ryan Getzlaf is second on the team in scoring with 37 points and he is trailed by one of those old guys that just seems to get his points every year in Teemu Selanne who has 32.  Cherry Hill, New Jersey native Bobby Ryan is second on the team in goals with 14, but he leads all forwards with a +8 rating and on a team where just five players are better than even, that’s a pretty interesting stat. It seems that most Flyers fans in the area would like to see Ryan play in Philadelphia before he hangs up is skates and would like to rid the team of Jeff Carter in order to get him here, but just so we’re clear Carter has played four fewer games than Ryan, has 28 points to Ryan’s 27 and has scored 13 goals, just one less than Ryan’s 14. Carter is also a +9 and has the best faceoff percentage on the team of anyone who has taken more than 200 with a whopping 60.3%.  Ryan’s good, but I would argue that he doesn’t bring as much to the table as Carter does and as things go, it’s better to be deep at center than at wing. Carter’s former linemate and former Flyer Joffrey Lupul has played 11 games now after recovering from back surgery and has four points (three goals, one assist).

The Ducks defense has been in trouble since the departure of Chris Pronger but has gotten even worse now that Scott Niedermayer has hung up his skates. The addition of Toni Lydman was nice and his +18 rating has been really good for the Ducks, but they need some help on the back end. The Ducks have some youngsters that they’d like to develop though in 2010 Entry Draft 12th overall draft pick Cam Fowler and former Flyer Luca Sbisa. Sbisa has been back on the roster as of late after being demoted, while Fowler has been a fixture all season long. Fowler has been pretty good for the Ducks as he has three goals and 15 assists for 18 points and as defensemen go in their rookie years, that’s excellent news for Anaheim.

As far as masked men go, the Ducks have two very capable netminders in Jonas Hiller and Curtis McElhinney. McElhinney tagged the Flyers for a loss back in October as he stopped 40 of 42 shots.  Hiller is the starting goaltender though and owns a 16-13-3 record, with a good .921 SV% and a mediocre 2.65 GAA. The thing is though, Hiller has faced a ton of rubber as the Ducks allow a lot of shots and are dead last in the league having given up 34.5 shots per game. The Flyers, who typically do put a lot of pucks on net, should do so in this game.