Flight Plan Week of 01.09.2011

The Philadelphia Flyers won all three of their games this past week, although two of them were against the New Jersey Devils and those four points were about as easy as they come for this team. The Flyers’ impressive win over the bruised and battered Detroit Red wings however, was a classic example of Peter Laviolette’s up-tempo left-wing lock system. The Flyers were constantly getting the puck deep through two periods of play and were relentless on the forecheck, out hitting and outshooting the Red Wings 22-18 and 32-27 respectively. The Flyers eventually pounded in three goals on Jimmy Howard in the second period, forcing him to the bench in favor of veteran Chris Osgood who allowed no goals the rest of the way. This is exactly how the Flyers won in the playoffs last year: they broke down the opposition through constant pressure and overwhelming willpower. Overall this is the type of team you want to see the Flyers be able to beat because the Red Wings, when healthy of course, are probably the best team in the league even though the Vancouver Canucks may be holding the top spot in the league currently.

Through 41 games this season the Flyers have climbed atop the leader board in the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division, racking up 57 points, 137 goals, and 26 wins. The Flyers have four players with 30 points or more, seven players with 10 goals or more, and have seven players who are a +10 rating or higher. This all spells success no matter which way you look at it, even if their power play and penalty kill, although better of late, are still floundering somewhere in the middle of the pack (19th and 16th). If there is one area the Flyers must improve going into the second half it’s definitely gotta be special teams. They have to start putting teams away when they draw penalties and when they are guilty of some type of foul, they need to keep the puck out of the net especially when they’re 23rd amongst teams in penalty minutes per game at 14.3. The team dead last in the NHL in sin bin minutes per game? The Pittsburgh Penguins with a whopping 16.3. The Penguins have made more trips to the box for a minor infraction than any team in the league with 217 and the Flyers are 26th in that department with 187.

Either way, it should just get more interesting from here, so enough with boring and irrelevant stats, let’s get down to this week’s matchups against teams with real good goaltenders in the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, and Atlanta Thrashers shall we?

Buffalo Sabres:
01.11.2011 at 7:30 p.m. in Buffalo

The Buffalo Sabres are in 10th place in the Eastern Conference right now and if the season ended today, they would obviously miss the playoffs. Good thing for them though, there are still 41 games left in the season and their first second half game comes against the Flyers. The Sabres are 5-4-1 over their last 10 games and have been slowly but surely getting back into the playoff picture after winning the Northeast Division last year on the back of one of the best goaltenders in the league: Ryan Miller.

Ryan Miller’s stats this year are not quite what they were last year, but to be fair he played a ton of hockey between 2009-2011. Not only was Miller in net professionally for 69 regular season games and six playoff contests, he also was between the pipes for Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  Miller may not have won the Stanley Cup or Olympic Gold, but Olympic Silver for a team that wasn’t expected to do much, MVP of the Olympic tournament, and the Vezina Trophy aren’t bad consolation prizes.  And actually, his numbers aren’t too shabby if we look at them in context. Miller has a 16-12-4 record. He has posted three shutouts. Has played 1,899 minutes, and allowed 83 goals in 32 games. He has a .913 SV% and a 2.62 GAA. His GAA may look bad and his .913 SV% may look decent, but when you consider that Buffalo allows 30.0 shots a game on average, well that’s asking for trouble. The Sabres main issue is consistency in offensive production. They average only 2.66 goals per game and that’s just not enough to win games. The Sabres have scored only 113 goals. They really need their forwards to pick up the slack and put some more pucks in the net.

The Sabres have two players with over 30 points and they lead the team at numbers one and two. Those two players are Derek Roy, who was having a remarkable season and practically carrying the offense on his back, and Thomas Vanek who, once upon a time, scored 40 goals in a single season. Roy will miss 4-6 months, and more than likely the rest of the season, as he went under the knife to repair a torn quad muscle.  Roy, to this point, had 10 goals and 25 assists for a total of 35 points in just 35 games played. Meanwhile Vanek has 16 goals and 15 assists for 31 points in 41 games, but he has a -12 rating. YIKES! While winger Drew Stafford is second to Vanek in pucks deposited with 14, defenseman Jordan Leopold is third in scoring with 24 points, he also has 10 goals. When a defenseman is in your top three point getters, and only has 24 points, you know you’re in trouble. I would look for a spirited effort from both longest-tenured NHL coach Lindy Ruff and his team in the second half to pot more of those black round thingies behind the big guys with the big pads on.

The Sabres defense allows 30.0 shots per game as stated above, and while that’s not a tremendous amount of shots, it’s not like they’re limiting the opposition either and that’s to be expected to some degree. The Sabres defense corps isn’t made of a bunch of household names. Other than Craig Rivet, none of these guys are necessarily top four defensemen on any team in the NHL. 20 year old, second year defenseman and the only guy on the Sabres who can probably dunk, Tyler Myers is having some growing pains in his sophomore season after his Calder Trophy winning campagin last year. “The Big Easy” has sorta become “The Big Sleazy” this year as he is on pace for about 18 less points than last year and has a -11 rating and for a defenseman, as we all know, that’s not a good thing.  This unit rounded out by Chris Butler, Steve Montador, Shoane Morrison, and Andrej Sekera will need to do a better job in the 2011 if the Sabres want to crack the top eight in the East.

Boston Bruins:
01.13.2011 at 7 p.m. in Boston
The third meeting between these two teams this year and boy were the last two a couple of doozies. The first, a 3-0 shutout loss for the Orange and Black, and the first of the season against the Flyers, the second a 2-1 come from behind win, much in the style of the way the Flyers ground out victories in the historic 2010 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. The Boston Bruins are atop the Northeast Division this year by virtue of their head-to-head record with the Montreal Canadiens, though the two teams are tied with 49 points. The Bruins are again having trouble putting pucks in the net, although considerably less so than last year, but are also allowing the fewest goals of any of the 30 team NHL . The Bruins have notched 113 goals, but allowed just 91 for a goal differential of 22. This is probably largely due to Vezina favorite Tim Thomas.

Thomas is having one hell of a season. Don’t believe me? Go to NHL.com and click on the stats button, it’ll take you to the individual league leaders for the National Hockey League. While there, you’ll see 36 year-old Tim Thomas’ smiling face in three of the four goaltender categories. Why? He boasts a gaudy .944 SV%, an unbelievable 1.84 GAA, five shutouts for which he’s tied with both New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist and Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun. Those stats are just plain great through half the season. Anything can change, but as we all know, the Bruins play a defense first game and after last year, you wondered if Thomas had lost a step and was going to be playing second fiddle to Tuukka Rask this year. Well you and I and everyone as were sorely mistaken. Thomas also holds an 18-4-6 records in 28 starts with 29 games played. Rask hasn’t been as good as he was last year, but he doesn’t have bad numbers, .928 SV% is pretty good, 2.58 GAA is passable, and a shutout to his credit, just a bad record, a dismal 3-8-1. Plainly put, both of these guys can stop the puck, the Bruins just have some trouble getting goals, and why wouldn’t they?

The Bruins don’t exactly have too many offensive superstars. Marc Savard and Tyler Seguin are probably their best offensive forwards and while Savard is good, he doesn’t have any pure goal scorers to pass to like he did when Phil Kessel was in Bean Town. Seguin is a rookie and while he has some skills, he’s still a rookie and at 18, he’s got a long way before he hits his prime. To the Bruins credit, they did go out and get Nathan Horton over the summer from the Florida Panthers and while he hasn’t necessarily racked up the goals or assists, he does have 12 twine ticklers and 14 helpers for 26 points and at a +15 rating, there’s not much more they can ask from him than to put a few more in the net. The Bruins offense is led by big Milan Lucic who is 6’4” 220, and has 16 goals and 12 assists for 28 points. The Bruins are pretty well balanced offensively, but they’re not all gifted offensive players, so as balanced as they are, they don’t have much consistency.  The Flyers do get to see a familiar face in Mark Recchi as he was twice a former Flyer in his 67 year career (23 actually, but really, after 18 who’s counting?).  The Bruins don’t need to score a lot of goals to win games, but they can, and the Flyers should be ready for that come Wednesday.

The Bruins Defense isn’t made up of a lot of first and second pair defensemen, but they have about five guys who could play in the top four on any team.  Most notably is the massive lumbering presence of a player that is Zdeno Chara. At 6’9”255, he’s the biggest thing on skates in the NHL, that matters anyway Derek Boogard doesn’t count as a player.  Chara leads all Bruin defensemen with five goals and 12 assists for 17 points. Beyond him there’s former-Flyer Dennis Seidenberg who has just two goals but has lent a hand 13 times to bring his total to 15 points.  Nobody else really comes all that close so we’ll just name names here: Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference, Adam McQuaid, and Mark Stuart could all be considered top four defensemen on a lot of teams in the league.

Look for this to be a defense first game with a playoff type atmosphere as has been the norm since last year’s Winter Classic.

Atlanta Thrashers:
01.14.2011 at 7:30 p.m. in Atlanta

A lot of people in the league probably are surprised at how well teams in the Southeast Division are doing this year. If anyone would have told you at the mid-point that the Tampa Bay Lightning would be leading that division with 55 points, the Washington Capitals would be trailing by just one with 55, and the Atlanta Thrashers would have 50 points you probably would have told them to start seeing a specialist. I’m really not all that surprised though.

When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, the guys in the main office probably celebrated for a day then got on the phones and worked them hard sending about half of their team to other cities. Most of them happened to wind up in Atlanta. As a matter of fact four of the guys from that 2010 Cup winning team are regulars on the Thrashers this year and they’re all pretty good little big players. Whether it be Thrashers leading scorer and big burly defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, or Captain Consistency Andrew Ladd, or steady and sure Brent Sopel, or former-Flyer, fierce fourth-liner, and Chris Pronger foe Ben Eager, they all bring something valuable to the table to go along with that very expensive ring they all have. But first things first, let’s talk about a guy who many were worried about at the start of this season due to a scary fainting spell and is now stirring some murmurs of Vezina trophy throughout the NHL. That man is Ondrej Pavelic.

Pavelic is a big guy at 6’3” 220 and he uses that to his advantage a lot as can be noted by his stellar numbers all around.  He owns a 15-9-4 record, has a sparkling .932 SV%, and a good 2.27 GAA, as well as two shutouts.  He’s steady, he’s solid, and the Thrashers would probably have even more points and more wins if Chris Mason could stop a beach ball.  Mason’s numbers are dreadful as his record is 7-7-2, a cringe-worthy .891 SV%, and a hideous 3.81 GAA. It’s absolutely a wonder how he even one win let alone seven. Flat out though, this team wins games and that’s largely due to a big guy who stood in front of the opposition net last year while this year he’s standing mostly in front of his own.

Dustin Byfuglien is a big, Big, BIG man. He is 6’5” 265 pounds. He is a big force when on the ice too. Though I may have ragged a bit on defensemen leading teams, it’s different when they’re almost a point a game player. “Big Buff” has 41 points and is atop the Thrashers leader board right now as well with 16 goals. He’s a monster and he’s having a monster year. Then there’s the puck moving Tobias Enstrom who has 36 points and he is second on the Thrashers in scoring.  The one thing the Thrashers could use is a very steady defensive defensemen, which they certainly don’t have in any of their top four, but because they’re so good at moving the puck, the team is good at scoring goals and can catch teams in transition or quickly get the puck down the ice. The Thrashers have scored 137 goals and have allowed 136.  That’s not to say that the Defense controls the scoring for this team, that’s just who gets it started a lot of the time.

When you talk about having scoring depth, you should probably talk about the Atlanta Thrashers. Although they only have one guy over 30 points at the forward position in Captain Andrew Ladd, they have six with 20 points or more and five of them have 10 goals or more. Evander Kane is really talented and he will just keep getting better as he goes along, he currently has 13 goals and 13 assists for 26 points while last year’s leading scorer Rich Peverley has 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points. The thing about the Thrashers is everyone contributes. They’re a team. They can be dangerous and if they get even one defensive defensemen, there’s no reason I can’t see them doing some damage in the playoffs, but this is definitely a club to keep your eye on over the next few years.

I would look for this to be an up-tempo game from both teams and hopefully the Flyers can win a game against this team since they literally couldn’t beat the Thrashers last year as they went 0-4 against them.