Flight Plan week of 01.23.2011

The Philadelphia Flyers went 3-1-0 this past week, losing to the lowly New Jersey Devils as they did not get up for the game from the get go because the Devils are statistically the worst team in hockey right now, but have been playing better under Jacques Lemaire. The Flyers should have picked up a point at least in every game, but it looks like they were probably looking ahead to today’s matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks in what will be the only meeting between the two 2010 Stanley Cup Finalists. The Flyers will then play the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday before heading on the All-Star Break for the All-Star Game festivities are scheduled to start on January 28th with a draft by captains Nicklas Lidstrom and Eric Staal, the skills competition on the 29th, and the game itself played on the 30th. Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, and coach Peter Laviolette are the Flyers’ representatives heading to Raleigh, North Carolina.

Captain Mike Richards had a four-point night this past week as he sparked the Flyers to a fight-filled 6-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators. Richards had six points overall this past week as he regained the points lead on the team. meanwhile Claude Giroux has six points in his past five games as he, Jeff Carter, and Richards all joined Danny Briere in the over-40 (point) club on the team this week. The Flyers have four players with 40-plus points, two players with 30 or more points, and three players with 20 or more points.

Chicago Blackhawks
01.23.2011 at 12:30 p.m. in Chicago

A rematch of sorts, the Flyers will fly to Chicago to take on the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. The differences are pretty major as a large chunk of the team that raised the cup last year no longer wears Red and Black. The Blackhawks are still in the playoff hunt in the West as they currently sit in 7th overall in the conference and still have the core group of players that made them a much better team in a short period of time intact. With Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, ex-Flyer Patrick Sharp, and Jonathan Toews up front and Brian Campbell, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Brent Seabrook are still back on the blue-line, the Blackhawks are a very dangerous team with three lines that can score and a two shutdown pairs. They have pretty much split their goaltending duties pretty evenly between rookie Corey Crawford and Marty Turco as both Cristobal Huet and Antii Niemi are no longer in Chicago, and only one of them (Niemi) is in the NHL as he currently dons the San Jose Sharks sweater.

The Blackhawks are a good mix of skill and grit as the aforementioned four forwards are what makes the team such a threat, the team is also seeing good production out of wingers Tomas Kopecky (10 goals, 21 assists for 31 points) and Troy Brouwer (14 goals, 13 assists for 27 points) and third line, shutdown Center Dave Bolland has played plus-hockey and added some tertiary scoring as he has a plus seven rating and has 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists). The Blackhawks have just one player over 40 points this season as ex-Flyer Patrick Sharp is having one of his best seasons ever with 45 points (25 goals, 20 assists) but is a minus six, but they also have three players with 30-plus points, and six players with 20 or more points. 10 players over three lines and one defense pair means they are getting pretty balanced scoring or at least don’t rely on just one line to do everything for them.

Speaking of balance, the Blackhawks still have one of the better defense corps in the league as last year’s Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith leads a top four rounded out by veteran puck-moving offensive defenseman Brian Campbell, Nicklas Hjalmarsson, and Brent Seabrook. Of course it doesn’t hurt the Blackhawks to have Nick Boynton as a fifth defenseman. This is still a very good group of blue-liners and have the ability to shut down the Flyers top two lines at least, if not all three, so the Flyers will have to play some of their best hockey to get through to either Crawford or Turco.

The goaltending situation for the Blackhawks has been pretty similar to last year’s in that the guy who was supposed to be “the guy” has not been and a rookie has not only played in more games, but has been playing better hockey. Corey Crawford has been outplaying veteran free agent acquisition Marty Turco for the better part of the season even though the pair have started 24 games each. Turco’s numbers are pretty bad as he owns a 10-10-2 record with a dismal .898 SV%, a very high 3.02 GAA, but has one shutout to his credit this year. Crawford on the other hand has much better numbers going 16-8-2 with a .923 SV%, a 2.08 GAA and two shutouts in what will be his rookie year and may end up being in the Calder Trophy conversation at season’s end if he keeps these numbers up.

This is a pretty big test for the Flyers and if they don’t walk away with a point, it’s probably on them as to why they didn’t get at least one.

Montreal Canadiens
01.25.2011 at 7:30 p.m. in Philadelphia

The Canadiens have fallen out of the top spot in the Northeast and have continued to fall in the standings. Despite staying in the top eight in the Eastern Conference, they are only in sixth place and remain two points behind the Boston Bruins for the Northeast Division lead and the Bruins hold a game in hand over Les Habitants. It has been a rough go lately for the Canadiens as they have have lost defenseman Josh Gorges for the season, and Mike Cammalleri for a few weeks with a separated shoulder. Max Paccioretty was due to be out a month as he took a puck to the ribs and left the game on a stretcher and the arena in an ambulance, but he has decided to play through the pain and he will play against the Flyers.

Having Cammalleri and Paccioretty would have been major blows to a team that is already short on high-powered scorers, pun more than intended. The Canadiens are a tiny team up front as they have seven players under 6’0” and only three forwards over 200 lbs. They don’t have a lot of firepower either, though their lines have pretty balanced numbers. Led by Tomas Plekanec who has 39 points (16 goals, 23 assists), the Canadiens have three players with 30 or more points and five players with 20-plus points. They also have five players with at least 10 goals. The true testament for this defensive minded team however, is the fact that they only have two regulars in their forward corps who are below an even rating on the season.

The defense corps for the Canadiens is steadied by Hal Gill and rookie P.K. Subban who both had huge roles in last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost out to the Philadelphia Flyers after killing off two powerhouses in the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The problem for the Canadiens is injuries. Both Andrei Markov, who missed most of last year with a knee injury, is out this year with one as well and more recently Josh Gorges will also miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury as well. The Canadiens still have a pretty solid core as veterans Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek are still on the blue line with mid-season acquisition James Wisniewski and ex-Flyer Alexandre Picard. From here on out they will more than likely rely on one Carey Price, who has been better than was expected.

Price should absolutely be in the Hart Trophy talk as he has practically carried the Canadiens all season long. He has started all but six games for the Habs and has gone 24-15-5, maintained a .921 SV%, an admirable 2.33 GAA, and posted four shutouts. Price may not be in the Vezina conversation as Tim Thomas looks to have that trophy all but secured a little more than halfway through the 2010-2011 Season, but if the Canadiens win games, it is largely due to Price’s heroics and he has done a marvelous job handling both the pressure of being selected to hold the fort, and played well-above his head at times to keep the Canadiens in the playoff picture all year long to this point. Alex Auld has started only six games, played in seven, has posted a 3-2-0 record, a good .926 SV%, and a good enough 2.20 GAA. With those numbers, the Canadiens should have won at least four games with Auld in net, and probably should have won more for Price, but again just do not have the guys up front to put the puck in the net.

This has been an interesting season series all year and will probably continue to be.