Flight Plan 02.20.2011

The Philadelphia Flyers won two of the three games they had last week and in only one of the games was the score separated by more than a goal after the final buzzer. If you weren’t sure that it was almost that time of year, you are now. The games will get tighter, they will mean more, two point games can now be viewed as four point games, and some team may even get in to the playoffs on a shootout win in the last game of the season. The great thing about hockey, particularly the NHL, is that somehow they’ve figured out how to make the last few months of the regular season, one that spans over seven of them, fun and exhilarating even for the casual fan. And that’s before the real fun starts.

The Flyers will face three Eastern Conference opponents this week, only one of which is contending for a playoff spot in the New York Rangers, and a team hotter than the Arizona Desert on a sunny day in August in the Phoenix Coyotes. The other two games this week will be against the New York Islanders and the Ottawa Senators.

New York Rangers:
02.20.2011 at 12:30 pm in New York

The New York Rangers are currently in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and got there by way of their play of late as they are 3-6-1 in their last 10.  The Rangers have dropped seven of their last nine games and although I may not be an expert, that doesn’t seem like the best strategy for making the playoffs. This is the fourth game this season between the Atlantic Division rivals and the Flyers are currently 3-0 against a Ranger team that has been beleaguered by injuries for much of the season but are finally mostly healthy with the exceptions of Derek Boogaard, Captain Chris Drury, former Flyer forward Ruslan Fedotenko, and Alexander Frolov who are on injured reserve.

The Rangers rely a balanced, hard-nosed, game and a lot of good goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist.  Lundqvist owns a 23-19-4 record and seven of those 23 wins are shutouts. He has a good .921 SV% and a respectable 2.36 GAA.  Former Flyer Martin Biron has a record of 8-6-0, a better .923 SV%, and an even better 2.13 GAA. It might be time to give him some starts, although Biron has not done well at all against the Flyers since leaving the team in 2009 losing all but one game in five tries against the Orange and Black.

The Rangers defense corps is very young as they have no defensemen over the age of 27 on their roster but they allow the 10th fewest shots per game in the league at just a few fractions of a tick under 30 at 29.7. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are the only regular contributors to the offense as they have 24 points and 22 points respectively. Marc Staal has seven goals and 15 assists while Girardi has only three goals and 21 assists. Both are in the black as far as player rating goes and they have three game winners between the three of them.

Then there’s the offense. The Rangers’ leading scorer is center Brandon Dubinsky who has 43 points in 55 games and also leads the team in goals and assists with 19 markers and 24 helpers. Marian Gaborik has more points per game than any other Ranger player though as he currently has 38 points and has played only 46 games. Beyond those two, the rest of the team is very balanced as no player has more than 33 points and most of the regulars have 19 or more points. Nine players in fact have between 19 and 33 points and that leads us to the next thing you all should know about the Rangers. They don’t rely on one guy to score all their points this year and they really don’t rely on one guy to win games for them. Not a single player has more than three game winners on the entire team. In fact, 16 different players have at least one game winner, while only six players have notched two final tallies, and one player has scored the last goal in a contest three times. That is really balanced when you consider the Flyers who have 14 players who have scored game winners, but have scored 190 goals to the Rangers’ 160. The Flyers have one player with six game winners, one with five, one with four, three with three, four with two, and four with at just one game winning goal. Not to take away from the Flyers’ depth at all, because they do have a lot of guys that can put the puck in the net and help other guys do that, but they count on certain guys to win their games for them while the Rangers do not.

Phoenix Coyotes:
02.22.2011 at 7 pm in Philadelphia

The Phoenix Coyotes have lost eight games in 2011. They’ve played 23. They are absolutely one of the hottest teams since New Year’s Day, are 8-2-0 in their last 10 and have won seven straight. They’re a good team and currently sit atop the Pacific Division with 73 points and that’s a pretty big feat because every single team in the Pacific occupies a playoff spot in the Western Conference playoff picture at the moment. Yep, all five of them. In fact, three of the teams are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot with 68 points.  But let’s talk about the Coyotes who are absolutely on F-I-R-E.

The Coyotes are chock-full of guys who can score. They have 10 players with over 23 points and nine players with 10 or more goals. Their leading goal scorers are Taylor Pyatt and Radim Vrbata who both have 15 pucks potted while their leading scorer is defenseman Keith Yandle who has 51 points and has also 10 markers.  The ‘Yotes also only have six players in the red as far as +/- is concerned despite scoring just five more goals than they’ve allowed to date and not a one of them is below a -10. This is a team that can beat you in a lot of ways and will. One of their biggest assets these last two seasons is goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

Bryzgalov has been a revelation for the Coyotes since being claimed on the waiver wire from the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Last year Bryzgalov posted a good 42-20-6 record but had an incredible eight shutouts. He also had a .920 SV% and a 2.29 GAA and although the Coyotes were bounced from the playoffs in the first round, they weren’t even expected to make the playoffs due to issues off the ice completely irrelevant to the game. Head Coach, and last year’s most deserving Jack Adams trophy award winner in a while, Dave Tippett had the team focused from beginning to end last year and this year has been similar in ways, though the Coyotes have really come on as of late after a pretty sluggish start where they had just three wins in all of October. Still, the Coyotes rely quite a bit on Bryzgalov to be good and he has been posting a 26-14-6 record with five shutouts, a .918 SV%, and a 2.56 GAA.

New York Islanders:
02.24.2011 at 7 pm in Philadelphia

The New York Islanders have been good of late, despite a really ridiculous game a few weeks ago where they brutalized the Pittsburgh Penguins both on the scoreboard (final score 9-3) and with their fists, and in some case elbows, which saw a total of 346 penalty minutes awarded to the two teams as well as a total of 23 games in suspensions doled out by the league.  Sometimes games like that are fun to watch, but this was something else entirely and there’ve been far too many articles/blogs/opinions about this game already. All that needs to be said is that this game was bad for both teams, bad for the league, and even worse for the sport.  It’s one thing to have a heated game like the Dallas Stars-Boston Bruins game a few weeks ago or the Montreal Canadiens-Bruins game or even the Flyers-Ottawa Senators game not too long ago, but this was just ridiculous and it was shameful what the Islanders did, even if they were crimes committed against the Penguins, it’s something that never should’ve happened as the officials completely lost control of the game and the league did very little to send an extremely clear message.

Despite the shenanigans that occurred recently, the Islanders have been playing good hockey. They are 7-3-0 in their last 10 and have overtaken the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference as they now have 51 points to the Senators’ 47.  The Islanders rely on their young talent, and there’s a good amount of it, to score goals for them especially since their goaltending is of no help at all.  The Islanders have six guys with 30 or more points and three of them have 23 or more goals. John Tavares leads the Islanders with 51 points while Michael Grabner has the top spot in goals for the Isles with 25. Grabner has been really extra super hot lately with six tallies and three helpers in his last five games including a hat trick and two three point contests.  He has also been a plus player in four of his last five games and an even zero in one.

Either way, this should be a tough game and the Flyers cannot take the Isles lightly or they will lose two very valuable points.

Ottawa Senators:
02.24.2011 at 7 pm in Ottawa

The last time these two teams met, the Flyers rolled over the Ottawa Senators by a score of 6-2 in a game where a whole lot of the rough stuff was going on including a combined 126 penalty minutes and two unlikely Flyers dropped the mitts in Jeff Carter and Claude Giroux. Ten fighting majors were handed out, five misconducts, and four of those were game misconducts.  This was a game where the Senators had probably had enough of being scored on, but the Flyers just kept lighting the lamp and there’s not really a whole lot that Ottawa could do about it. Three of the Flyers’ six goals were scored in the third period, and the majority of the fights occurred after the final marker was marked at 12:34. Since then, the Senators have been on even more of a downward spiral than they had been. The Senators had lost three straight going into that game and then lost seven straight after that game. They finally broke an unreal 11 game losing streak against the Edmonton Oilers just a few games ago and have started to see the dismemberment of the team via trades as management has decided to go in a different direction. First Mike Fisher was dealt to the Nashville Predators for picks (including a first rounder), then Chris Kelly to the Boston Bruins for a second round pick, then Jarkko Ruutu to the Anaheim Ducks for a 6th rounder, and most recently goaltender Brian Elliot was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for Craig Anderson, another goalie. The Senators have acquired only one first round pick despite all of these deals and only one guaranteed second rounder.

This team is just no good and they are 2-6-2 in their last 10. They are also a league worst -62 in goal differential.  Anderson is capable of carrying a team to a better fate though, but he’s been pretty middle of the road all year long as he posted a 13-15-3 record  with the Avs, had an awful .897 SV%, and an even worse 3.28 GAA. His numbers with Ottawa are slightly better given that he’s had just one game in a Senators uniform as he has a 1-0-0 record with one shutout to his credit in a game where he stopped 47 shots and all of the pucks that came his way in a shootout with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  There’s really nothing else to talk about with this team being as that they’re the worst in the league right now and probably won’t be getting too much better for the rest of the year.

With that said, the Flyers absolutely need to take advantage of this team and get two points.