Flight Plan 02.27.2011 (Delayed)

There are just 20, count ‘em, 20 games left in the regular season schedule for the Philadelphia Flyers.

It looks like they’ve hit somewhat of a slump as they are just 6-3-1 in their last 10, including a Saturday night loss to the Eastern Conference worst Ottawa Senators by a score of 4-1, and struggling to beat the second-worst club, the New York Islanders. None of this spells success, but since the Flyers still hold a pretty good lead over the next best teams in the East (five points and one game in hand over both the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning) and the next best team in the Atlantic (five points with three games in hand over the Pittsburgh Penguins) there’s really not too much reason to panic.

The one thing that is alarming is the consistently power(less)play and the fact that the Flyers have only won three games with more than a goal separation in their last 12 contests. It’s obviously that time of year where games get tighter and teams that need to play better will play better, but it doesn’t mean that the Flyers shouldn’t be playing urgent hockey and they absolutely are not doing that at all.

With that said, the Flyers have four players with 50-plus points and three players with 20 or more goals. Jeff Carter and Danny Briere both have 28 twine ticklers apiece while Claude Giroux still owns the team’s top point total with 58 points. They’ll need more guys to step up as the season comes to an end, but in the meantime Peter Laviolette’s squad is in a good position and as long as they stay as consistent as they have all season, they should end up with home-ice advantage through the first three rounds of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs if the journey reaches that point.

The Flyers have just two games this week — against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres. Both of these teams will be playing hard, one for pride and one for a playoff spot as the Sabres still have a shot at punching their ticket to the spring dance while the Maple Leafs have for all intents and purposes, called it a season by shipping out both Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin before the trade deadline to the Bruins and the Anaheim Ducks, respectively.

Toronto Maple Leafs:
03.03.2011 at 7:00 p.m. in Philadelphia

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in 10th place in the East and currently sit four points out of the final playoff berth behind the Sabres and the Carolina Hurricanes. They also have played two more games than the Sabres which presents some trouble as they would have to both win two games while the Hurricanes lost two games and the Sabres lost four for them to get in.

It’s doable, but they’ve pretty much packed it in by shipping guys out that would have helped them with a run in the post-season in Kaberle and  Beauchemin. The Leafs are 5-1-4 in their last 10 and though they have collected points in all of their last six games, they’ve only won three of them. A point is a point and at this time of year teams will take that over nothing, but you gotta win games over contending teams and while posting big wins over the Sabres and the Montreal Canadiens, losing to the Atlanta Thrashers and the Ottawa Senators had to be tough.

Even so, the Maple Leafs are just competitive enough to hang around and get their points and still have a shot at making it to the post-season for the first time since 2004 if one of the teams above them starts to lose traction — and the Sabres, who have lost then-leading scorer Derek Roy for the year, have been prone to spinning their tires all season long.

The Leafs have something to prove against the Flyers though, as they’ve lost both games this season and will be looking to gain any momentum they can especially since the Flyers are simply the measuring stick for any team trying to make the playoffs.  Toronto does feature four players with 40-plus points and both Clarke MacArthur and Phil Kessel have 49 points. Kessel leads the team in goals with 27, MacArthur holds the helper title for the Leafs with 30.

MacArthur has been able to play solid two-way hockey and has just a minus-two rating while Kessel has had trouble on the defensive side as he is currently a minus-20 which has been by and large the problem for the Leafs. They can’t keep the puck out of their net no matter how many shots they don’t allow as they currently sit in 16th in the league with 30.4 shots allowed per game (the Flyers hold the 12th position with 30.0 even), but sit in 24th in goals allowed per game with 2.97 and have allowed 190 through 64 games. Only five teams have allowed more goals than the Leafs and that is something they’ll probably look to address in the offseason via trade and the draft both for next season and the future.

Ron Wilson’s charges will still present a tough challenge for the Flyers who have had trouble getting up for games recently and will have to put forth a pretty good effort to walk away with the two points.

The Flyers will also see a familiar face as former Flyer Joffrey Lupul will play his first game against the Orange and Black while sporting the Blue and White. Current Flyers forward Kris Versteeg will also play his first game against his former Maple Leaf mates this game.

Buffalo Sabres:
03.05.2011 at 1 p.m. in Philadelphia

The Sabres are just two points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and with a win over Philadelphia could inch closer to taking that spot from the Hurricanes as they currently hold a game in hand over the ‘Canes. 

Lindy Ruff has guided his club to a 5-3-2 mark in their last 10 and have made a pretty big, albeit inconsistent, push over the past two months to get within two points of the eighth and final playoff berth.  The Flyers have also taken both games against the Sabres this year and have outscored the Blue and Gold by a total of 11-5.

The Sabres have an even goal differential after wallowing in the red for most of the year.  That’s largely due to their inconsistent defensive play and spotty scoring as well as injuries to key personnel. Their biggest loss was Roy, who was having an outstanding year and was the club’s leading scorer through 35 games with 35 points before being placed on IR with a knee injury for four-to-six months.

Since then however, the Sabres have figured ways to win key games (as most of them have been) but haven’t been able to win the most important contests and haven’t yet gotten a chance to sit amongst in the top eight in the East.  They’ve gotten pretty regular production out of former 40-goal man Thomas Vanek who leads the team with 52 points and Drew Stafford has come alive as he leads the Sabres with 24 goals including four hat tricks.  The Sabres also added a key-piece the day before the trade deadline from St. Louis in Brad Boyes. His 42 points are good enough for second on the team. 

And that is just the problem for these Sabres. Until recently, they haven’t had regular producers all year other than Roy and most of their big impact players have been more like small-dent players.

Even number one goaltender Ryan Miller has struggled in lieu of the defense largely resembling Swiss Cheese. His numbers have dipped heavily this season thanks to a roster and overall play that has been constantly in flux. Consider last year that Miller won the Vezina Trophy and had led the league’s busiest goalies in just about every statistical category wire-to-wire as he posted a career high in wins, SV%, and GAA with 41 wins, a .929 SV%, and a 2.22 GA, as well as matching his career high in shutouts with five.

This year Miller’s numbers read like this: a 27-18-6 record, with three shutouts, a .914 SV%, and a 2.65 GAA. Now those stats are reasonable and should get the job done, and maybe Miller’s a little burned out from playing such great hockey all of last year including throwing in some overtime in the Winter Olympics, but he hasn’t been able to get any support when he’s needed it from his team and that’s an issue the Sabres will need to work out to make any sort of real run at the playoffs let alone if the club makes it past the second Sunday in April.

Still, you can expect this one to be a real high-intensity game and if the Flyers don’t bring it, they’ll get smoked.