Flight Plan Week of 03.20.2011

The Philadelphia Flyers haven’t looked all that good recently, but they haven’t looked all that bad either. In their last five games, they’ve been able to muster up just enough effort and offense to get points in six of their last seven games and have even squeezed five out of a possible six in their last three contests.

The big shootout win in Dallas was a little bit overshadowed by their inability to cap a comeback against the Atlanta Thrashers with a win in OT which saw Danny Briere score two goals including one with just 1:28 left in the third period.  The most important thing about playing in games this time of year is getting your game to where you want it to be and for the most part, the Flyers have begun to do that.

They’ve tightened up in most areas and aside from a terrible back-to-back outings against two New York State teams in the Buffalo Sabres (5-3 after being up by two) and the New York Rangers (7-0 after not showing up at all at any point in time during the game), the Flyers have been involved in five one-goal games and have gotten big “W”s in three of them.

Again on the bright side, the Flyers have built a healthy six point lead on their cross-state rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will be without the services of Matt Cooke from today through the first round of the playoffs after he elbowed Ryan McDonagh in the head in Sunday’s matchup with the Rangers. Cooke was given a five minute major and a game-misconduct which helped spark the Rangers to a 5-2 victory over the Penguins. The Penguins have also played one more game than the Flyers and will play again tonight against the Detroit Red Wings.

Last week, center turned right winger Jeff Carter accumulated a point in every game he played in, including three goals and one assist bringing his goal total to 33 on the season and his point total to 62 as he sits just four points behind his line’s pivot Claude Giroux who has 66 points as he saw a five game point streak come to an end against the Dallas Stars on Saturday night. 

Danny Briere is also in hot pursuit of both the top spot on the team in goals and points as he was riding a six game point streak into Dallas before having it snapped. During that six-game streak, Briere tallied just three goals, but accrued five assists for eight points in six games including two multi-point games (a two pointer against the Oilers and a three pointer against the Thrashers). 

This is possibly the biggest week for the Flyers in recent memory as they play the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins at home before travelling to Long Island to face the New York Islanders on Saturday before heading back home to play the Boston Bruins at home on Sunday in back-to-back games this coming weekend.

If you haven’t watched Flyers hockey all that much this season or have just gotten back to watching them more intently now, you’ve picked the right time to start/restart.

Washington Capitals:
03.22.2011 at 7:30 p.m. in Philadelphia

Other than the white-hot New Jersey Devils, you’d be really hard pressed to find a better team in the Eastern Conference since the All-Star Break than the Washington Capitals. They are officially firing on every single cylinder, cooking with gas or napalm in some cases; they’ve just been a real good hockey team who is playing sound defensive hockey and getting big goals and plays at big times from their biggest, well most important player, in Alex Ovechkin. 

Fortunately for the Flyers, Ovechkin will be sitting out of Tuesday’s contest with a nagging lower-body injury which has plagued him for most of the season and that’s a good thing because he’s pretty much been everything for the Caps recently. Ovechkin has been able to rack up 21 points in his last 16 games including a seven game point streak where he put up four goals, two of them game winners, and seven assists for 11 points.

Needless to say the Flyers, and most teams down the stretch here, will face a less offensively charged Caps team since Ovechkin will sit out the next seven to ten days with that injury. However, the Capitals greatest strength since March has come around has been their defensive game.

The Caps have allowed more than two goals in a single game just two times, both against Western Conference opponents and have lost just once in the third month of 2011 where they’ve played a total of 10 games thus far. Up until their loss against the Red Wings, the Capitals had been on a nine-game win streak which saw them outscore opponents 28 to 14.

As a team in the NHL, when your goals against average is just about 1.4 over 10 games, you’re going to win a lot of them. The Capitals also have just come off a 3-0 blanking of the aforementioned Devils.

Washington has certainly looked more like a team that can beat you any number of ways recently, and the Flyers should be wary of not playing them hard regardless of who is in or out of the lineup for the Caps. 

Pittsburgh Penguins:
03.24.2011 at 7 p.m. in Philadelphia 

The Pittsburgh Penguins may not have won a whole lot of games recently, in fact they are 5-3-2 in their last 10, but they have managed to grab points in all but four of their last 14. That is most of the reason why they have pressed right up on the backside of the Flyers who have felt heat for the first time since December in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference regular season title races. 

The most impressive part about this little run the Penguins have been on is that they’ve been without the services of their two best offensive weapons in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. In fact, the Penguins haven’t been very healthy all year and have still managed to put up a decent fight for first in the division and conference. It speaks a lot to the quality of their defense, goaltending, coaching, and overall character of the team to be as close as they are to gaining home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs despite the amount of adversity they’ve gone through this year.

One thing that seems to be somewhat of a miss for the Penguins is their almost trade deadline pickups of Alex Kovalev, James Neal, and Matt Niskanen. In 10 games with the Penguins, Kovalev has a single goal and a solitary assist for a measly two points, while Neal has tallied only one goal as well and helped on just three others for four points in a Penguins sweater. Niskanen is a defenseman so if given a little bit more leeway, has done much better for his new team by matching Kovalev’s numbers in one less game as he has one goal and one assist for two points as well. 

The Penguins will be the Flyers biggest challenge of the two games this week against playoff teams because they’re an divisional and state rival and are playing without their two star players. Without Crosby and Malkin, the Flyers could see the Penguins as easy prey and could be a tad late to show up to the party, but if they don’t read the directions, shame on them.

New York Islanders:
03.26.2011 at 7 p.m. at Uniondale 

The New York Islanders are again playing their best hockey of the season as they are scheduled to meet for the fifth time this season against the Flyers.

 This sounds all too familiar as I think just about every time I’ve written this article, the Flyers have been about to play the Isles as they’re playing good hockey, but I digress.  The Islanders have won none of the contests between the two teams and will probably lose this one too unless the Flyers just flat out blow it. Never the less, the Islanders have been able to nab points in nine of their last 10 as they are 5-1-4 in that span and have outscored opponents 31 to 28 over those same 10 games.

The most pleasant surprise in the second half for the Isles has been one Michael Grabner who has posted five goals and 10 points in his last 11 games, but is currently tied for the team lead in goals with Matt Moulson with 30 on the year. Team leader John Tavares has 60 points and leads the team with 34 assists as he has lived up to his billing as one of the premier playmakers in the game, without too much help up front.

It’s important for teams like the Islanders to finish on a high note going into next season so they can start to gain confidence in each other, as well as build an identity going forward and what better motivation would there be than beating a team who has owned them all season long. I would look for this to be a pretty tough game for the Flyers, despite their past record against the lowly Islanders.