The Flyers’ well-publicized fall from grace continues to unfold before our eyes, seemingly with no end in sight. Closed-door meetings led by both Captain Mike Richards and stone-faced General Manager Paul Holmgren have been described by varying sources as “productive” and “intimidating” respectively as they players attempt to regain the spark that saw them rocket to the top of the Eastern Conference before the all-star break.
If you ask any educated hockey fan, and even uneducated hockey fans who think that they’re educated, what the traditional issue with the Flyers is, they will immediately point to the goaltending. So great is the stigma placed upon the Flyers’ goaltending situation that some will immediately turn to the goaltender to dump their blame upon even when the goaltending has little to nothing to do with the team’s funk. And that is what makes this recent turn of bad play, a rut which has long since exceeded the term “slump”, so disturbing, disgusting, and downright terrifying: the goaltenders are not to blame.
The Flyers’ goaltending situation, while recently shaken up by the addition of Michael Leighton from the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in Adirondack, has been relatively stable throughout the season. When one takes into account that the Flyers had 7 different goaltenders see game action last season, it becomes even more remarkable that this team has only had three goaltenders see game action this season (the third guy, Leighton, only seeing 60 minutes all season). While not expected to be the starter prior to the season, Russian rookie Sergei Bobrovsky settled comfortably into the Flyers’ starting role, starting 50 of the team’s 80 games up to this point.
Of late, with the team in the midst of a four-game losing streak beginning with the defeat at the hands of the Thrashers following the impressive showing in the victory over the Penguins, Bobrovsky has actually played rather well. In his three starts during that span, Bobrovsky has allowed 6 goals, stopping 84 of 91 shots for an impressive .923 SV%. It has been the Flyers’ inability to score timely goals and to defend leads that has been their downfall.
Some will blame the goaltender for this problem, but I ask you what you would like a rookie goaltender to do when the team’s top two defensemen get split by a pass leading to a breakaway or an opponent is allowed to stand directly in front of him and set up a screen with no resistance from the defense? No, the problem with this team has been porous situational defense, lack of aggressive forecheck and backcheck, the absence of clutch offense, and a pathetic powerplay. This is a situation in which numbers and statistics do not lie. The goaltenders have been playing well enough to win but the rest of the team has not been doing its job. God help this team if that trend continues.
Michael Leighton turned out an impressive last hurrah with the Phantoms this week. After a game against Albany, a 9-5 victory during which Leighton made several acrobatic saves to stifle the Devils’ comeback, he ended his season with the Phantoms by stopping 49 consecutive shots in back-to-back shutouts: 3-0 over the Syracuse Crunch (Ducks) and 6-0 over the Rochester Americans (Panthers). Those shutouts were the 4th and 5th of the season for Leighton, and adding to his modern-day NHL record of 34 shutouts.
Perhaps as a sign that the Phantoms are truly a team which has turned itself around, they did not miss a beat without their team MVP. In their first game sans Leighton, Johan Backlund turned aside 19 of 20 shots in a 4-1 win over Albany. Backlund is looking to turn around an unimpressive year during which he’s posted 3.34, .886 splits and perhaps having Leighton to challenge him has been good for his game. We’ll see if the victory over Albany will spark him to better things in the Phantoms’ remaining three games.
The addition of Leighton to the Flyers lineup has muddled the goaltending situation a bit when trying to predict starters (not that I’ve been very good at it anyway). However, according to Coach Laviolette, this isn’t as tricky as it may seem. Word from upstairs is that the Flyers want Leighton to see game action in one of the team’s two remaining regular season games. Laviolette, however, seems firm in his resolve to have Sergei Bobrovsky, who he declared to be his starter in game 1 of the first round series, play out the year. While I’m 95% certain that Bobrovsky will, in fact, start Friday versus Buffalo, the Islanders seem like an ideal team against which to warm Leighton up. If I were the coach I might take that opportunity, but if the Flyers are still in a bird-fight (Haha, get it? Birds? Penguins…oh never mind) for the division with Pittsburgh then Bobrovsky will probably see the ice in that game as well.