Flight Plan Week of 10.23.2011

The Philadelphia Flyers started out of the gate as one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League, winning four of their first five games and getting points in all five of them. Since then, they have suffered two embarrassing (though in different ways) back-to-back losses on home ice at the hands of the Washington Capitals and the St. Louis Blues.

To lose to the Capitals by a score of 5-2 when they’re one of the hotter teams in the NHL at the beginning of the season, and just about every bounce goes the way of the opposition, well that’s just hockey. But when a team loses 4-2 because a heap of mental errors and miscues, that is just unacceptable.

The Flyers need to get back to doing what they did well in the first  five games which is getting the puck deep, pinning the team in with an effective forecheck and cycle down low, then getting the puck to the net and through it. The Flyers as always are a big team and they’ve been playing almost like they did last year for stretches when they looked unfocused and lazy. Also, if they aren’t ready to start these games, something needs to be said in the first five minutes, not halfway through the period when they’re already down by a couple goals.

In other news, Danny Briere picked up his second goal of the season on an absolute beauty by beating Blues goaltender Brian Elliott the way only Briere scores the other half of his goals: pulling off the right wing boards and ripping it top shelf. Brayden Schenn was called up after scoring four goals and eight points in four games, only to go scoreless in his first two as a Flyer, but seemed to be developing some chemistry on a line with Briere and Wayne Simmonds, just after Peter Laviolette moved Briere to the wing and Schenn back to his natural position in the middle of the ice.

The Flyers have a pretty tough schedule this week and next, mostly due to the actual schedule itself as they play four games in six nights and seven in twelve days. This week the Orange and Black will face-off against the Toronto Maple Leafs at home, make a quick trip up to La Belle Province to play the Montreal Canadiens before heading back home for their first back-to-back game of the season with the visiting Winnipeg Jets, and finish off the week as they host the Carolina Hurricanes.

Toronto Maple Leafs:
Monday, October 24 at 7:00 PM in Philadelphia

The Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the better records in the NHL right now. Really? Yes, really. They’re off to a 5-1-1 start, and are getting contributions from lots of guys. This is not the same Maple Leaf team that has been toiling down in the proverbial NHL cellar for the past few years, but the question is, can they keep it up? They certainly have the tools to do it.

Toronto GM Brian Burke took a ton of flak after dealing for Phil Kessel a few years ago when he sent two first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Boston Bruins in exchange for the skilled winger. This isn’t the first time that Kessel has gotten off to a quick start as last year he had seven goals and two assists for nine points in his first eight games. Then came a seven-game pointless streak in which Kessel was a minus-three over that stretch. The difference this year is that Kessel is out to a much better pace as he has eight goals and six assists for 14 points in just seven games, including two three-point games and one four-point night. At 2.0 points per game, it’s safe to say that Kessel is white-hot.

He isn’t the only weapon for the Leafs though as former Flyer Joffrey Lupul has four goals (and four assists for eight points), Mikhail Grabovski has three twine-ticklers, while Nikolai Kulemin and David Steckel each have two markers. Another important note is that 17 skaters have registered at least a point and eight of those guys have at least one goal. Blue-line production is also something to look at and the Leafs certainly have guys who can contribute from the point.

The Leafs boast a pretty decent defense corps led by Dion Phaneuf who has two goals and nine points in his first seven games after missing a huge portion of last year with a slashed medial collateral ligament. Limited to just 66 games, Phaneuf was still able to pot eight goals and help on 22 others for 30 points and ended up with just a minus-two player rating, which isn’t bad considering how awful the Leafs were last year. The rest of the Leafs defense has been able to contribute offensively, save for Mike Komisarek who is pointless through six games and currently at a minus-one player rating. Brayden Schenn’s older brother Luke has three assists, while John-Michael Liles has five assists. Carl Gunnarsson and Jake Gardiner each have two assists, while Cody Franson has one. The production for the Leafs has been pretty impressive thus far, but their goaltending has been just okay.

James Reimer has started all but one game, and was yanked in another. So far he’s got a 4-0-1 record, with a .912 save percentage, a fairly high 2.58 goals-against and he’s notched a shutout. Jonas Gustavsson relieved Reimer in one game and started another, and that’s for good reason as he’s posted a 1-1-0 record to accompany an abysmal .852 and a brutal 5.35 GAA. The Leafs will have to play better defense and get much better goaltending if they want to continue their hot start.

It should be a fun game to watch as both of these teams are young and fast, and like to score goals. If the Flyers want to turn this thing around, beating one of the hotter offensive teams in the league would be a good start.

Montreal Canadiens:
Wednesday October 26 at 7:30 PM in Montreal

The Canadiens are off to a really rough start here in the early going as they have just four points in seven games and have just one win to their credit. Luckily for the team that has made their reputation as a giant killer, there are 75 more games to right the ship and to do so, the seemingly hapless Habs must score more goals.

Right now the Canadiens have just 17 goals through seven and have allowed 24. Those are very telling numbers, especially for a team that prides itself on playing a tough defensive style. Right now, the Habs are getting production from just about everyone, but only Travis Moen seems to be scoring goals as he has a roughly a quarter of the teams’ overall goals with four. Moen also has one assist which puts him among four players for Montreal who have registered five points so far. Those other players are Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec, and Max Pacioretty who has returned to action despite missing most of last year after being run into a stanchion by Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and suffering a broken vertebrae as well as a concussion.

One of their bigger issues through these first few games is that they were without one of their top offensive players in Mike Cammalleri who was out due to a deep cut in his leg. Cammalleri has been limited to just four of those seven contests and has two goals including one in a game last night against the Leafs. Another problem for this normally defensively sound team is, well, defense.

The Canadiens have built their team on the foundation of strong team defense. Though the season is fairly young, they have already allowed four or more goals three times, and in only two games were they able to hold their opponents to two or fewer goals. Allowing close to three goals a game is not how anyone wants to start a season, but right now, that’s life for the Canadiens who are again without key members of their defense corps. Andrei Markov has not played a game in god knows how long due to lingering knee issues, while Chris Campoli is out with a leg injury.

On top of missing key guys, the guys they do have aren’t playing well at all. Ex-Flyer Mike Richards’ favorite NHLer, PK Subban has two assists, but is currently a team worst minus-seven, while his defensive partner Hal Gill is a minus-one. Yannick Weber is one of the few bright spots as he has one goal, two assists, and is a Montreal defenseman best plus-four. The Canadiens’ slide has to have more to it than just not getting enough offense and the defense playing subpar, let’s look at the goaltending.

Carey Price has played all of all of the games so far and his numbers are just about as far away from the one’s he posted last year as anyone could have imagined. He has a 1-4-2 record, a downright awful .848 SV%, and a 3.13 GAA. He has been held accountable for 22 of the 24 goals scored against his team and that’s just simply not good enough for a team that lacks scoring punch. Last year, Price was pushing Tim Thomas for much of the season as the best goaltender in all of hockey. He ended up with a 38-28-6 record, a really good .923 SV%, an outstanding 2.35 GAA, and eight shutouts. He’ll need to be much better in net if his team is to win games.

If the Flyers can’t muster a win against this team, well then it’d be pretty obvious that they’re in a world of trouble.

Winnipeg Jets:
Thursday October 27 at 7:00 PM in Philadelphia

The Winnipeg Jets, formerly the Atlanta Thrashers, will visit the Philadelphia Flyers for the first time this year. The Jets, as the Thrashers two years ago, posted four wins in four games over Peter Laviolette’s (and John Stevens’) Flyers. Last year, Laviolette continued his inability to find a way to win against this team as his Flyers went 1-1-2, despite having one of the better records in the league.

Though they may have a different logo and make their home in a different city, state, and country, the Jets are roughly the same team as they were last year and have not gotten off to the best start in the world as they are 2-4-1 through seven, which puts them just a point higher than the Canadiens in the overall Eastern Conference standings.

The Jets aren’t getting a whole lot of offense as they have scored just 16 goals. On the bright side, Alexander Burmistrov is starting to live up to his eighth-overall-pick billing as he has two goals and four assists for six points, and has five points in his last four. Meanwhile, Kyle Wellwood has three goals and two assists for five points and Nik Antropov has also registered one goal and four assists for five points. Team captain Andrew Ladd had a career year last year, as he led the Thrashers in both goals and points with 29 and 59 respectively. This year, Ladd has only two assists in seven games and will need to pick the pace if he wants his team to succeed.

The Jets are getting balanced scoring, even though they’re not getting enough to win games, as they have 10 players with at least one goal, and 17 players have one in the point column. Right now the biggest concern has to be keeping the puck out of the net, especially in the high-octane Southeast Division.

The Jets defense is actually very good. Aside from two good offensive defensemen in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, they have solid blue-liners Johnny Oduya and Mark Stuart, and good two-way puck-movers in Zach Bogosian and Ron Hainsey. The Thrashers got plenty of production out of their back-end last year as they accounted for 44 goals and racked up 168 points. Right now, they’re not seeing as much as they’d like from them as only Enstrom and Hainsey are plus players and Byfuglien is a team worst minus-six. The goaltending also has to improve if the Jets are to win more games.

The tandem of Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason looked good on paper last year until it started. Pavelec was great nearly all year long in a division where scoring and scoring often is a way of life as he posted a a 21-23-9 record, a very good .914 SV%, a livable (only in the Southeast) 2.73 GAA on a team that allowed 3.20 goals per game (262 overall), and even had four shutouts. Chris Mason probably wished he could have had all of last year back as he had a 13-13-3 record, with a pretty bad .892 SV%, and a really bad (and I mean really really bad) 3.39 GAA, though he did get one shutout.

The Jets need to concern themselves first with limiting the other team on the scoreboard, and secondly getting way more out of their offensive guys. One guy who has to step it up is Evander Kane and he should as he had four points in three games against the Flyers last year, going scoreless only once in all four contests between the two teams last year. The Flyers should take this game unless they are really in a funk.

Carolina Hurricanes:
Saturday October 29 at 7:00 PM in Philadelphia

The Carolina Hurricanes are not doing that bad, but they’re certainly not doing that well either as they are just three points ahead of the Jets in the Southeast Division and if the season ended today, they would be the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes don’t really have a problem scoring, but really need to work on keeping the other team off the score sheet.

Last year’s Calder Trophy winner, Jeff Skinner, is showing early that he’s not going into any type of sophomore slump. Skinner has three tallies and six helpers for nine points in eight games. Jussi Jokinen has two goals and four assists for six points in that same span. Meanwhile, four forwards who have four points for the ‘Canes are Tuomo Ruutu, Chad LaRose, Brandon Sutter, and team captain Eric Staal. It’s nice when you’re getting production from a young kid like Skinner, but Staal needs to be more of a leader on the ice, and it’s tough to sell your team on that when you’re a -10 and have only one goal in your last six games. In fact, Skinner, Staal, Ruutu, and LaRose all have negative player ratings right now. That isn’t good.

Fortunately for Carolina, they are getting production out of just about every player on their roster who has played a game as 18 skaters have points and 12 of them have goals. Defense is a huge concern for Paul Maurice and the coaching staff right now and how could it not be?

The Hurricanes have scored 22 goals and have allowed 27. Their blue-line bunch leaves a lot to be desired on the offensive side, though they do have two of the better ones in the league in Tomas Kaberle and Joni Pitkanen. Pitkanen has two goals and four assists for six points, but is a minus-four, while Kaberle has just two assists and is a minus-five. Rounding out their back-end, the ‘Canes have Bryan Allen, Tim Gleason, Justin Faulk, Jay Harrison, and Jamie McBain. Tim Gleason brings a lot of character and definitely some defensive prowess as he is leading the team with a plus-six rating and he also has three assists. Carolina also has a very good goaltender in their number one slot.

Cam Ward is playing well. He has a 3-2-1 record, a good .917 SV%, and a somewhat high 2.81 GAA, as well as a shutout. He’s been on the hook for 17 of the 27 goals against his team. The problem seems to be the other guy, which is unfortunate as he’s a former Flyer and fan favorite: Brian Boucher. Boucher has started two games so far and has a rough 0-1-1 record, an even rougher .850 SV%, and a disgusting 4.46 GAA. Pretty sure those numbers won’t get you a whole lot of playing time, but “Boosh” looked good in the preseason, so maybe he will rebound over the course of the year as he tends to get hot later on.

The Flyers will win this game if they can hold the Hurricanes to a couple goals, but would definitely do well not to get into a gunslinger game, despite having equal (if not more firepower).