Flight Plan 12.11.2011

The Philadelphia Flyers have now won five games in a row and are sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings with 39 points and 101 goals scored, being the first team in the NHL to reach 100 goals this season.

Peter Laviolette’s club has overcome a lot of criticism and adversity through these first 28 games to get to this point, but they may have to push forward without two more of their best players in Claude Giroux and Ilya Bryzgalov.

Giroux is currently leading the NHL in scoring with 39 points, three points ahead of resurgent Toronto Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel, but left the game in the second period and did not return after taking a knee to the head from teammate Wayne Simmonds in the neutral zone.

Bryzgalov also left the game with a lower-body injury in the third period and Sergei Bobrovsky finished the game, playing 13:01 and stopping all three shots he faced. The Flyers have been playing without the services of Chris Pronger, Andreas Lilja, Brayden Schenn, and Erik Gustafsson for a while now and there are no timetables on the returns of either Pronger or Schenn.

James van Riemsdyk just recently returned to the lineup a couple of games ago after sitting out with an upper-body injury for several games, and Danny Briere has also missed time with an upper-body injury. These injuries will begin to take their toll on a team that has already been beleaguered by them, but fortunately it’s still relatively early in the season with a lot of hockey left to be played.

Also on the bright side, it seems as if Briere is starting to hit his stride as he has seven points in his last five games, while Simmonds and Matt Read both have five points in their last five games as well.

This week, the Flyers have away games against the Washington Capitals and  Montreal Canadiens, then return home to play the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins for the second time this season.

Washington Capitals:
10.14.2011 in Washington at 7:00 PM

The Washington Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau and replaced him with ex-Capital and all-around raging bull Dale Hunter. The Flyers have not played the Capitals with Hunter at the helm, but they did lose the last meeting, being thoroughly outplayed by Boudreau’s team in an embarrassing 5-2 home loss back in October.

In six games under Hunter, the Capitals are 3-3-0 and have scored 18 goals while giving up 16 over that same span and have won their last two by scores of 5-3 and 4-2. If the Capitals start scoring and getting consistent contributions on the score sheet from their top players, they will once again be an extremely dangerous team.

The Capitals are led by center Nicklas Backstrom in points and assists (20A, 31 Pts. in 28 games). Backstrom shares the team lead in goals with Jason Chimera  at 11. Alex Ovechkin has just nine goals and 12 assists for 21 points over that same period and Alexander Semin has only produced a scant five goals and six assists for 11 points in 25 games.

While Backstrom is producing at over a point a game, the lack of scoring from both Semin and Ovechkin are clearly a real problem for this team. They need their best players to be their best players to win games as –once again — they are not very deep up front. Brooks Laich has seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points, but beyond him, no forward has more than 19 points on the year thus far.

With that said, the Capitals have scored 17 goals in their last three games and Ovechkin has four points in his last six games, just one goal, while Backstrom has six points, four of them have been goals, over that same span. Semin, however, has just one assist since Hunter took the reigns as coach and is a minus-three over his last six games.

The Capitals have gotten a steady amount of help from two members of their blue line as John Carlsson leads all defensemen in assists and points with 15 and 20 respectively. Both he and Dennis Wideman have five goals apiece. Wideman has 14 assists to bring his point total to 19 on the year. Beyond those two, no Capitals d-man has more than Karl Alzner who has just one goal and seven assists for eight points. Alzner leads the entire team in plus/minus at plus-12, despite only having eight points on the year.

In net, the Capitals have had some issues. Both veteran starter Tomas Vokoun and young netminder Michal Neuvirth have struggled mightily. Vokoun has started 20 games, played in 21, with a 12-7-0 record, .910 save percentage, but a 2.70 goals-against average and just one shutout so far.

Neuvirth has not played to expectations, as he is the owner of a 3-5-1 record, with an. 873 save percentage and a 3.76 goals against average. Neither goalie has provided this team with any sort of consistency, but will absolutely need to going forward if the Capitals are to regain their stride and confidence.

Montreal Canadiens:
10.16.2011 in Montreal at 7:30 PM

This will be the third of four meetings between the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens this season. The teams have split the series thus far, with the Canadiens winning the first game 5-1 at Bell Centre and the Flyers winning the last one by a score of 3-1 on the day after Thanksgiving.

The Canadiens are currently sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, but are tied with eighth place Washington with 31 points. The Canadiens are 3-3-4 in their last 10 and have scored just 74 goals on the year while giving up 77. For a team known for their defensive style, they haven’t really played like it so far and absolutely do not have the depth up front to support long stretches where they aren’t playing tight in their own zone.

Tomas Plekanec has paced the Canadiens pretty much all season as he has six goals and 18 assists for 24 points in 30 games this year. Max Pacioretty has the most goals of any Canadien with 11 and he as added 10 helpers for 21 points on the year. Offseason free-agent signing Erik Cole has yet to really get going, recording 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 points.

Beyond those three, the Canadiens have not had a whole lot of help from anyone. Team captain Brian Gionta has eight goals, but only seven assists. Andrei Kostitsyn also has eight goals with only five assists. Mike Cammalleri has just six goals and nine assists for 15 points through 25 games, and granted he has come on a little more recently as he has four points in his last five games, there just isn’t any consistent offensive output for this team.

Along the blue line the Canadiens have not gotten a lot of contributions — though this is directly a result of an avalanche of injuries.

P.K. Subban leads all Canadien defensemen with 11 points and he is a plus-4 on the year. Josh Gorges has one goal and nine assists for 10 points, and while Yannick Weber is leading all Hab defensemen with just three goals, he has just six assists to boot.

The Canadiens did manage to pick up Tomas Kaberle in a surprise deal earlier in the week with the Carolina Hurricanes for Jaroslav Spacek. Kaberle made an impression right away with two assists in Saturday’s win at New Jersey. His presence should mitigate the absence of Andrei Markov, who has yet to recover from knee surgery and hasn’t seen the ice in 13 months.

When nobody is putting pucks in the net consistently then teams often rely on their goaltender too much to keep them competitive on a nightly basis and the Canadiens’ netminders have done so.

Carey Price has started and finished 26 games. He owns an 11-8-7 record with a .920 save percentage and 2.19 goals-against average, in addition to two shutouts on the year. His backup, Peter Budaj, has started and finished just four games, but has just a 1-3-0 record despite saving more than 91 percent of shots against with a 2.50 GAA.

As the Flyers have found out, the Canadiens are either hot or colder than the ice they skate on and there seems to be no in-between for this team. If the Orange and Black can come out flying, they may get the jump en Les Habitants and escape from Montreal with a big two points.

Boston Bruins:
10.18.2011 in Boston at 1:00 PM

After a sluggish start that the media beat into the ground as “The Stanley Cup Hangover,” the Boston Bruins have been phenomenal in the last 6 weeks. Prior to a loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the Bruins had not lost in regulation in 15 contests, and had lost just one game over that span to the Detroit Red Wings.

The defending champs have played well and are just two points back from the Flyers for the lead in the East. They also hold the best goal differential in the league at plus-35. With 94 goals for they can score, and being tied with the New York Rangers for the league’s fewest goals allowed at 59, well that’s a pretty scary combination right there. The hardest part about playing the Bruins, as they are a quick strike team, is that they are incredibly balanced up and down their lineup in terms of scoring.

The Bruins are led by sophomore sensation Tyler Seguin as he has 13 goals and 13 assists for 26 points in 27 games and he also leads the entire league in plus-minus with a plus-19. Milan Lucic’s added 10 goals and 13 assists for 23 points, while Patrice Bergeron has five goals and 15 assists for 20 points.

Also in his second year is Brad Marchand who has nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points, while Nathan Horton has eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points. Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley both have 18 points, while  David Krejci has 17 points on the year. If the Bruins scoring core is anything, it’s balanced, and the scariest part is that just two of those players are even or a minus on the year.

Other than Zdeno Chara, the Bruins defense doesn’t really put pucks in the net all too often. Chara has six goals and 13 assists for 19 points. Joe Corvo — touted as the solution to the problem — is the next closest defenseman in terms of point production at two goals and 10 assists. Andrew Ferrence has two goals and seven assists for nine points.  The Bruins rely on their forwards for scoring goals, and their defense for preventing them for the most part, but they also have a guy you may have heard of in Tim Thomas who backstops them on most nights.

Reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas has ridiculous numbers for the second season in a row. He has started 19 games, played in 20 of them and is the owner of a 13-5-0 record,  .938 save percentage, 1.92 GAA and three shutouts on the year.

His backup is no slouch either as Tuukka Rask has an 5-4-1 record along with a  .930 save percentage and a stellar 2.01 goals against. The Bruins may be the toughest team to play in the league because of their incredible defensive play and their ability to score at will.

The Flyers, just like every other team, will absolutely have their hands full and will have to bring their A-game or better to beat the B’s.