Early on in the season, the Philadelphia Flyers found themselves in some trouble. Their slow start has been well documented at this point, but it is all too easy to forget how close they seemed to come to turning it around before the wheels came off for good.
By the 11th of February, they had already completed over 25 percent of their regular season schedule, finding themselves below .500; but they had finally started to find their way into the win column. With seven of a possible eight points over a four-game stretch, the team traveled to Toronto with every intention of continuing their climb back into relevancy. Unfortunately, they left with nothing but a blue and white beat down – a sight that would become all too familiar for Flyers fans in the months that followed.
Looking back on that game, it stands out to me for many reasons. Yet there was one thing in particular that bothered me that was mentioned right away by the Toronto broadcasters, and it plagued my vision for the remainder of the season: the Flyers lack of commitment to tight coverage on the defenseman in their own zone.
Much like a chameleon in camouflage, this game can take many different forms. As scoring continues to trend down, defenseman are contributing to the offense more than ever over the past decade. Defensemen scored over 15 percent of NHL goals for the first time since 2003-04, a trend on the rise over the past three seasons. This does not even take into consideration assists.
The playoffs have been no different: Slava Voynov finished tied for the LA Kings lead in goals with six, and Boychuk ranks fourth on the Boston Bruins with five — just one more than rookie teammate Torey Krug and former foe Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins. Simply put, in a league where offense comes first but scoring is more difficult than ever, teams are coming up with new ways to put the puck in the net — and it seems to be coming from the blue line.
This brings me back to that game in Toronto, where the first three goals the Leafs put on the board were generated from a defenseman on the point in an eventual 5-2 loss.
The first came on a booming slap shot from Dion Phaneuf off a counter-attack the other way. Phaneuf joined the rush late, and the uncovered defenseman had nothing to worry about as Wayne Simmonds and Danny Briere confused their coverage due to Simmonds’ presence down low and Briere’s inability to maintain any form of defensive responsibility. His one timer quickly found the back of the net, easy as could be.
On their second tally, the Flyers once again found themselves bunching up along the boards in an effort to play the puck. When it finally made its way to the blue line, the Leafs defender was able to easily push the puck back into the zone because the winger, center, and defenseman had all flocked to the boards in the middle of the faceoff circle. The puck quickly found its way on net thanks to a winger that had also slipped free while waiting up high, and Colton Orr deposited the rebound to give Toronto the lead.
The third goal for the home team was the icing on the cake. Cody Franson used the gap that had been present all day to his advantage, getting another puck towards the net from the perimeter that was deflected home to give Toronto the lead for good.
It was an exercise in futility that the Flyers never seemed to fully grasp.
They kept backing off, clogging the middle of the ice and making it Hell for their goaltender to see. This congestion regularly led to confusion regarding responsibility amongst forwards, as no one was ever quite sure who had what man.
Meanwhile, opposing defenders had all the time in the world to figure out the best way to attack, as they are now more than ever before.
There are many beautiful things about the game, but to me it is all a product of the pressure and speed that exists on the ice. It is especially evident in the playoffs, when third pairings and fourth lines suddenly become just as important as starting lineups. Any time you give someone at this level a chance to slow the game down due to the presence of space, you will pay dearly. On many occasions throughout the season, they paid for these gaps in points.
It would appear there was a method to the madness in Philadelphia. The team ranked third in the league in blocked shots with 784, a testament to their ability to get into shooting lanes. Unfortunately for the Flyers, that doesn’t necessarily mean all that much.
Finishing with just one less blocked shot in fourth is the last place Colorado Avalanche. Even worse, of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, half of them finished in the bottom half of the league in the category. LA led the way in that regard, with 273 fewer blocked shots than the Flyers and merely 511 total, the lowest in the league. Chicago and Boston finished with 652 and 650 respectively, not even good for the top 20.
Worse still, the Flyers finished just 12th in shots allowed per game, behind all three of the aforementioned teams above. That means those teams have figured out a way to eliminate those shots altogether. For the Flyers, eliminating those shots means upping their pressure in their own zone in an attempt to minimize their opponent’s possession and put their dangerous offense on the attack.
Based on what I saw, the best way to do that would be to up the pressure on the ever-dangerous defenseman and eliminate their ability to have an impact in the offensive zone altogether.
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