Flyers need top scorers to perform against top teams

By David Strehle
NHL H
ot Stove Philadelphia Flyers Correspondent

The Philadelphia Flyers (45-20-10, 100 points) are set to faceoff against their arch-nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins (45-23-8, 98 points), for the last time in the regular season tonight as they visit the unfriendly confines of the CONSOL Energy Center.

Philadelphia has struggled to score goals against playoff caliber-teams ever since the calendar changed to February.  In the 11 games that they have played against teams currently in playoff spots, the Flyers have managed to score just 21 regulation goals -and that’s with empty-net goals INCLUDED.

It’s no coincidence that the team has posted a 3-5-3 mark against upper echelon teams in that time frame.

When you play the big games, you need your best players to step up and be the difference-makers.  Looking at Philadelphia’s top five scorers and how they have performed in those 11 games against playoff teams since January ended, there are some very telling  numbers.

  1. Claude Giroux leads all Flyers’ scorers this season with 70 points (24 goals, 46 assists) in 75 games (.93 points per game), with a +17 rating in the plus / minus department, and has recorded 146 shots on goal.  In the 11 games against teams currently in a postseason position in the standings since February 1st; Giroux has scored three goals and added six assists for nine points (.82 PPG), with an EVEN + / – rating, and has registered 26 shots on goal.
  2. Philadelphia’s Jeff Carter leads the team in goals this season with 34, and has added 29 assists for 63 points in 73 games (.86 PPG), with a +27 rating, and 302 shots on goal.  Carter has played in 10 of the 11 games against teams currently in a postseason position in the standings since February 1st (he missed the March 6th game against the New York Rangers); Carter has scored two goals, added five assists for seven points (.70 PPG), with a +2 rating, and put 31 shots on opponent’s goaltenders.
  3. Captain Mike Richards is third in team scoring, with 21 goals, 41 assists for 62 points in 74 games (.84 PPG), with a +16 rating, and 169 shots on goal.  In the 11 games against teams currently in a postseason position in the standings since February 1st; Richards has scored one goal and added four assists for five points (.45 PPG), with a -2 rating, and has registered 21 shots on goal.
  4. Perhaps the most disturbing drop off in numbers comes from Danny Briere.  He’s fourth in Flyers’ scoring this season with 61 points (32 goals, 29 assists) in 72 games (.85 points per game), with a +16 rating in the plus / minus department, and has recorded 228 shots on goal.  In the 11 games against teams currently in a postseason position in the standings since February 1st; Briere has scored one goal and added one assist for just two points (.18 PPG), with a -6 rating, and has registered 36 shots on goal.
  5. Ville Leino is the club’s fifth leading-scorer, with 17 goals and 32 assists for 49 points in 74 games (.66 PPG), with a +14 rating, and 110 shots on goal.  In the 11 games against teams currently in a postseason position in the standings since February 1st; Leino has scored three goals and added one assist for four points (.36 PPG), with a -7 rating, and has registered 17 shots on goal.

It should be expected that there would be a slightly decreased variation in offensive output against the better NHL teams.  It’s only natural, since most possess excellent team defense and goaltending.

But some of the above numbers should set off alarms.

Rarely throughout the course of the Flyers’ 43 year history has the effort of their players come into question.  Philly can be a tough town, and the organization has always assembled a band of rough and tumble players that give 100% – every night.  They may not be able to out-finesse you, but one theme has been a constant.  For many of those 43 years, the opposition has known that they will have to work hard to match the compete-level of the Orange-and-Black – or they will lose.

In recent games, even the players have questioned their own determination.

Richards was upset last Thursday after the team’s 2-1 home shootout loss to the Penguins.  “They worked hard and probably out hit us a little bit in our own building which is disappointing,” the captain said that night.  ”I’m not sure if it was just a letdown after having a good game (Tuesday against the Washington Capitals) or we didn’t have our legs but it was disappointing stuff.”

Kimmo Timonen echoed Richards’ sentiments that same night.  “They outworked us and won all the one-on-one battles,” the defenseman said.  ”If you don’t work, you’re in trouble,”

We just need more energy, passion, and more battling out there,” defenseman Andrej Meszaros said after Sunday night’s 2-1 home loss to the Boston Bruins.

We’re battling for the division with them (Pittsburgh), so it is a little perplexing and something we’re going to have to figure out,” said head coach Peter Laviolette when asked about the Flyers’ performance after the loss to Pittsburgh.

Yes, Philadelphia has some very fundamental issues that they need to figure out and correct.

And they need to do it soon, because with just seven games remaining in the regular season and the division and conference leads eroding away, time’s a-wasting.

On a Positive Note

Not all is gloom and doom in Philadelphia.  Even with the loss to Boston Sunday night, the Flyers are still 5-1-4 in their last 10.  The loss to the Bruins broke a streak of nine consecutive games that Philly had picked up at least one point.

And if they can pull out a win tonight in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia will have set a new franchise record for road wins in a season.  With a 24-9-4 mark in their first 37 contests away from home, the Flyers can break the club record that was set by the 2002-03 team – and tied on Saturday night with a 4-1 victory against the New York Islanders.

Dooby Dooby Doo

It’s hard to fathom how a Pittsburgh team that has been so ravaged by injuries is still in the position to contend for the top spot, but first place in the both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference are on the line.

With both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out for so long with serious injuries, not many gave the Penguins a chance to even make the playoffs, let alone challenge for division and conference titles.

But give head coach Dan Bylsma a lot of the credit.  He has played the hand he was dealt, and made the necessary alterations to his game plan in order for his team to succeed.

Bylsma’s first concern is that the team is winning, though it bears a striking resemblance to the boring Jacques Lemaire-type “trap” system that so many have complained about through the years.

Pittsburgh’s last three games are classic examples of that style of play.  Even though they have scored just two regulation goals over those three contests, the Penguins have come out smelling like roses with a perfect 3-0-0 record.  How is that possible, you ask?  It’s the NHL, and as long as you can have a game tied after regulation time expires, anything can happen.

A team can even come out with a “W” after not scoring a goal in 65 minutes of play, as Pittsburgh did when they entered a shootout against Lemaire’s New Jersey Devils after a scoreless regulation and overtime.  Both teams trapped one another, ad-nauseum, in a first period that saw just four shots on goal total (one for NJ, three for PIT).

Kovalev and Zherdev

The Penguins have played four straight games that have gone to a shootout and have won them all.  One key player in those shootouts has been Alexei Kovalev, who was re-acquired by Pittsburgh at the trade deadline.

Often described as an enigma that can be lazy and aloof throughout most of his 18-year career, the 38-year-old Russian winger remains one of the most talented players in the game.

Kovalev is now getting somewhere between 16 and 21 minutes of ice time, and went 2-4 in shootouts in the Pens’ last four contests.  With Pittsburgh’s top scorers out, Bylsma knew that he needed to add more creativity and scoring-potential to his lineup.

Though most scoffed when Ray Shero traded for him, Kovalev has helped to provide that missing ingredient.

The Flyers have a player who has had similar descriptions used when those in the hockey world are asked to give a portrayal.  Now in his sixth NHL season, Nikolay Zherdev is a regular healthy scratch in Philadelphia.

Zherdev has gotten into 51 games this year, scoring 15 goals and 19 points.  But he may have played his last wearing the Orange-and-Black, as he has sat out the last 10 straight.

With a team battling so hard to generate any kind of offense for long stretches, it seems a waste to have such a talented offensive player out of the lineup.

Even Laviolette complained about the lack of scoring chances after the Boston game on Sunday.  “Our opportunities I think have been low for a while now, probably a few games, except for the one (against Washington),” the coach said.

When the Flyers saw four consecutive games go to a shootout between March 17th and March 24th – of which Philadelphia won just one - Zherdev’s offensive skills could have come in handy.

If you look at the all-time NHL shootout percentages (minimum 10 attempts), Kovalev (19-46, 41.3%) comes in at the #47 spot.

Take a look just one spot down in the list, and Zherdev (14-34, 41.2%) is #48.

When Zherdev was in the Flyers’ lineup, the team didn’t have many games see a shootout ending.

Zherdev had just one attempt – back on November 27th against Johan Hedberg of New Jersey – and scored.

Just some food for thought.

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If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter -   @David_Strehle.

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A special thanks is given to www.nhlshootouts.com for the statistical information used in the shootout category.