It's no secret that winning is the gold standard by which hockey teams are judged. Winning ensures jobs and bigger contracts for players, coaches, and management; winning builds the fan support and, in turn, the ticket revenue that drive the business of sports. Teams that don't play to win are running on borrowed time.
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This fundamental concept makes Michel Therrien's comments to the press following Philadelphia's 8-2 victory over the Penguins highly unusual. He's quoted by the Pittsburgh Tribune as saying: "Are we talking about the same team that got five guys suspended this year? It is a lack of respect what (Stevens) did tonight. At 7-2 you don't send your best power play on the ice. Even Daniel Briere didn't want to go on the ice. It is a lack of respect."
(A quick disclaimer here: I think Michel Therrien is an excellent coach. He has a team jam packed with young talent in Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, Armstrong, etc. as well as strong veteran presence in Gary Roberts and Sergei Gonchar. His nomination for last year's Jack Adams Trophy in the company of Vancouver's Alain Vigneault and Buffalo's Lindy Ruff speaks for itself. His teaching led the Penguins to a record of 47-24-11 in 2006-2007 for a 47 point improvement over the previous year - the fourth largest single-season turnaround in NHL history. He and his players certainly have a bright future ahead of them.)
Two things strike me as bizarre about Therrien's comments. Firstly, the idea that the Flyers should stop trying their hardest to win in the middle of the third period simply because they have a three goal lead is naive, at best. If the "new" NHL has taught us anything, it's that the era of impregnable 2-goal leads is dead. Protecting a lead today is far more difficult than it was 10 years ago, and style of play must change to reflect that.
An excellent recent example is the Los Angeles Kings' third period comeback over the Dallas Stars in November. The Kings entered the third period down by four; Aubin took over the net from LaBarbera at the beginning of the third (Therrien pulled a similar move by replacing Sabourin with Ty Conklin in the third). With 7:14 remaining in the period, Dustin Brown scored for the Kings, leading to a series of 5 goals in 5 minutes. The Kings went on to win the game on a shot from Anze Kopitar.
While the Kings have young talent in Kopitar, Brown and Jack Johnson, I really doubt that anyone seriously feels the Kings put as much ability on the ice nightly as the Penguins do. The Penguins proved last season they deserve to be taken seriously, and the Flyers did just that. With only a three goal lead entering the third period, Philly put good players on the ice in key special teams situations; it secured the win for them.
It should also be noted here that the Flyers had three power play goals in the third period. The first, at 4:07, was scored by the first power play unit: Briere, Lupul and Knuble up front with Richards and Timonen on the points. The second, at 6:09, featured the secondary unit of Carter, Umberger and Hartnell with Coburn and Jones on the blue line. At this point, the score hit the 7-2 mark Therrien referred to.
Umberger's hat trick goal came during the power play at 17:48 with Potulny, Upshall, Fitzpatrick and Kukkonen. This is hardly a first team unit: a center (Potulny) called up from the AHL and a defensive pairing that has not been stellar this season. Kukkonen is coming off two games as a healthy scratch and Fitzpatrick is a team-low minus 11 for the season. And what coach wouldn't give Umberger, with five points on the night, a chance for his first NHL hat trick?
More interesting here is Therrien's subtle implication that his extremely gifted team couldn't be expected to pull out a performance like the Los Angeles Kings did against Dallas. Certainly 5 goals in 5 minutes is not normal, but the Penguins arguably have the talent to pull off a similar feat. Hard work, discipline and 60 minute efforts win hockey games, regardless of who the opposing team may be.
The NHL is not little league baseball; there are no home-run limits here. The fans and the league expect the professionals on the ice to play within the rules to win. The Flyers are learning that lesson the hard way through their suspension issues. Hopefully Michel Therrien can put aside whatever issues plagued him last night and focus on the game. Otherwise, the Keystone State rivalry, with 5 games remaining for 07-08, could prove a stumbling block for his team.
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