It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..
Much like the French Revolution, about which Charles Richardens (apparently I cannot use the word to properly denote the author's last name) wrote the above famous first line of A Tale of Two Cities
, the Flyers are in a state of radical change and turmoil. The new regime is intent on successfully erasing the painful memories of a failed 2006-07 season, while continuing to be haunted by the demons of the past and present. This is the best of times and the worst of times.
The Best of Times:
No team worked harder during this off-season than the Flyers did to reshape their image and their on-ice talent. Gone were the days of "Thugs on Ice" who would just as well prefer to pound you into submission as win the game. Instead, the Flyers spent enormous sums of money to retool and adapt to the quicker, more skill oriented "new" NHL. They brought in the likes of Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Scottie Upshall, Hoffrey Lupul, Scott Hartnell and Marty Biron to try to turn around what was a mess into a legitimate playoff team. After three games, the jury is still out on their ability to make a run at the postseason. However, it cannot be questioned that the skill level on this team is vastly improved versus last year.
After the convincing 8-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks, Danny Briere lept into the Orange and Black record books as the only player to record multiple points in his first three games as a Flyer. Not Lindros, not LeClaire, not Forsberg...Danny Briere. He has been playing at midseason form since the first puck was dropped. The thing that has most impressed me about Danny Briere is his first step. The incredible acceleration that he possesses allows him to get to loose pucks, cause turnovers and beat the defender to the goal. Once in close, he is money - just ask Kipper and Luongo (who went to the showers after one period last night). The uncanny chemistry between he and fellow sniper, Simon Gagne, is a thing of beauty. Gagne had a slam dunk powerplay goal in the middle of the 1st period to put the Flyers up 3-1 and the game was never in question from then on. It appears to this fan as if they have been playing together for years and it is only game #3. They could be a very scary combination if the start of the season is any indication. The unsung hero of this trio is Mike Knuble. Knuble has been excellent at working the boards, taking the body behind the net and posting his huge frame in front of the crease, making life difficult for opposing goalies. While he has the fewest points of the the KGB line (Knuble, Gagne and Briere), his hard work has been absolutely instrumental in allowing Gagne and Briere to be the scorers they are. The KGB line has scored 17 points (8g, 9A) and is a +3 over three games, especially amazing since they had a horrendous 5-3 loss to the Oilers. The top line is scoring with the best in the NHL and, barring injury, will provide steady offense for this team.
What is perhaps even more encouraging than the play of the top line, has been the emergence of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards as the offensive threats, on-ice leaders and forces to be reckoned with. Carter scored a beautiful goal on a rebound of a Randy Jones (who is impressing many people with his solid play and leading the league in plus/minus) shot to open the floodgates. Thirteen seconds later R.J. Umberger, who played his first game of the season and appeared in the town who drafted him in 2001 but could not sign him, potted a goal past a stunned Roberto Luongo off of a highlight reel, backhand pass from Mike Richards. But Richards was not done there. The future Captain would score on a sweet wrister at the end of the second period and cap the Flyers' scoring onslaught with a backbreaking short handed goal with the Flyers down two men in the third period. Richards would end up with a pair of goals and twin assists for his first ever four point night. He played like a guy who wanted to wear the "C."
In the midst of all this scoring, the play of youngsters Randy Jones, Lasse Kukkonen and Braydon Coburn on defense has been outstanding. Between them, they are a +10 with four assists and solid positional play. The play of Marty Biron has been good considering the amount of time the puck was in his defensive zone in the Calgary and Edmonton games. He has collected two wins in three games, with a GAA of 2.68 and a SV% of .907. He has looked calm in net - almost too calm considering the "interesting" netminders we have been subjected to in past years...cough "bi-polar goaler" cough. When you consider the offenses the Flyers have played on the road - Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver - to give up only 9 goals is not too, too bad.
The best of times....yes the Flyers have had a good start winning 2 of 3 on the road to start the season. The top line is scoring, the second and third lines are making meaningful contributions, Mike Richards is playing his best hockey ever and the were on the road for all of this.
The Worst of Times:
Steve Downie. Jesse Boulerice.
This cannot continue. The Flyers need to police themselves and head coach John Stevens needs to lay the law down. Head shots and vicious crosschecks will not be tolerated. Period. The Flyers went a long way to changing their image from bruising goons with little regard for life or limb. In my opinion, the Boulerice crosscheck was FAR
worse than Downie's hit. Boulerice used the stick as a weapon, Kesler was nowhere near the puck and was not looking. He was bushwacked pure and simple. It was ugly, cowardly and completely out of control. Those actions make a mockery of the NHL, of the unwritten rules of the game and the sweaters they wear.
The defense has to play better in it's own zone. Far too much time has been spent in the first two games chasing the puck for extended periods. Only the goalie play of Biron and timely scoring has kept the first two games at one win and one loss. Needless to say, they played better in the third game. Everyone did. Getting the puck out of the zone in a timely manner when the D is in trouble is a must. We need to be better.
Penalties. 16 shorthanded situations in three games is too many. Four of nine goals scored against were from man-down. The Flyers need to stay out of the box and allow their talented 5-on-5 players chances to make thing happen. The Orange and Black are 24th out of 30 teams on penalty killing percentage in this young season. They need to improve the PK (which takes time) and stay out of the bin.
Clearly, the Vancouver game was a breakout game in many respects. The Flyboys got their scoring mojo back and made one of the best goalies in the business look foolish. Sending Luongo to the showers after one period should go a long way towards building the confidence of a still gelling team as they head home to face a dangerous Islander team with a chip on its shoulder. Down the road, in late Winter, this roadtrip out West to start the season might be looked back on as a defining moment for this team. A crucible.
The Flyers have much work to do to reach the promised land - the playoffs. For now, however, I choose to look at this small snapshot of a large season as the best of times.
Thanks for reading.