The 6-1, Atlantic Division leading Flyers take their game, from the homey confines of South Philadelphia, on the road for eight games, including tilts against Divisional foes such as the Rangers, Penguins and Devils. The first order of business, however, begins with three games this week against the (3-5) Florida Panthers
, the always tough (4-2) Tampa Bay Lightning
and finish up with the impressive (5-3) Boston Bruins
This is an important three-game stretch for the Flyers. The Isles and Pens now have 10 points apiece and the Division lead is down to two points. The Orange and Black need to continue their strong defensive play and make team's pay with their new-found counterattacking style of play. This writer, however, would like to see the team spend a little more time in the offensive zone and, thereby, limit the huge shot totals that Marty Biron has had to endure. This is, again, time to put some distance between the Flyboys and the teams chasing. These early season points might end up being critical in the hunt for the playoffs, so he who hesitates might be lost come the end of the regular season. Now, on to the first Flyer opponent.
Les Panthers have won only three games so far. Don't be fooled. This is a dangerous, speedy team with plenty of scoring punch. This is also a team that has been injured much of the early season. The most notable is a sprained knee of their hard-hitting, offensivley gifted defenseman Mike Van Ryn. The Panthers are led on defense by their top two pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Bryan Allen. While they are having a tough time offensively this year, with only one point between them, it is the team's 5-on-5 play that has really hurt them. Bouwmeester and Allen have combined for a -12 in the eight games they have played. Panthers' coach, Mike Kitchen, has correctly mentioned that, "when you don't score 5-on-5, it's hard to be a plus." Only two points better than the Atlanta Thrashers, that statement sums up the early woes for the Panthers. Another source of concern for the Panthers is that their power play has accounted for 8 of their 17 goals so far this season. While an effective powerplay is a must, no team has counted on their powerplay for a higher percentage of their total goals than the Panthers. The Panthers went 1-2 on the recent road trip with a win against Montreal and losses to Ottawa and Toronto.
Their top line is led by one of the game's most electric and underrated stars, Olli Jokinen
. If this highly skilled Finn were playing in Montreal, New York, LA, Philadlephia or Toronto, he just might be featured up there with the likes of AO and Sid. Last year he put up 91 points (39 g and 52 a) and was a plus 18 with 72 penalty minutes on a mediocre, non-playoff team. I am sure there are quite a few teams that would love to have a #1 Centerman like that. Olli is a streaky scorer with good hands who can win faceoffs in key situations. Jokinen is joined on that top line by 22 year old, red-hot Right Winger named Nathan Horton. At 6'2," 201 lbs, he is a big body who can skate well and loves to fire the puck. His high-energy game has gotten him 4 goals and 3 assists for 7 points on a team that has not played up to expectations. So far, the Panthers have given up 23 goals while only scoring 18 of their own. The other member of the Cats' top line is another 22 year old Left Winger, named Rostislav Olesz. This slick Czech playmaker has good vision and plays an intelligent, two-way game. The problem, as is the case with many of the Panthers' players this season, is that he is hurt and nursing a hand injury and will not play against the Flyers. Good news for us, bad for them.
The best news for the Panthers was the off-season acquisition of goaltender Tomas Vokoun from the Nashville Preds. Vokoun led the Predators with 36 wins and 5 shutouts last year with a Goals Against Average of 2.20 and a Save Percentage of 0.920. He is a player and someone the Flyers will have to solve if they are to start this extended roadtrip off on a good foot.
On the Flyers' side, there is much to be excited about:
The team is 6-1 and leads the Division by two points.
The goal differential for the Flyers is the best in the league - as they have scored 16 more goals than they have given up.
GASTON! GASTON! GASTON!
was given the week's top honors for play sporting a league leading six wins, a 2nd best Save Percentage of 0.952 and a pair of back-to-back shoutouts. He has been everything that was envisioned and more when they got him from Buffalo, bringing a Goals Against Average of 1.57 to the rink every night. He brings a calm and professionalism to the position that has not been present since #31 patrolled the crease, Pelle Lindbergh (RIP).
The KGB Line
has 24 points, with 4 PP goals and 3 PP assists
leads the team with 11 points and 7 assists.
leads the team in goals with 5 and shots with 22.
is playing well with 7 points and aggressively hitting at opportune moments
has turned into a very nice puck rushing defensemen
Jones, Hatcher, Kukkonen and Coburn
are a combined +26 when 5-on-5
is leading the team in Average Time On Ice (ATOI) at nearly 24 minutes a game
Last, but not least, your Captain
- Jason "Gator" Smith
- has played with a fire and intensity that accurately portrays how seriously he is taking his new role. Smith does all of the little things, incluing laying out in front of 90 mph slap shots, that put the team in a position for something good to happen. And it has.
As Ek and Jules
pointed out on one of this week's TalkCasts
, the Flyers have now become a quick first pass, counter-attacking team based on odd-man situations, drawing penalties and using a movement oriented powerplay as their modus operandi. Been quite a few years since that was the case...but if you have the horses, you need to let them run.
By way of prediction, I like the Flyers
to bag Vokoun and the big-game Panthers by a score of 4-1
Next, I like the Flyers
to get off the schnide against the Lightning, with Niitty getting his first victory, against Vinnie and the boys (more on that tomorrow).
However, the ride comes to a bump in the road as the Flyboys lose a heartbreaker to Patrice Bergeron, Manny Fernandez and the white-hot Bruins next Saturday in Beantown, just before the Red Sox crush the Rockies
in game one of the World Series at Fenway. (more later in the week).
Thanks for reading...