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Meltzer's Musings: Talk is Cheap

February 17, 2013, 10:37 AM ET [506 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
In the wake of yet another disappointing performance and yet another loss, there is a lot of unrest both within the Philadelphia Flyers and throughout the team's fanbase. The team has played more games (16) than any other club in the NHL, and wakes up this morning in 12th place in the Eastern Conference.

Last night's 4-1 loss in Montreal dropped the Flyers to 6-9-1 on the season and 1-3-0 on their current six-game road trip. The team has been held to two or fewer goals in 11 of 16 games on the road, and is 2-8-0 on the road.

Perhaps the most galling thing of all is that, despite their inability to score and their spotty defense, the Flyers have been involved in nine games in which they were tied, led by one or trailed by a single goal at the second intermission. In other words, regardless of how well or poorly they've played in the opening 40 minutes, they've more often than not been in position to come away with at least one guaranteed point from the game if they closed strong and won the third period.

Here's how they've done in those nine third periods:

* On opening day against the Penguins, the Flyers trailed 2-1 after two periods. They lost 3-1 after a late empty netter.

* The next afternoon in Buffalo, the Flyers and Sabres were tied, 2-2, at the second intermission. Philly got outscored 3-0 in the final stanza, losing the game by a 5-2 count.

* On Feb 1, the Flyers and Capitals were tied 1-1 after two periods. The Flyers actually managed to survive a lengthy 5-on-3 penalty kill at the start of the third period and yet still lost the game by a 3-2 score to a Washington team that entered the game struggling even worse than Philly was.

* On Feb 5, the Flyers led Tampa Bay, 1-0, after two periods. Tampa tied the game midway through the third but Philly's Tom Sestito answered right back with his second goal of the game. The Flyers won, 2-1.

* On Feb. 7, the Flyers led Florida by a 2-1 score after two periods. Florida tied up the game midway through the third on a power play goal, and then went on to take an extra point via shootout. Philadelphia had to settle for one point when two were within their grasp both in regulation and overtime.

* Last Saturday, the Flyers led Carolina by a 3-2 count after two periods. For the third straight game, the Flyers gave up a tying goal in the third period. Fortunately, Danny Briere claimed a victory for Philadelphia in overtime.

* This past Tuesday, the Flyers led Winnipeg by a 2-1 score after two periods. They did get an insurance goal by Tye McGinn in the final stanza, and it proved to be much needed as the Jets scored in the final minute with the goalie pulled. Philly hung on for a 3-2 win.

* On Friday, the Flyers blew a 3-1 lead over New Jersey that they took into the second period. But the teams were at least tied, 3-3, heading into the final period. Win the final stanza, claim two points. Hold even in the third, and it's at least one point. But Philly did neither, giving up a go-ahead goal and empty netter for a 5-3 regulation loss.

* Last night in Montreal, Philadelphia was thoroughly outplayed for 40 minutes, wasted numerous second period power play with a chance to tie the game and yet STILL were just a good third period away from coming away at least a point. Instead, Philly played a horrendous final stanza and a 2-1 deficit turned into a 4-1 loss.

In the three tied matches, Philly has lost the third period each and every time, claiming zero of a possible six points from those games.

In four games where they've led by a goal after two periods, they have claimed seven of a possible eight points. However, looking at the third period as a microcosm, the Flyers have also given up a tying goal in three of those four games and have either being outscored or equal (1-1) in third period goals in all four games. They haven't "won" any of them.

Third-period comebacks are tough in the NHL, even when it's from a one-goal deficit. But the Flyers have managed to lose third period leads in three of four such situations and have generated zero third period comebacks of their own. In the two games in which they've trailed by one goal, they have not being able to find an equalizing goal and have come away with zero of at least two points (with a chance for up to four).

So here's the sum total: Of a minimum 16 and maximum 18 points that were still up for grabs entering the third period, the Flyers have claimed seven points. In a shortened season, a team with playoff aspirations has to do a LOT better than that.

There will be nights where you have to win ugly, chase the game or barely cling to a narrow lead. All teams have their fair share of such games. The difference is that the contending teams usually find ways to scratch out a healthy number of points by closing out strong. These Flyers repeatedly fail to close strong.

When you add an inability to close strong in winnable games to a frequent tendency to start slowly, you've got a team that is actually lucky not to have a worse record than it currently sports.

Viewed within a small-window prism, last night's game could be explained away as a case of being a tired team (back-to-back games, fifth game in five different cities in an eight day span, second trip to Canadian provinces within a week). But when you look at the big picture, these Flyers have failed time and time again to have people step up.

Several players, including team captain Claude Giroux, spoke out publicly after the game about the club "going through the motions" rather than competing like a club that is genuinely hungry for victory.

Giroux was talking about better 60-minute efforts, and he was absolutely right in that regard. But the reality of hockey is that even the very best teams do not consistently control all three periods of a given game. They may be the better club in two of them and one is fairly even (those are usually wins). Or they may even get outplayed in two of the three regulation periods but get excellent goaltending and pull out a win anyway.

The Flyers need Giroux himself to be THAT guy who takes over those tied games, who engineers those third goal comebacks. If he were playing at even three quarters of the level he played last year, the Flyers would have at least five more points in the standings than they do now.

Yes, hockey is the ultimate team game. Yes, there are nights where the supporting cast has to be the ones to pull out a game. But when the guy who is by far the team's best player is not the best player on the ice in crunch time, the club is usually going to come away with a loss. Giroux has far too often been ineffective in crunch time this season.

It's not just Giroux, of course. You can look up and down the Flyers roster and you'll find very players who consistently executed the role that was expected of them heading into the season. Giroux is just one of the most obvious targets, as the team's top line center, captain and single most important player.

But finding underachieving individual players on the Flyers is almost like shooting fish in barrel. It's very easy to single out important players who have been part of the problem -- or at least not enough of a part of the solution.

Danny Briere scored a goal last night on a shot that was more changeup than fastball and eluded Peter Budaj. He does have that overtime goal to add to his extremely impressive career resume of frequent clutch goals. But Briere has not had more than one or two games where he genuinely played well for the majority of the game (in fact, his best overall game was a scoreless one for him in the win over Tampa).

No one expects Max Talbot to duplicate the pace of his career-best 19-goal season from last year. But he was being counted on at least provide a little more forechecking presence and scratch out a goal or two. He's been fine in his own of the ice and on the penalty kill (especially of late) but he's also been an offensive black hole in the lineup rather than a timely contributor.

Wayne Simmonds has created some havoc around the net, forechecked energetically and hustled more consistently than many of the other forwards on the team. He does have four goals in 13 games. But I'd argue that he's finished too low of a percentage of his scoring opportunities thus far. Strictly in terms of scoring chance, he could be at about eight goals by now -- which is what the team needs (fairly or unfairly). Beyond that Simmonds has also been a defensive liability at times in terms of his puck management -- far too many turnovers between the blue lines, and missed coverages.

Want to hone in instead on struggling big-minutes defenseman like Braydon Coburn? He's made it easy to criticize his individual play. In the month of February, Coburn has been having problems in all three zones. He's been mistake prone in his own of the ice and also doing very little to help trigger rushes or get open shots on net (i.e., the things that help add pluses and reduce the chances for minuses).

Collectively, Coburn and Bruno Gervais have made for a cringe-worthy pairing over the last eight games. Coburn is a minus-nine over that span and much of it has been on merit as well as being a reflection of team play. Gervais, who is minus-six in that span (Coburn has been out for a few empty netters with Gervais on the bench), did fine when he was in the sixth defenseman role and getting 12 to 14 minutes against other teams' bottom six forwards. Now that his minutes have been extended, Gervais has gotten exposed.

You could keep going on and on. Basically, just name a player on the roster and you can find at least segments of the season to date where they've underachieved in one way or another. Some players have done better of late after slow starts (such as Brayden Schenn
and Jakub Voracek). A few -- Matt Read and Nicklas Grossmann come to mind -- have generally performed their most important duties well.

The goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov has generally been quite solid. Brian Boucher kept the team close for two periods last night. So at least the goaltending hasn't generally been an issue.

Injuries have been costly, the schedule has been exceptionally brutal. But every team deals with those things to varying degrees. Getting Scott Hartnell and Andrej Meszaros back can only help, but will not be an instant panacea. Likewise, hopefully Kimmo Timonen (who played hurt last night and was very clearly laboring through a rough night where he probably should have rested) will be OK.

Head coach Peter Laviolette got testy last night when asked about Giroux's comments. But the coach himself has underachieved this season. Fairly or unfairly, the head coach has to take accountability for whether his team comes ready to play from the opening faceoff and makes effective in-game adjustments.

Whatever Laviolette has been saying or doing isn't getting through, and all the glowering (and, presumably, locker room yelling) and non-stop lineup tinkering in the world isn't going to magically fix it. So either he, his assistant coaches and the team leaders need to collectively roll up their sleeves and find solutions in a hurry or else the dreaded "organizational vote of confidence" coaching death spiral will begin very soon.

I say that NOT to be an alarmist, and not to advocate for Laviolette to be fired. Rather, I'm saying it based on the knowledge of the organization usual tendencies when losing. I'm also saying it based on the smoke signals that were deliberately and publicly sent out by Ed Snider before the team had even played a game this season.

It's easier to fire a coach than to fix the myriad of comingled offensive and defensive issues that have plagued this hockey club. Snider is an impatient owner and Philly has an impatient fanbase. So it is fair game to start being concerned about how much more leeway Laviolette will be given to work out solutions.


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