Meltzer's Musings: Chasing Series to the Cliff, Post-Practice Updates
POST-PRACTICE UPDATE (1:30 P.M. EDT)
The Flyers held a brief optional skate at the Skate Zone in Voorhees today. Twelve skaters and goaltenders Steve Mason and Ray Emery participated.
There were no line rushes taken with so few players on the ice. As such there is no inkling yet as to whether Erik Gustafsson or Hal Gill will be in the lineup tomorrow night.
Kimmo Timonen took part in the optional skate. The battered veteran rarely participates in optionals, especially this time of year. After practice, all of the Flyers players said the right things about being confident in Game Six.
Timonen, who may or may not retire this summer, was by far the most emphatic. The player repeatedly emphasized the need for the Flyers to show aggressiveness right from the outset and to stick with it throughout the game. He also stressed that the Flyers can't worry about the Rangers blocking shots and either overpassing looking for perfect plays or missing the net.
"They block a lot of shots, but it’s up to us to find the lanes. What’s the way to get more shots? I think we have to be more skating and aggressive and create turnovers. Put the puck on the net," said Timonen.
"There’s a lot of rebounds there, in my opinion, but we don’t get to those rebounds. That’s one of those things we have to get better. In the playoffs, you need dirty goals. Those are dirty goals, rebounds that go in the net and get those goals. We just have to create more offense. "
The non-goalie participants today included forwards Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn (who left the ice early but took part at the beginning), Jason Akeson, Michael Raffl, Tye McGinn, Zac Rinaldo and Jay Rosehill. Along with Timonen, defensemen Gill, Gustafsson and Luke Schenn also took part for the duration.
After practice, Flyers coach Craig Berube was asked what the Rangers have been doing at even strength apart from neutral zone containment to stymie the attack. The coach noted that the Rangers, apart from being a quick team, are getting overloads down low in the defensive zone. Berube team needs to do things faster as well as do a better job of generating rebound opportunities.
In the first three games of the series, the Flyers got goals from defensemen pinching up on the play. That wasn't there much in Game Five.
Moving ahead to Game Six, it is crucial for the Flyers to do three things that will go a long way toward determining whether there will be a Game Seven in New York on Wednesday:
1) The Flyers need Steve Mason to play to the level he did in Game Four. Philly has only scored three-plus goals once in the series (Game Two, which included an empty net goal). That gives the goaltenders very little margin for error. If it's stoppable -- even if it's a tougher-than-average chance -- Mason needs to come up with the save.
2) Philly needs to score first, preferably early. Yes, the Flyers have won two games in the series when they've trailed early. Yes, they've been an excellent comeback team this season. Nevertheless, a club can only go to the comeback well so many times. The Rangers are a decent offensive club but not a great one. They are a very strong defensive team with a great goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. Not having to chase the game early will keep the crowd into it and, even more important, help the Flyers stay on system.
3) For all the special teams talk in the series (including by yours truly), the Rangers have been winning this series primarily at even strength. The Flyers need to at least hold even at five-on-five tomorrow night. Additionally, Berube may have to shorten his bench except in the (unlikely) event of the Flyers building a comfortable lead. The Flyers can't worry about what's left in the tank in the event of a potential Game Seven. They need to pull all the stops tomorrow.
FLYERS CHASE GAME AND SERIES TO THE CLIFF
Out of the five games played in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series with the New York Rangers, the Philadelphia Flyers have yielded the first goal in four. Twice the Flyers have managed to bounce back to win the game. The Flyers have shown themselves all season to be a resilient team. Nevertheless, constantly chasing the game is a recipe for losing a series.
The Rangers, who have won all of the odd-numbered games in the series, have moved within a win of advancing to the second round of the playoffs. New York prevailed 4-2 in Game Five at Madison Square Garden.
The Flyers had their chances to take control of yesterday's game. While the game was still scoreless in the first period, Philly had a couple of odd-man rushes and open looks that did not produce shots on goal. They had power play opportunities that went nowhere.
When the score was still 1-0 in the second period, the Flyers caught a huge break when an official's poor positioning led to a quick whistle with the puck uncovered behind Steve Mason in the crease. The decision to stop play denied the Rangers a legitimate goal on the power play. That could have been just the break the Flyers needed, but New York scored each of the next two goals.
The Flyers attempted to mount a comeback from the 3-0 deficit. They scored a late second period power play goal by Vincent Lecavalier and a 6-on-5 goal by Claude Giroux with Mason pulled for an extra attacker late in the third period. Philadelphia could not find an equalizer in the final minute of play and the Rangers finished off the 4-2 win with an empty net goal.
Marc Staal, Brad Richards, Dominic Moore and Brian Boyle (empty net) scored for the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist stopped 24 of 26 shots for New York.
The two games the Flyers have won in the series have largely been due to stellar goaltending. When the goaltending has average, they've lost. Steve Mason (18 saves on 21 shots) was ordinary in net in Game Five after a spectacular performance in Game Four.
The Marc Staal goal was a fluttering shot that did not appear to deflect off anyone, and was a shot that Mason had to stop. Failure to make the save meant that the Flyers had to play from behind yet again in a first period where the Rangers weren't generating much pressure.
Over the final 40 minutes of play, the Rangers took control of the game. Mason could not be faulted for either the second or third goals. However, the Flyers desperately needed a ten-bell save on the Moore goal and they didn't get it. Such is the life of a goaltender.
In my opinion, the decision to start Hal Gill rather than Erik Gustafsson to replace the injured Nicklas Grossmann (right knee) was the right one on paper. On the ice, it backfired.
Despite the Rangers' speed advantage, Grossmann had been one of the Flyers' better defensemen in the series. He was not on the ice for any New York even strength goals in four games and was very strong on the walls and in front of the net. Although puckhandling will never be his strong suit, Grossmann had only been charged with one giveaway in the series. In tandem with partner Mark Streit, who had quietly been playing very well, the Flyers' second pairing had been a reliable one in the series.
Gill plays the same shot-blocking style and role that Grossmann does, and had played well at the tail end of the season when the Flyers rested Grossmann (who has also been nursing an ankle injury) for the playoffs. Starting Gill meant that the Flyers did not have to shuffle the deck on their defense pairings, and could keep a balance of roles on all three pairs.
In theory, it made sense. In reality, it failed. Gill ended up being on the ice for the second and third New York goals. He was at least partially culpable -- or at least not of any help -- on both.
The sequence that ended with Richards' goal actually started with Gill getting a scoring chance. No one expects offense from Gill and the scoring chance went awry. More damagingly, after Scott Hartnell fell down and the Rangers started a 3-on-2 counterattack, the Rangers had multiple cracks at the net from in close.
This sort of situation is exactly the type where Gill is supposed to excel in helping out his goaltender. He went down to try to block a shot and came up empty. Gill rose to his feet but it was too late to prevent the puck from going across the crease.
The Moore goal that made the score 3-0 started with a pass from Braydon Coburn to Gill. Coburn was not under pressure and had room to go up the wall with the puck. Instead, he passed the puck to partner Gill and put the puck in Gill's skates with Moore approaching.
Gill literally booted the puck then turned to wrong way as he searched for it. Moore intercepted the disc and fired off a quick shot that beat Mason. Now the game was virtually out of reach for the Flyers.
Coburn was as much to blame as Gill for that goal. He played the puck into danger and put Gill in a position where one of his weaknesses was exposed. Many of the NHL's physically biggest defensemen -- including skilled ones like Zdeno Chara or even Chris Pronger before his career-ending concussion issues -- sometimes struggle a bit when the puck goes right into their skates. It takes them a little longer to locate it. Once Gill had the puck go off his skate, he was toast. His recovery time is slow even by hulking defender standards.
Come Game Six, I would not be surprised if Gustafsson gets the nod and the Flyers shuffle their defense pairings to have Andrew MacDonald work with Streit and Gustafsson paired with Luke Schenn. Yesterday's New York goals aside, the Flyers are struggling to generate offense. Gustafsson is a good puck mover and a decent defender on the rush.
The trade off is that Gustafsson gets outmuscled down low and does not always utilize the things he does well consistently enough to please Berube. Nevertheless, I think the main reason that he couldn't stake down a regular lineup spot this season had a lot to do with Berube not wanting to go too undersized (Kimmo Timonen, Streit, Gustafsson) on defense. Also, while MacDonald is the NHL's top shot-blocker and stands over six feet tall, he is rather slightly built and relies more on his mobility than physical play.
Philadelphia did not lose Game Five because of Hal Gill, nor would the substitution of Gustafsson in his place be a panacea. However, it can't hurt the Flyers to throw a different look at the Rangers in a series where New York has controlled the play for the majority of four of the five games.
The Flyers now have no margin for error in the series. Trailing three games to two, Philly must win Game 6 at home on Tuesday night to force a seventh game in New York the following evening.