The news out of Philadelphia that Flyers’ captain Chris Pronger is out for the remainder of the 2011-12 campaign with “severe post-concussion symptoms” comes juxtaposed with the current seven-game win streak that the team has used to propel itself to the top of the eastern conference standings.
While on the one hand Pronger is the type of do-it-all minute chewer that no team can truly “afford” to lose, the fact remains that the team is getting better results than any other team in the league. The Flyers are the only team with a 9-1 record in that patented “L10” column, and their top overall points percentage is largely due to a league-best 12-3-1 record away from home.
Flyers’ fans have long complained that but for the team’s shaky goaltending, the Stanley Cup would go to Philly on something of a regular basis. While this season was supposed to be the beginning of the end of that narrative, all we’ve really seen is more of the same.
The bullies currently sit first in the NHL in goals per game, but have let themselves down in their own zone en route to a 2.79 goals against average that sees them sit 18th overall. While the overreacting and short-sighted types are starting to declare the Ilya Bryzgalov era a failure just a few months in, many others believe the goalie will progress to his mean and turn in a season that should see the Flyers at least in the top 12 in total defense. There is no guarantee that will happen, but backup goalie Sergei Bobrovsky enjoyed a successful stretch with Brian Boucher last season before both goalies (and Michael Leighton) fell apart at the end. If Philly can find that stretch of quality defense and goaltending soon, they can separate themselves in the division.
Perhaps the more concerning stat is the offense. Sure, it’s never concerning to lead the league in goals scored, but now the Flyers have to deal with team and league leading scorer Claude Giroux being sidelined indefinitely, also due to a concussion. Doubly frustrating has to be the fact that the wound was self-inflicted, as Giroux took a knee to the head from teammate Wayne Simmonds, who came over from L.A. in the Mike Richards trade. Giroux should be back before too long, which is nowadays simply to say sooner than Sidney Crosby came back, and when the catalyst does return he should give the Flyers a boost that by that time they may end up needing.
If I were a Flyers fan, I’d be depressed over the nature of Giroux’s injury largely because he has such a small frame. That Giroux picked up a nick is not shocking, but one would “hope” that it would have been acquired in the normal course of a hockey season — in other words, the summation of a small man being continually checked by bigger men. Here, we have what many would consider terrible luck rather than the normal cost of doing business.
All of these successes and injuries sets up a rather large Saturday night duel with the defending champion Boston Bruins, who sit two points back of Philly and lead their own division by six points over Toronto and eight over Buffalo. The game is in Philadelphia, but Boston’s road record is a solid if not under-represented 9-3-0. Twelve road games in the first 30 means the Bruins will have to make up six over the rest of the season, but their division does not seem to be able to pose a legitimate enough threat for that to matter in the end. Barring injuries or a massive dip in form (like, say, their start to the season), the Bruins will probably be playing down the stretch for seeding within the top 2 or 3, not battling it out within the division against noticeably less complete teams.
The matchup between Boston and Philly is always heated, but with first place on the line (technically a tie for first — Philly would have the tiebreaker even with a loss) and the recent news surrounding concussions affecting the Flyers’ roster, this one takes on a heightened sense of midseason importance. Throw in the fact that these two have met in the conference semifinals the last two seasons and have each won a Wales Trophy over those seasons, and the atmosphere could be downright hockey-worthy.
Of note is that while the Flyers lead the league in scoring, Boston is right behind them in second. But as Philly has been just below average defensively (18th), the Cup champs are doing what they do best. The Bruins lead the NHL in goals against, giving up exactly 2 per game. Based purely on the gaps between the averages, the Bruins would win this game 3.05 to 2.83. Put the Flyers on home ice, and like I said, should be a damn good game for that (not at) all-important first place spot 31 games in.
The game is an afternoon one, which should add another variable in this edition of the rivalry. Game time is 1 p.m. eastern time, and the game is being carried on the NHL Network.