Chris Pronger

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.

Yesterday’s blog post was entitled “Red Wings, Flyers, Capitals Look to Get on the Board.”  Well, none of them did, and thus we have the least interesting second round in hockey history.  At this point, all we have is the Vancouver / Nashville series to provide us with any drama whatsoever from the NHL’s conference semifinals.  Game 4 in that series is tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET, and is being televised live from Nashville on Versus in the U.S.  The Canucks lead 2-1 of course, and will be looking for a knockdown blow tonight.  All three games in the series have been decided by one goal, and two of those have gone to overtime.  But instead of looking at this from a “half glass full” perspective and break down tonight’s game, I’d rather bitch about how empty our glasses are now that three of the four series have splattered to the pavement.

First, Washington getting swept is problematic.  I hate to play the blame game or use words like “choke,” but losing all four games to a team that has been inferior for the last four years goes beyond just bad luck or a tough matchup.  For the Capitals to not be able to grind out a single game shows that all their supporters’ remarks about the team growing into a playoff-type team were wrong.  I’m as guilty as anyone, as I thought this was the year that the Capitals would walk through that wide open doorway that is the 2011 eastern conference.  But alas, another year, another shocking exit.  It’s not that the Caps lost the series to the Lightning; I think many people thought that was possible after seeing what Tampa Bay did to Pittsburgh in Games 5 through 7 in the first round.  It’s that the Caps got swept.  And maybe I saw it wrong, but it didn’t look like the fighting spirit was there in the last 8 minutes of last night’s eliminator.  I understand frustration, and I understand trying to remain calm in the face of elimination, but maybe gripping a little too tight would have at least quieted today’s critics, who point to the Caps’ lack of effort as part of the problem.  I think the Caps try as hard as most teams, but it can no longer be denied that they lack some components needed to even threaten for the Prince of Wales Trophy. I’ve killed Mike Green lately, just as I did all of last season, and it’s starting to feel old.  But his position is one that needs upgrading badly.  Washington clearly lacks that big time defenseman that we see progress every year in the playoffs, whether it be Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom, now Dan Boyle, Zdeno Chara, or any of the Blackhawks’ big three of Keith, Seabrook and Campbell.  The Caps may have that guy in the making with John Carlson, but it’s too early to tell, and they need their best defenseman to be a bit older if they want to win at the present time.  Which is of course to say, if they want to win a year from now.

While the Flyers do have that guy in Pronger, he’s been injured and was scratched for Game 3’s loss in Boston.  Some people will point to the fact that Philly made this same 0-3 comeback on this same Boston team last year, but that had a different feel to it.  First off, Philly was a road seed, and nobody expected anything from them.  Second, they had Pronger.  The guy’s playoff record is unmistakable, and his departure from a team doesn’t usually yield good results for that team.  Since teaming up with Tampa Bay goaltender Dwayne Roloson to take the Oilers to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, Edmonton has been in the toilet.  Since leaving Anaheim, Cup winners in 2007, the Ducks can’t keep any opponent off the scoreboard.  And now, his pseudo-departure from the Flyers has left the team without that aggressive, steadying force that almost led them to the Cup last season.  I don’t see any reason to believe that a similar comeback is in the works in this series, but I also know that hockey, above all other sports, is to be taken one game at a time.  Philly can’t come back from a 3-0 series deficit, but any team can come back from a 3-2 series, and it’s certainly possible that Philly can get it to 3-2.  So while it’s not “over,” it certainly looks bad for the Flyers.  It looks great for the Bruins, conversely, who can exorcise 2010’s demons and actually host the eastern conference finals against Tampa Bay.

And now, it seems we’ve come to it.  The third team to make sure this was the worst second round in hockey history is none other than my Detroit Red Wings.  Since I pointed out my mistake in picking Washington to win the east, I’m going to toot my horn here to try to get the score even close to even.  I posted that this series would be a great one to watch, but that people would soon come to the realization that San Jose is just a little bit better of a hockey team than Detroit is.  I also wrote prior to Game 3 that this series was unfolding exactly like last year’s, and that saw San Jose take a 3-0 series lead on the back of three one-goal victories.  Well, here we are.  It’s 3-0 San Jose, and all of the games have been one-goal wins — two of them in overtime.  But oftentimes that’s the difference between good and great teams — the ability to collect wins via the extra session.  San Jose has been remarkable thus far in the sudden death frames.  They are 7-2 in these playoffs, but five of those seven wins have come in overtime.  Also, they have not lost in overtime yet.  So that’s 2-2-5 in 60 minute hockey games, and 5-0 in overtimes.  Some may call this lucky, but we know from watching playoff hockey for years that it’s much more than luck.  The Sharks have made their own breaks, and deserve to be back in the western conference finals for the second year in a row.

Detroit, on the other hand, has failed to retool with young impact players outside of Jimmy Howard, who has been fantastic in net against the Sharks.  But the only young players up front for the Wings play extremely limited minutes, and that is based on their extremely limited talent.  Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader, both Michigan State Spartan alums, don’t seem to have developed any scoring threat that needs to be taken seriously.  Darren Helm’s speed is appalling, but the Red Wings don’t seem to want to use him enough, despite his record of timely goals and his ceaseless checking.  And Valtteri Filppula acts like a child from Barcelona who thinks he can just develop his idol’s brilliance through sheer osmosis.  While the Messi reference may have gone over some heads, what I’m talking about are these ridiculous stick handling attempts that so clearly are meant to mimic the great Pavel Datsyuk, but Filppula possesses neither the softness nor quickness in his hands to beat a defender while still actually possessing the puck.  It is laughable how much Filppula has changed his game in an effort to appear more like the Russian wizard, and it doesn’t help the team in any way.  And as far as the back end goes, Detroit is still completely reliant on Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski to carry the bulk of the weight, as Jonathan Ericsson continues to lose track of opposing forwards and make the wrong passes that fail to clear the defensive zone.  I’m not saying the Red Wings are a bad team, just that they have not developed much young talent recently, and it has shown for the past two seasons.  This reliance on older players is juxtaposed with San Jose’s young players taking on huge roles in the team’s success.  Joe Pavelski has been a Red Wing killer over the last two years, and last night Devin Setoguchi scored a hat trick in the 4-3 overtime win.  Rookie Logan Couture has played a big part in San Jose’s success this year as well. The Red Wings young players have not been able to come close to matching their Shark counterparts, and that is mostly due to the fact that they cannot.

And so we’re left with one series to even remotely worry about.  After tonight’s Game 4 in Nashville, the Bruins and Sharks will see if they can’t wrap up their sweeps tomorrow night.  Here’s hoping tonight’s game is good, and the series is interesting, because it ain’t coming from anywhere else.  The conference finals cannot be worse than this round, and therefore, we should look forward to them.  Happy hockey everyone.

The two most common first round upset picks league-wide seem to have been Buffalo over Philly and Montreal over Boston.  I picked both Boston and Philly to win in 6 games.  Neither ended up happening, as the results met in the middle — both home teams scored Game 7 victories.

But the troubling part if you’re a Bruins or Flyers fan is that your team made it hairy enough to go seven games in the first place.  Both teams had decided physical advantages, and Boston actually had solid goaltending.  And other than each of the Flyers’ three goalies having one donkey jog each, Bobrovsky and Leighton each turned in one good performance, and Boucher actually had four.  The only reason the Flyers didn’t take six of seven games is 1) two of the good performances came in relief of the starting donkey, and 2) the series would have stopped after four wins.
I think the disparity in talent was wider in the Philadelphia – Buffalo series, but the Flyers could look to either the suspect goaltending or the absence of Chris Pronger for 5.9 of the 7 games.  And in Philly’s defense, once Pronger was fully back in the lineup in Game 7, they never left any doubt as to who was the better team and who was moving onto the second round.
Boston, on the other hand, left doubt up to this very minute as to whether the better team actually prevailed in the series.  It’s true that the Bruins did well to win 4 of the last 5 games to take the series after falling behind 0-2 at home, but 3 of those 4 wins came in overtime.  That’s not to discount them, it’s just to say that Boston didn’t really assert it’s physical dominance like Philadelphia did when it came right down to it.  It could be that Montreal is actually a very good team, or that they have Boston’s number or something.  The Habs did win 4 of 6 in the regular season.  But the thing that would worry me if I were a Boston fan is that my team was unable to dictate possession against a team with woefully smaller forwards.  If Boston couldn’t beat up on these Montreal forwards, how are they going to handle Philadelphia’s reincarnation of the Broad Street Bullies?  Throw Pronger back into the mix, and suddenly Zdeno Chara is no longer the scariest, most physical defenseman in the series either.  All of this doesn’t add up well for the Bruins, and in this series between teams that like to let inferior opponents push them to the brink, I’ve got to think that the Flyers will get to four losses slower than the Bruins will.
Because I don’t like to pick good teams to get eliminated in Game 6 at home, and I don’t see this one going 7, I’ll take the Philadelphia Flyers over the Boston Bruins in just 5 games.