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.

Recently I tweeted that Sidney Crosby’s return on Monday against the New York Islanders was a strategic move that had very little to do with his NHL readiness as compared with a week before or after that magical date of November 21, 2011.
My assumption all along was that Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed that the star center should only really worry about bringing the Stanley Cup back to the Steel City. Based on this assumption, I figured that Crosby’s return was not going to be rushed, since the Pens are cruising and it doesn’t take five months to get ready for the playoffs.
I also figured that the status quo for players coming off serious concussions was that they would be on-again, off-again for some time. This may still prove to be true, but what I saw last night certainly altered my opinion of what the plan is.

What does Gaga really stand for: Germanotta or Goal Assist Goal Assist?

If in fact the Penguins knew that Sid was likely going to miss another game within the next couple of weeks, then it made perfect sense to set their recent quarrel mates (the Isles) up to be the ones who “re-injure” the league’s maltese falcon. If the Pens were (are) planning to have to sit Crosby soon for a game or two for “precautionary reasons,” then why not add a bullet to their chamber by bringing him back against the team that called up a double-A goon last year specifically to try to hurt Pittsburgh’s star players?
The plan made perfect sense to me, and I watched with great anticipation of the Islanders doing what basement dwellers do — play dirty. It was all set up, and I was ready to preach.
But something was missing from the Consol Energy Center last night: the New York Islanders.
Never mind the fact that their once stashed cupboard of goaltenders is now down to the dust and mold; the Islanders didn’t play professional hockey last night. And maybe it’s just the case that they couldn’t. Pittsburgh looked scary. Crosby elevated the games of his linemates, and factored into four of the team’s five goals with a cool GAGA performance. In fact, Sid the Kid is so accustomed to two-goal, two-assist performances that perhaps his nickname should be Man Gaga. Or Kid Gaga… Baby Gaga? Alright, we’re all allowed a few uninspiring attempts, aren’t we?
One key fallacy in my logic is that the aforementioned semi-pro goon, Trevor Gillies, was not on the ice for New York. Gillies has only skated in three games this year for the Isles, and it probably didn’t make sense for the franchise to call him up given the strict scrutiny that it would receive if Gillies so much as glanced at Crosby. But, Matt Martin was in the lineup (as usual) and notched a whopping nine hits. I’m not comparing Martin’s game ethically to Gillies’, I’m just throwing out a disclaimer that at least New York had some hitter in the game. Table favorite Milan Jurcina also skated in the game, although that’s about all he did in his 18:48 of ice time.
To the Islanders’ credit, they did outhit the Penguins 31-12, which is actually a jarring margin. But the hits weren’t hard, and many of them were not on #87. Faceoffs were even at 34, and shots were only 36-29 in favor of the winning home team, but the difference in quality was so apparent it was at least a little worrying for supporters of any team that thinks it’s contending this season.
The good news for the Penguins is that they look fluid, crisp, awesome in all ends and, most surprisingly given the point of the season we’re at, totally locked in.
The good news for every other team is that this was only one game. It was one home game against a pretty bad team that started a goalie with exactly zero prior NHL starts. And all of that excitement and group love may wear off around game 60 or 65, just in time for a third straight playoff disappointment since winning the Cup in 2009. That early-out scenario looked more like a fanatical delusion last night, and the Penguins are already the second favorite to win it all (behind only Chicago) on at 6-to-1. I suspect those positions will swap sooner than later.
Well done and fair play to Crosby and the Pens, as my cynical assumption surrounding the date and opponent of his return seems to have been proven incorrect. Good to have such a dynamic player back on the ice.
Boston Bruins scoring winger Nathan Horton has enjoyed his first season with a good NHL team.  Horton was pegged as perhaps the acquisition that Boston needed to bolster its somewhat anemic offense enough to get over the eastern conference hump.  The Bruins already had a solid defensive system through and through, as well as a second-year starting goalie in Tuukka Rask, who unseated the former Vezina-winning Tim Thomas in 2009-10.  Rask did not provide much of an encore this season, but that was due to Thomas’ aggressive ripping back of the Vezina Trophy in surprising fashion.
As the offensive part of that bargain though, Horton lived up to his billing from the start. The Bruins began their season in Prague against the Phoenix Coyotes, and Horton wasted no time in showing that Boston was right to trade for him.  The former Panther boarded the team plane for the states with three goals and an assist in the two-game split against Phoenix.  From there, Horton has only continued to play an intricate role in Boston’s ascent to the eastern conference championship.  When the Bruins needed overtime goals in Games 5 and 7 at home against Montreal in the first round, it was Horton who lit the lamp both times.  And no Bruins goal in the last 20 seasons has been bigger than Horton’s two-handed stuff to clinch the Wales Trophy in Game 7’s 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay.

But Horton’s dream season was ended in the blink of an eye last night, courtesy of a gutless late hit by Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome early in Game 3 right at Vancouver’s blue line.  Horton had passed the puck to his left and turned up ice to look to start either a give and go or a charge to the net, when Rome dug his right skate in, lowered his shoulder and embarked on a flight that will forever change Horton’s career, and possibly his life.  By now we all know that concussions are plaguing our sport, and we don’t have to look far to find examples of a concussion destroying a playing career.
The most obvious example is of course that of Sidney Crosby, who still has not played a hockey game since January 5.  In case you’ve been living under a rock, Crosby was the league MVP in 2007, won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and scored the overtime goal in the gold medal game at the 2010 Olympic Games for Canada.  He is one of the few hockey players who had legitimate non-hockey fan buzz before he was ever drafted, and was labeled “The Next One” as a teenager.  Crosby had 66 points in 41 games this season, and is still two months away from his 24th birthday.  No matter what you think of his notoriety, there is no objective conclusion other than that he is an immense loss for the NHL, and if he never plays again, the league will be worse for it.
Another example hits a lot closer to home for the Bruins.  Marc Savard, previously a star center for the Bruins, was the most discussed concussion victim until Crosby trumped him around New Year’s.  On March 7, 2010, Savard took a trademarked elbow from Penguins goon Matt Cooke that turned the lights out.  According to reports, Savard still cannot tolerate bright lights, and has a hard time being around a commotion for extended periods of time.  Good luck playing hockey in front of 20,000 fans.  What’s scarier is that Savard said that for the first time in his life, he became apathetic about everything and fell into a deep depression.  Not depressed that he was injured and couldn’t play, but depressed.  There were alarming quotes saying things to the effect that Savard did not really care about his own life anymore.  He admitted that he did not even know why he felt this way, but he had a hard time shaking it.  Savard has played a couple brief periods of hockey since, but he too has not played a game since February 8 of this year.
And so now we lose another bright young man, who just a week ago joined me in the ranks of 26 year-old, right handed shots (that’s where the comparisons end, unfortunately for me).  Horton has been officially ruled out for the remainder of the series, but that was obvious before the man’s skull even hit the ice.
On a much more cheerful note, the NHL has continued its tolerant stance on shots to the head and late hits by assessing Rome a token four-game suspension, which just happens to be the exact amount of games left in the series, if necessary.  Rome’s suspension does not even necessarily hurt the Canucks, who are now free to activate the talented $4.2 million man, Keith Ballard.  That ought to be funny, as the Canucks are forced to replace one defenseman who has no respect for fellow players with one who nearly decapitated his own goaltender last year.
But really, we cannot blame Rome for his actions.  The man is just another in a long line of young players who play without respect for their fellow hockey colleagues.  There is no room for cowardly plays like the one Rome made last night, but the fact is that we are seeing it more and more in the financially growing world of hockey.  I am worried about this as a hockey guy.  That game was on worldwide television, and just five minutes into the game, every kid and his or her mother saw a man’s life altered.  I am not trying to dramatize what happened.  Plays like that are seen and talked about by everybody, and they have a negative impact on the number of kids who will take up the game and grow to make the sport and the league as good as it can be.  The NHL has done a good job to cultivate a landscape that has set hockey up for the rise that it is currently enjoying.  But all of that fertile ground can be blazed away by one or two unsupervised idiots playing with matches or dropping a cigarette.  We can’t stop all of the idiots from doing stupid things, but we sure as hell can create an environment that deters idiots from acting in a careless manner.  The only way to do this is to get serious about hits like last night’s, but the league has once again decided to put getting tough off until a later date.

*** Alteration 6-9-11 at 7:19 a.m. ***

Upon thinking about it further, I feel the league handed out the correct suspension.  The hit was late and vicious, and Rome should feel embarrassed about that, but it wasn’t one of the dirtiest hits we’ve seen in recent memory.  There’s no real reason to suspend the guy for next season, so at this point, I feel the four-game suspension was the right move.  Anything less, and I would still be upset about it, but the league ensured that Rome will not be able to play this season, and that seems fair enough.