NHL Playoff Update

Two straight wins have given the Flyers their swagger back, the Blackhawks are alive (albeit barely), a brief lesson on back-checking, and why you never turn off an NHL game early.

Flyers starting to show life.
The effort in game one was encouraging. The offensive explosion in game two was surprising. In game three, the Flyers wisely picked their spots and outlasted the Buffalo Sabres en route to a 2-1 series lead. While it’s still early, it appears Philadelphia has begun shaking off the rust that accumulated over the final month of the regular season.

If you review the game summary from Monday night’s game three, the Flyers fell short in nearly every statistical category. They were outshot, had fewer takeaways, lost the faceoff battle, and delivered fewer hits than the up-tempo Sabres. However, Philadelphia committed fewer turnovers and outperformed Buffalo where it mattered most; goals scored.

Take a look at the previous paragraph. What do you see? Clearly, the Flyers, knowing Buffalo would be amped for their first home playoff game of the 2011 postseason, approached the game with a passive-aggressive mindset. They played conservative, waiting to pounce on Buffalo’s miscues.

Despite being outshot, the Flyers had the better scoring chances. Most of Buffalo’s shots were what I like to call, “contained.” In other words, they were shots the Flyer defense was willing to surrender. At no point did they lose control of the game. While Brian Boucher played well, it wasn’t like he was standing on his head to keep the Flyers in the game. In fact, I can hardly remember any of his saves other than the one that broke his mask. That means solid defense, controlled chances, and aggressive back-checking.

Offensively, Philadelphia was more assertive in getting shots on goal even though they still struggle to do so while on the power play. With a man advantage, the Flyers still inexplicably dance around with the puck. Looking for the perfect play is the best way to waste a power play. If there’s one thing that permeates playoff hockey, it’s to get the puck on net. Whenever you can from wherever you are, shoot the puck. Just do it. In the regular season, waiting for a better opportunity is acceptable. In the playoffs, chances aren’t guaranteed. It’s important to make the most of the ones you’re given. The Flyers appear to understand this except when they’re on the power play, which makes no sense at all. How many playoff goals are scored in the midst of chaos in front of the net? Getting shots and (hopefully) rebounds gets the defense scrambling and back on its heels. A panicked defense is a power play’s best friend.

Also, as someone who was extremely disappointed by Danny Briere in his first few seasons in Philadelphia, I now consider myself a fan. He may even be my favorite Flyer to watch. It’s fun to see a player take on the persona of the city in which he plays like Briere has.

Briere was a finesse player for the Buffalo Sabres and played a similar style after coming to Philadelphia… at least until the 2010 playoffs. It was during Philadelphia’s epic 2010 run that Briere transformed into a grinder. He’s neither the strongest nor the biggest forward, but he fights harder and plays with more emotion than any Flyer aside from Scottie Hartnell. I used to loathe Briere and his “soft” style of play. He wasn’t built for Philadelphia. He looked out of place in the Flyers’ rugged orange and black. Now, he’s perfect for this city – grinding for every inch in a game where nothing is given.

Other NHL Notes
Thanks to the brilliance of the NHL, I’ve only seen 1 and 1/3 of the Flyers playoff games. To get my NHL Playoff fix, I’ve resorted to paying more attention to the other series. Some random thoughts…

*Despite their demolition of the Canucks last night, I’ve already written off the Blackhawks. I’m sure the Chicago fans are thrilled the defending champs finally decided to care in game four, down 0-3 in the series. Not that it matters. Derrick Rose has the city’s full attention, so the Blackhawks are a mere afterthought.

*I’m amazed at the lack of effort devoted to back-checking by so many forwards, and in some cases, even defensemen. Skating a few feet behind the offensive player isn’t back-checking. If you watch Buffalo’s second goal on Monday night you’ll see Philadelphia defensemen, Braydon Coburn lagging behind the play. After pinching and missing in the offensive end, allowing Buffalo an odd man rush, Coburn lazily pursues Nathan Gerbe. Instead of catching Gerbe, Coburn coasts a foot or two behind, apparently content with his positioning. Whoops. Gerbe received the pass and Colburn frantically lunged but was too far out of position. Gerbe scored and Buffalo secured momentum heading into the 3rd period. I’ve witnessed similar events in two of three Rangers/Capitals games, the Nashville/Anaheim series, and in last night’s Sharks/Kings classic. Put a body on the attacking player and ride him out of the play.

*Speaking of which, I’m embarrassed. I rarely give up on a sporting event much less a playoff game. But last night, after Dirk and the Mavericks closed out the Portland Trailblazers, I went to bed. The Sharks were getting destroyed in Los Angeles, so I decided it wasn’t worth my time. After all, getting up at six every morning to keep up with a 10 month old wrecking ball requires rest. Of course, the Sharks rallied from four goals down to win in overtime. What’s worse, I distinctively said to myself before heading to bed that I would regret it if San Jose came back. They did and I do. Lesson learned. NHL Playoffs = more fun than sleep.

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