Unavoidable Truths of the NHL Playoffs

Every spring we gather to see who will hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup and every spring we’re reminded of three simple truths. Let’s hope the Flyers finally pay attention.

You can’t win without a goalie
Shocking, right? Or, as my wife would say, “I’m gonna have a heart attack and die from that surprise.” I mean, it’s only been the single most obvious playoff fact for the past century. And amazingly, the Flyers continually ignore it. Or so it appears.

Ron Hextall, yes that Ron Hextall, was the last franchise goaltender the Flyers had between the pipes. Since then, the Flyers have put John Vanbiesbrouck, Roman Cechmanek, Garth Snow, Brian Boucher, Robert Esche, Brian Boucher again, and 700 other goalies in net. None have stuck. The Flyers failure to find a franchise goaltender is equivalent to the Eagles failure to give McNabb a wide receiver for the first decade of his career, except multiplied by ten. You can find a way to win without a wide receiver. You can’t win without a goalie. In 10 2011 playoff games, the Flyers yanked their goalie in six of them. (Queue the Joker emphatically mouthing “Siiiiiiix?”) That’s unheard of. As Tony Kornheiser pointed out on PTI the other day, if you have three goaltenders, you have none.

What’s so frustrating about Philadelphia’s struggles in net is that nothing has been done in the past quarter of a century to address the problem. Ok, maybe that’s not totally true. The organization has tried. Unfortunately, they’ve failed. Every time. It’s still the Flyers fault, though. To fail so frequently at the most important position is inexcusable. A hot goaltender can single-handedly drag a team to a title. No other position in any other sport can make that claim.

If you think I’m overstating the position, watch the Flyers next (and probably final) playoff game on Friday night. The goaltending has been atrocious. Brian Boucher came into a must win Game 3 unfocused and allowed two goals in the first 65 seconds as a result. (His second, “I’ll play the first five minutes like I’m tripping on Shrooms,” performance of the 2011 Playoffs.) On top of that, most of the goals he’s allowed have been relatively soft goals. Even worse, I can’t remember one fantastic save he’s made in the postseason. At some point, a good playoff team steals a win because its goalie stood on his head for 60 minutes. The Flyer goaltenders have done the opposite, making it nearly impossible for the team to win without playing a perfect game.

Many have criticized the Philadelphia defense for the team’s struggles. While this is understandable, I don’t totally agree. Bad goaltending puts added pressure on a defense. It requires perfection. Naturally, the defensemen play a little tighter knowing any mistake could end up in the back of the net. Playing tentatively in the NHL playoffs is a recipe for disaster. Watch a defense with an outstanding goalie. That defense is aggressive, confident, and unafraid to make a big play. They know their goalie is there to cover their rear ends. The Flyers don’t have that luxury and it’s obviously taken its toll on the team. Knowing they can’t win a low scoring game wears on players over time. It’s why great offenses never win a World Series. Bad goaltending is a cancer. Amazingly, the Flyers survived it in round one. In round two, the cancer spread. It’s terminal. The Flyers have only a few days left.

Quick tangent: Why isn’t Sergei Bobrovsky starting? I know everyone likes to point to his age and inexperience, but umm, hello? We all knew the Flyers weren’t contending for the Cup after their late season swoon. Why not give “Bob” some playoff exposure? Sitting on the bench as Boucher lets pucks pass like a bouncer welcomes pretty girls at a club isn’t going to do much for Bobrovsky down the road. Put him in the game. Let him experience the pressure and intensity first hand. It’s not like Boucher is significantly better, anyway. In fact, it’s ridiculous that Boucher has been given so many opportunities while Bobrovsky was banished after one bad period in Game 2 against Buffalo. He should have been the goalie all along, even if he wasn’t going to carry them to the Stanley Cup. At least Bobrovsky has a future with the team. Boucher is an NHL nomad undoubtedly headed for a new home next season because he’s certainly no longer welcome in Philadelphia.

Fluke goals beat hot goaltending
As we just covered, goaltending is key in the NHL Playoffs. Smoking hot goaltenders are as big a part of playoff hockey as overtime marathons, referees swallowing their whistles (bravo by the way), and crowds harassing opposing net minders with cynical chants.

When facing a locked-in goaltender, it’s important for players to remember one thing; put the puck on net. Hot goaltenders are never, ever, ever beaten by highlight goals. It’s always a fluke. A weird deflection, a brain fart, a shot that shouldn’t have gone in, yet somehow, someway, found its way to the back of the net. It’s just the way it works. Throw it on goal from the blue line, or try to fire it off the goalie from behind the net. Just get the puck to the goal. Make the goalie work. Keep him on his toes. Eventually, his concentration will slip or even better, you’ll get lucky. The Nashville Predators finally solved Roberto Luongo after nearly 120 minutes of shutout hockey by throwing the puck off his left skate from behind the net. It wasn’t an amazing shot or the result of a crisp, cross-ice pass. It was simply a desperate attempt to tie the game in the closing seconds. Throw the puck on net and eventually, it will find a way in. It always does.

Teams that dominate overtime never win.
It’s a known fact. If your team is in overtime, and they’re generating scoring chance after scoring chance, just go to bed. Turn off the TV, hit the lights, and go to sleep. It’s over. Your team is finished. Controlling play and applying consistent pressure throughout the overtime period is a prelude to defeat. In the past week alone, the Flyers, Predators, and Red Wings controlled overtime periods before succumbing to what appeared to be the opponent’s first opportunity of the extra period.

I know it’s counter-intuitive to root for your team to be passive in overtime, but it may be your best option. Picture it this way: Remember the Street Fighter video game on Sega? As you assaulted your opponent, his/her health would slowly decline. NHL overtime hockey works the same way, only in reverse. With every scoring opportunity that doesn’t result in the game winning goal, the opponent’s power grows. Until finally, their power bar is full and what appeared to be one harmless shot on goal turns into the game winner. I’ve been watching the NHL Playoffs since the Flyers were on PRISM, rats decorated the ice in Florida, and Mark Recchi was on his first tour in Philadelphia. The rule hasn’t changed. Dominate overtime, go to sleep disappointed.

Don’t hitch your Stanley Cup wagon to Alexander Ovechkin
Washington D.C. lets out a collective sigh.

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