After a few weeks of sputtering and stumbling, the Philadelphia Flyers finally clinched the Atlantic Division title in game No. 82 on Saturday night. Their 7-4 victory over the New York Islanders allowed them to enter the playoffs as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Despite grabbing two points and the division crown on Saturday, Philadelphia’s defense continued to struggle. As the Flyers prepare to face the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, their problems on the blue line must be at the forefront of their minds.
It’s no secret that the Flyers greatest asset on the defensive corps for the playoffs will come from veteran Chris Pronger. It’s also no secret that the team has struggled without him in the lineup and he has been noncommittal on his status for the first game of the team’s first series. Without Pronger, the Flyers could be bitten by the same bug that has plagued them in their latest contests.
Philadelphia’s best defenseman on Saturday just so happened to be same defenseman that was awarded the Barry Ashbee Trophy before the contest for the team’s defensive MVP. His play against the Islanders offered immediate justification for his worthiness of the prize.
Andrej Meszaros notched his second career two-goal game, and registered two assists as well. But, he wasn’t pleased with the defense’s recent lapses, and most specifically their susceptibility to giving up odd-man rushes for their opponents.
“We can’t turn the puck over,” Meszaros said afterwards. “We just have to put it deep, chip it in, and go get it because we are a strong and powerful team. We know we can [put the puck down low and cycle], we just have to realize the importance of the game and the time of the game. Sometimes you can make a play, but when you are up by a goal or down by a goal you don’t want to do those things.”
Saturday night’s contest showed that the Flyers have to tighten up their play on the back end, or their time in the playoffs will be short-lived. The Islanders finished with 36 shots on goal, and they succeeded in chasing goalie Sergei Bobrovsky from the net just 12:05 into the contest.
Despite the team’s problems, head coach Peter Laviolette didn’t seem too concerned after the division had been clinched.
“I can tell you that I truly believe that when we wake up tomorrow there’ll be a little zip in our steps, because were back in the playoffs,” explained the Flyers’ bench boss. “You play the 82 games for the sole purpose, for the right to compete for [the Stanley Cup]. That’s it, and we’re in, it’s a good thing.”
In the offseason, general manager Paul Holmgren made it his top priority to upgrade a defense that had more than their share of problems in the playoffs. The team’s third pairing stuck out like a sore thumb in their loss to Chicago just two wins from the ultimate prize.
For the first half of the season, it seemed like the team had amended those problems as Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell were among the best third defensive pairings in the NHL. Now, that’s no longer the case. Meszaros’ play has continued to remain stellar, but O’Donnell’s has very clearly done the opposite.
If the Flyers can’t get Pronger back in time for the playoffs, a third defensive pairing of O’Donnell and Danny Syvret could seal the team’s fate. Despite their well-documented woes reappeared on Saturday, but captain Mike Richards thought that the problems were more the result of a long season than a personnel issue.
“This is why you play 82 games and play through a lot, all the bumps and bruises to get to this point,” he said. I’m not sure what happened in the last little bit, but it might have been that we were looking for this opportunity to get to the playoffs. Now that we are here, it’s time to bear down, focus, do what you have to do as a team, and play hard.”
A healthy Pronger would go a long way to help the team’s defense bear down and focus. If not, a ‘zip’ in their step will have to be stretched a long way.