PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – The Philadelphia Flyers are heading into the upcoming NHL playoffs with a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders. The team is looking like the force that many had predicted they would be at the start of the season and everyone is taking notice these days – mostly notably the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While there is an outside chance that the two teams won’t meet in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Flyers and Pens are destined to clash in what should be a gruelling 7-game series.
It is arguably the best rivalry in hockey these days. Rack your brain for a few minutes and try to come up with one as nasty, dirty or more hate-filled than the one between the trans-Pennsylvania rivalry. If you can come up with one, good luck, you’re going to need it.
Who would have thought that after a slow start to the season (that’s putting it mildly) by free agent goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, the loss of key defenseman and captain Chris Pronger to concussion, a rash of injuries, and a team record of 11 rookies on the roster, would have the Flyers with the fifth-most points in the league. They’re third overall in team scoring, lead the league in rookie scoring, and witnessed the return of Bryzgalov to his former self that made him such a hot commodity in the off-season.
Eleven players have 10 or more goals. They’re led by Scott Hartnell, who was sitting at the end of head coach Peter Laviolette’s bench when the season started, but is having his best season ever as a pro with 36 goals. Claude Giroux has put together an MVP-worthy season, tallying 89 points. Only Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin has more points than Hearst, Ontario native.
Not to be outdone are the freshmen Flyers – the rookie crop that is headed by Matt Read, who is first in goals by a rookie and fourth in points, and ably supported by Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and Eric Wellwood. Read, who was undrafted, has come out of nowhere (otherwise known as the Bemidji State Beavers from the WCHA) to impress everyone with his speed and skill.
Couturier, taken 8th overall in 2011 by the Flyers in return for the Jeff Carter trade, has become a solid two way player. After a slow start to his season no thanks to injuries, Schenn is play his best hockey at just the right time, and Wellwood’s speed is not only dazzling to watch, but has impressed with his solid play as well.
The trade deadline pickups of defensemen Pavel Kubina and Nicklas Grossman have solidified the blueline in Pronger’s absence. The Flyers are playing much better defensively and have improved their special teams play as well. They are 5th in the league on the power play and a respectable 15th on the penalty kill.
The only Achilles heel the Flyers have these days is their slow starts to games. The team has made a habit of going down early, not by a single goal, but by two and three goals in the first period. Still, the Flyers have shown the kind of resolve that championship teams are made of.
We won’t know until sometime in June if that will come back to haunt them or not, but if it doesn’t, the Phillies won’t be the only team that could have a parade down Broad Street in South Philly this year.