Although the Flyers stand atop not the Eastern Conference and the NHL as of Tuesday night’s 3-2 win over the Capitals, the third period has caused them trouble. They’ve shown the ability to trade goals with any team, but they can’t shut things down when holding the lead.
The Flyers boast arguably the deepest offensive group in the NHL. They’re tied for the league lead in goals for at 158 in 46 games with eight different players in the double digits in goals, led by Jeff Carter (20) and Danny Briere (24).
Their stagnant power play has only scored 29 goals on 178 chances ranking them 21st out of 30 teams. On the other hand, the Flyers lead the league in even strength goals with 109.
The Flyers problems lie in the third period. When leading after two, they have a record of 24-1-2. And while any team would love to have a record like that int he third, the Flyers have given up an astounding 48 goals in the final stanza.
In Tuesday night’s game against the Capitals at Wells Fargo Center, the home team entered the third stanza leading 2-0, and looked poised to get rookie goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky his first NHL shutout. But at 7:58 of the period, the Caps made it 2-1 when Mike Knuble took advantage of a bad turnover, and just 40 seconds later, Alex Ovechkin took advantage of another defensive miscue to tie things up.
The game went to overtime, where Andrej Meszaros ensured the two points with a wrister from the slot.
Sunday night against the Rangers, the third period saw the Flyers holding a 3-0 lead until some fisticuffs gave the Rangers a little fire. The blue-shirts netted two goals and carried the momentum to a scary finish in which the Flyers barely come away winners.
A few days before in a bruising goal-trading game against the Bruins, the Flyers entered the third with a 3-2 lead. In a seven goal period, the win evaporated, as five goals belonged to the Bruins, including an empty netter.
At the start of the New Year, the Flyers intended to end their losing streak at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, a place they’d gone 0-14-2 since November 14, 1988. It looked positive entering the third with a 3-0 lead, but after two Red Wing goals, they ended the losing streak by a narrow one goal margin.
It may seem likely these all have something to do with Chris Pronger being out of the lineup. The big defenseman is an impact player and has been sorely missed since his foot surgery on December 17.
However, on December 8, the Flyers were leading the Western Conference San Jose Sharks 4-1 in the third period, when the Sharks retaliated with three unanswered goals. In overtime Mike Richards was a split second too late for the win, and the team wound up losing it in the shootout.
Since the Flyers are leading the Eastern Conference now with 65 points, six more than second place Boston and Tampa Bay and three more than fourth place Pittsburgh, it may not seem like a big deal they’re giving up so many third period goals. The team is an offensive juggernaut and they can trade goals with any team in the league, but in the playoffs it’s all about defense. Just ask the Capitals last year, who were ousted in the first round by the underdog Montreal Canadiens after winning the President’s Trophy.
There are three keys if the Flyers want to contend for the Stanley Cup:
Firstly, they need shut-down forwards. This is where Simon Gagne and Ian Laperriere are missed most. Gagne was a responsible two-way forward and Laperriere was one of the premiere shot-blockers in the NHL. Nikplay Zherdev was brought in for his offensive prowess, but his defensive skills just don’t add up, and Jody Shelley may be able to fill Laperriere’s role as a fighter, but his slow skating and lack of defensive ability keep him from contributing.
Secondly, Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher and Bobrovsky have both been inconsistent between the pipes. Both have excelled this season at times — Boucher with a .916 save percentage and Bobrovsky with .917 — but neither has proven they can save the team consistently when a bad play is made, and that’s something a winning team needs to have down the stretch. If neither goaltender can secure a shutout by the end of the season that will be a major warning sign.
And finally, the Flyers entered this season padding their defense with Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell. In addition to Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, they should have the toughest six in the league and at times they’ve looked it, but late game breakout passing, bordering on lackadaisical, turnovers in their own zone, and failed clearing attempts have caused too many problems for them.
On top of it all, Pronger has already missed 15 games due to injury and will probably miss more. The team can’t count on him being in the lineup every night and if not they’ll have to find a way to win without him.