Magical comeback for Flyers far from surprising

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Flyers7.jpgAs soon as James van Riemsdyk’s partially-blocked wrist shot
inexplicably found it’s way past Tuukka Rask, you could just feel that
this was something the Flyers could pull off. That was the goal they
needed; something, anything positive in a first period that was
everything the Flyers didn’t want in a crucial Game 7.

Too many
penalties, poor goaltending and surprisingly uninspired play. After
three straight games of putting the Bruins on the ropes and keeping them
there with jab after jab, body shot after body shot, they back off now
right when they needed the knockout punch most of all?

After all,
this was a team had been through as much late-season and playoffs
adversity as you could imagine. The Flyers, unable to secure a veteran
goaltender at the trade deadline, make a commitment to Michael Leighton
only to see him go down for nearly two months with an ankle injury.
Brian Boucher inexplicably leads the team to a shootout victory in the
final game of the season, past the New Jersey Devils until going down
with a brutal knee injury in both legs. They lost their lead goal
scorer, Jeff Carter, and Dan Carcillo wasn’t the hero from round one
after fighting through an injury of his own.

 So seeing this team
seemingly fall flat on its face in yet another “biggest game of the
year” was surprising. If nothing else, this Philadelphia Flyers team is
resilient in the face of overwhelming odds. They had come so far in this
series, scratching and clawing their way back from down 0-3 in the
series to force a Game 7; that in and of itself is historic.

Yet
there’s a reason that only two other teams in the history of the NHL
have completely pulled off the comeback. It’s nearly impossible to carry
the much momentum in a playoffs series, to get all the bounces you
would need, to have the goaltending, to be able to sustain that
emotional edge. In the first 14 minutes in Boston tonight, the Flyers
showed as much; keeping those emotions high and keeping the Bruins’
backs against the wall is tough when suddenly the pressure is completely
on you.

That’s why a break is all they needed.

Jame van
Riemsdyk didn’t score an extremely impressive goal. This wasn’t the
result of hard work on the forecheck or a dominant cycling of the puck
down low that tired the defense. Instead this was goal that was actually
blocked, a toe drag wrist shot that spun towards Rask and then bounced
off his pad and in. There’s a possibility that puck would have gone wide
had Rask not try and made the save.

This was blind luck and it gave the
Flyers the spark and the edge they needed. If the three straight goals
by the Bruins weren’t enough, this goal was the slap in the face that put
the Flyers in motion.

After that first goal, you just knew the
Flyers had a shot. After a timeout in the first period, the Flyers
outshot the Bruins 22-11 and while there were certainly some tense
moments (and a number of pipes getting hit) they never again allowed
Boston to have the great chances they enjoyed to start the game.

The
Flyers won this game as a team, blocking 18 shots and doing whatever it
took to keep the Bruins from retaking the lead once the Flyers tied it.
The Flyers fought hard to kill off a Dan Carcillo penalty that came
mere seconds after they tied the game, never taking another penalty in
the game. They were disciplined and hard working, riding the wave of
momentum they had built in three straight wins to get to this point.

Down
0-3 after 14 minutes in Game 7? Not a problem for a Philadelphia Flyers
team that had come so far already this season, a comeback victory that
should not have shocked a soul.

Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid have wrong things in common right now

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As the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, faces of beleaguered franchises, and recipients of eight-figure salaries starting next season, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel share a lot in common.

Sadly, though the first quarter of this campaign, their similarities mostly leave you kind of bummed out.

Sure, there are key differences, but if you paint in broad brushstrokes, the similarities are striking.

Varying degrees of blame

Look, it’s almost human nature to blame a team’s failures on its best player. The logic goes: they have the most power to change things, and they often draw the biggest checks (technically not true for McDavid and Eichel until next season), so they need to take the heat, right?

Well, maybe, but in almost every case in a team sport like hockey, it’s usually not on the best guy or even top guys on a team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sure seemed “in decline” for a while there, and then the Penguins brought in Phil Kessel, played to their strengths as an attacking team with Mike Sullivan in charge, and are now repeat champs.

Here’s hoping that McDavid and Eichel get some help, but with things sour for the Oilers (middle of the pack with contender aspirations) and Sabres (cellar dwellers despite dreams of big strides), the two are getting thrown under the bus at times.

The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington wrote this about Eichel, and keep in mind this was before Buffalo dropped its sixth in a row in falling short against Columbus on Monday:

Eichel has five goals in 20 games, tallying just once in his last 11. He’s got a minus-9 rating for the season. Those are the numbers. Now let’s move to things you can’t measure.

Eichel’s body language has been terrible much of season. It’s a dirty little secret fans are finally figuring out that he floats off the ice far too much on the end of his shifts.

McDavid, meanwhile, saw his defensive struggles magnified during Edmonton’s frustrating loss to the Dallas Stars this past weekend:

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis felt the need to defend McDavid, and he wasn’t alone. That’s how bad things are getting for fans of the Sabres and Oilers, two teams who have been through these growing pains so often, they probably wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a mirage.

Varying degrees of success

You really don’t have to dig that deep to see that McDavid and Eichel stand among a handful of Oilers/Sabres who are carrying the scoring burden for their teams.

It’s especially stark with McDavid, who has 25 points while the second-highest Oilers scorer is currently Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who has 15). Things are a little more even among Eichel and guys that he spends much of his ice time with, like a resurgent Evander Kane, but the broader view is the same: only four Sabres skaters are above 10 points while the Oilers only have five.

Yes, you can nitpick both players at times, but that requires the willful ignorance of looking the other way on an important point: few, if any, skaters are perfect. Especially during every night of an 82-game season.

The painfully obvious truth is that both McDavid and Eichel need more help and are being asked to do far too much. Harrington made an interesting point with this tweet, as it actually might apply to McDavid more than Eichel:

Deck chairs

From my vantage point, the situation might be more dire for the Oilers than the Sabres for a few reasons.

For one, it seems like Edmonton’s management has made its bed and now must lie in it. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis said it well (sub required) in a piece titled “There’s no retreat from the course Peter Chiarelli has plotted for the Oilers.”

Chiarelli has essentially cast his lot with the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell as key supporting cast members, and that hasn’t gone well, at all. Their bad contracts and trade clauses make them difficult to move.

And, really, how much do you trust Chiarelli to get the most out of moving, say, Nugent-Hopkins after he’s left behind a trail of shaky (at best) moves during his last years in Boston and his stay in Edmonton? To a lot of fans, he’s already a punchline.

Yikes.

In the short-term, the Sabres’ roster probably has bigger holes. Perhaps things might change as Kyle Okposo gets healthier, but the offense is a little slim beyond Eichel, Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and Jason Pominville (though Sam Reinhart‘s showing some signs of promise).

While Edmonton’s actually fashioned a half-decent defense for itself, Buffalo’s a mess in that regard.

That said, this is the first season of the Phil Housley – Jason Botterill regime, and they deserve time to get things together. The best thing about this situation is that, while there’s a tough deal or two like that of Zach Bogosian, it’s a fairly clean slate in Buffalo. They don’t need to cling to bad moves out of pride or even to protect their jobs like, say, the Capitals stubbornly hanging onto Brooks Orpik and letting quality players slip by.

Essentially, these two teams are on different points in the board game that is team-building. The Oilers are advancing close to that make-or-break spot, which to some extent makes it scarier to see the same old problems bubbling up.

***

No, their situations aren’t exactly the same, but it’s remarkable to see the parallels between Eichel and McDavid right now. You can even meme them in similar ways.

With the right mixture of luck, progression, and good management choices, maybe we can go back to focusing on the delightful things that make them similar: financial security and being absolutely spellbinding at hockey.

Right now, that’s a difficult thing to do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: His name is Joonas

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Choice PHT cuts

Shockingly, Radko Gudas is not on board with a 10-game suspension. Shocking.

Yahoo for Aho.

Johnny B. Very Good.

Blue Jackets are looking like contenders (again).

Players of the Night

  • Joonas Donskoi scored two goals for the Sharks and also found the net during the shootout. The Ducks still won as goaltending continues to shine for them (Reto Berra played the role of John Gibson tonight), but it was quite the game by Donskoi.

This is now his third two-point night of the season.

  • Also in the running: Mikael Granlund, who two goals and also grabbed a primary assist. He collected the last two goals of regulation, helping the Minnesota Wild secure a standings point. Like Donskoi, his work wasn’t quite enough, as the Devils won in overtime.

Highlight of the Night

Kevin Fiala has been on a tear since Kyle Turris arrived in Nashville. Sometimes Turris factors into that, sometimes it’s Fiala, who might be enlivened by the addition. This time around, P.K. Subban deserves a lot of credit for setting up what ended up being just a brilliant goal:

That goal is almost poetic.

Factoids of the Night

The Devils won thanks to this 3-on-3 OT goal from John Moore, which apparently is a fairly frequent occurrence.

We might as well go for a trifecta of specific-but-impressive defensemen facts:

Scores

Blue Jackets 3, Sabres 2
Coyotes 4, Maple Leafs 1
Flames 4, Capitals 1
Predators 5, Jets 3
Devils 4, Wild 3 (OT)
Ducks 3, Sharks 2 (SO)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blue Jackets are trending up

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A couple of weeks ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz hit the nail on the head in stating that the Columbus Blue Jackets “are not going away.”

Still, for those of us who’ve been impressed by their play and their war chest of prime-age (and nearing the cusp) talent, it’s been a little frustrating to see Columbus stumble a bit here and there through the baby steps of becoming a contender.

While acknowledging the risk of being the blog that cried wolf on this situation, Monday once again presented evidence that the Blues Jackets might just find their stride.

Now, it wasn’t easy against a struggling Buffalo Sabres team on Monday night,* as the Blue Jackets barely protected a 3-2 lead, with this near-goal making people hold their breath:

The overall trend is way up, however, as the Blue Jackets are now on a four-game winning streak. A lot has gone right for Columbus during that span; Sergei Bobrovsky‘s been brilliant, they haven’t allowed a power-play goal, and Artemi Panarin did this on Monday.

Diverse weapons

Columbus can be a scary opponent because they can send waves of quality forwards at opponents, especially with Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand (also perhaps Pierre Luc-Dubois?) emerging as threats. That said, Panarin might rank as their most dangerous “gamebreaker,” so it’s promising to see him score a goalie-had-no-chance brand of goal like that.

Sure, it would have been nice to add even one extra push with, say, Matt Duchene … but there’s a lot to like here, nonetheless.

Actually, I probably should have specified that Panarin is arguably the team’s most dangerous gamebreaker among their forwards.

As Alison Lukan discussed for The Athletic (sub required), the Blue Jackets are allowing their superb defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones to run while as “rovers,” and that’s scary news for opponents. Defensemen given the green light to be aggressive can sometimes be that much tougher to track, and Werenski and Jones have the tools to mix attacking and responsible defense for a potent, frightening mix.

The evolution of Torts

On a similar note, allow me to utter an opinion that isn’t often shared by people who are even mildly interested in “fancy stats” and non-traditional ways of thinking: John Tortorella’s evolution makes me intrigued about this team’s chances.

It’s fair to ding Torts for being stubborn about certain things, yet I wonder if there’s some Mike Babcock to him: the fiery nature of an “old school” coach mixed with the survival instincts and competitiveness needed to actually embrace changes in the league.

Giving Jones and Werenski isn’t the first example of Tortorella going “safe is death” and it’s not the first sign of innovation in Columbus. After all, it took the NHL some time to adapt to the Blue Jackets’ power play last season, which involved using a would-be depth forward (Sam Gagner) in a specialist role that was quite effective and off the beaten path.

Robber Bob

The last reason to be excited about Columbus is fairly straightforward: it sure seems like Sergei Bobrovsky is less streaky and more, perhaps, the best goalie in the world. Or at least the best goalie on enough nights to make this team pretty scary.

Now, does this mean that Columbus won’t stumble again this season? Of course not. Really, we don’t see many teams nearly immune to struggles, and some arguably suffer if they don’t hit much regular-season turmoil (the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Capitals, perhaps?).

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to get excited about The Next Big Thing(s) in the NHL, and the Blue Jackets seem like they have the potential to be just that.

* – Check PHT on Tuesday for more on Jack Eichel and his struggling Sabres.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Coyotes win again, end Maple Leafs’ run at six games

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Break up the Arizona Coyotes.

After a downright depressing start to a season that opened with some hope, the Coyotes are at least gaining some self-respect, if not some respect around the NHL. That continued on Monday as the Coyotes extended their winning streak to three games.

Remarkably, that 4-1 win came against the Toronto Maple Leafs, ending the Buds’ own run at six games.

That 4-1 margin greatly exaggerates the difference between the two teams, however. This one came down to the wire, especially as a would be 2-2 goal was disallowed. The Coyotes added insurance goals late with two empty-netters.

Instead of being lopsided, the game came down to players who were expected to be difference-makers actually making a difference.

[During their darker days, this post explained that they seemed better than their record indicated]

It hasn’t been the easiest start for hidden-gem-star Oliver Ekman-Larsson, so he must have been especially happy to score what eventually stood as the game-winner:

Antti Raanta also had himself quite a game, stopping 27 out of 28 shots as his winning streak is also at three games. Injuries and other issues plagued him to start his debut season with Arizona, but now it looks a lot more like things are going as originally planned.

Heading into a Canadian road trip that began with a 4-1 loss to the Jets in Winnipeg, this sure seemed like it would be a dreadful turn for the already-dreadful ‘Yotes. Instead, they’ve rattled off three straight wins: 5-4 at Montreal, 3-2 in OT at Ottawa, and now tonight’s victory in Toronto. You may note that two of those wins came in regulation, too.

Honestly, you can pull things back and realize that the Coyotes have been scrappy in a month of November that seemed fated to doom them.

(If this team was still the Phoenix Coyotes instead of the Arizona Coyotes, you’d probably see a lot of “rising from the ashes”-type headlines. But alas.)

They began the month winning one and losing one. Starting on Nov. 6, they went on a stretch where they played seven of eight games on the road (a stretch that ended today in Toronto). They lost the first five games of that run, but they managed to get “loser points” in two of those defeats.

Despite a tough schedule on paper, and after going a ludicrous 1-11-1 in October, the Coyotes are now 4-4-2 in November, with seven road games versus three home tilts. Maybe they were inspired by a traveling band of fans?

Now, none of that makes you think that this team is going to set the world on fire. Instead, it indicates that there’s some fight left in this squad, and maybe a nod to Rick Tocchet keeping spirits reasonably high even as things looked especially grim.

With Raanta seemingly healthy, “OEL” back on his game, and Clayton Keller continuing to tear the league up as a rookie (two more assists tonight), the Coyotes might be building some confidence, even if they can’t go too far with that at 5-15-3.

Still, they need only to look at the team they narrowly defeated in Toronto and realize that, with the right players and decision-makers, a quick turnaround is actually quite plausible.

For now, they’ll settle for a resoundingly successful road trip.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.