Joe Quenneville, Antti Niemi, Michael Leighton

Why this year’s Philadelphia Flyers look an awful lot like last season’s Chicago Blackhawks

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It wasn’t always pretty – after all, they needed a shootout win over the New York Rangers on the last game of the regular season to clinch a playoff spot – but the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers found a way to mesh together, bought into new coach’s Peter Laviolette’s system and finished two wins away from a Stanley Cup.

While this might paint the picture in the broadest strokes, there were two ways the Flyers could have reacted this season: 1) by fading into oblivion, thus proving that they merely got hot at the right time or 2) prove that they are a genuine contender with a great season. It seems like they went with option two, considering the fact that Philadelphia is the top team in the Eastern Conference right now.

In fact, the 2010-11 Flyers might be in a remarkably similar situation as the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks team that thwarted them for the ’10 championship. Let’s take a look at the intriguing similarities between the two teams, starting with the most important shared characteristic. For the sake of honest discussion, I’ll also discuss a few key differences that keep the two teams’ similarities from being Sedin twins-level creepy.

Long term core, short term depth

Last season, it seemed like the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation would be even more crippling than it ended up being. Yet they still lost some crucial pieces, particularly Dustin Byfuglien and (admittedly struggling) goalie Antti Niemi.

The Flyers don’t face the same dire situation (CapGeek.com estimates their 2011-12 cap space to be more than $3.64 million with 17 roster spots covered), but Philly will likely lose some of their impressive depth players during the next summer or two.

Ville Leino (unrestricted) and Andreas Nodl (restricted) are free agents this summer along with steady, affordable goalie Brian Boucher. Valuable defensemen Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle will be unrestricted free agents while James van Riemsyk – the second overall pick of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft –  will be a restricted free agent in July 2012. Leino and JVR are particularly likely to see considerable raises, which might price them out of Philly.

In other words, the Flyers boast an outstanding group of top-end players such as Mike Richards and Jeff Carter – much like the Blackhawks still employ Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith – but they’ll only be able to boast almost unfair depth for another season or two.

Laviolette = Joel Quenneville

However you feel about the dismissal of John Stevens, the Flyers are clearly a better hockey team under Laviolette. Much like coach Q, the feisty former Carolina Hurricanes bench boss arrived with instant credibility (and a Cup from his time with the ‘Canes). It’s a telling pattern that talented teams flourish with some new blood, from Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh to Bruce Boudreau in Washington and Guy Boucher in Tampa Bay.

Sergei Bobrovsky = Antti Niemi?

Cristobal Huet was supposed to be the man in Chicago. Michael Leighton was supposed to make good on his surprise Cup run this season. Yet Niemi eventually usurped the pricey Huet and Bobrovsky took advantage of Leighton’s poorly timed injury issues to nab the No. 1 gig.

The best part for Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren is the big difference between the two: while Niemi’s contract expired last summer, Bobrovsky’s entry-level deal won’t run out until the 2012-13 season concludes. (Of course, there’s that other major difference: Niemi already won Chicago a Cup.)

Losing to a champion

I’m not sure if the cliche is as valid in the unpredictable days of the salary cap, but many people think that a team “needs to learn how to lose before they learn how to win.”

There’s some truth to that in the way the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins fell to the Detroit Red Wings before winning Cups the last two seasons. Perhaps the Flyers will take that lessons learned from losing to Chicago and win a Cup this season?

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So as the Flyers and Blackhawks play for the first time since the two teams grappled in the Cup finals, forgive some double-takes in Chicago. It’s just that they might feel like they’re looking back at their 09-10 selves (only in black, white and orange jerseys).

Pavelski’s late goal helps Sharks grab 2-0 series lead over Preds

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The San Jose Sharks became the only team in the second round to jump out to a 2-0 lead in their series. The Sharks did it by beating the Predators 3-2 in Game 2 on Sunday night.

San Jose opened the scoring in the second period when Logan Couture buried a rebound by Preds goalie Pekka Rinne. Brent Burns took the initial shot from the point and extended his playoff point streak to four games.

The Predators finally got on the board at the 12:56 mark of the third period when Mattias Ekholm tied the game at one.

Here’s the goal:

Nashville’s good fortune didn’t last very long. Sharks captain Joe Pavelski gave San Jose a 2-1 lead less than five minutes later.

Pavelski also picked up two assists in the game. The 31-year-old has at least one point in six of his seven postseason games in 2016.

Joe Thornton then added an empty-netter in the final minute of play before Ryan Johansen scored with four seconds remaining.

Despite the loss, Preds head coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t too disappointed by the way his team played.

The Predators outshot the Sharks (39-25), they outhit San Jose (46-26), but they just couldn’t outscore them.

Like the old saying goes: “you’re not in trouble until you lose a game on home ice.” The Preds still haven’t done that, which means they’re not done yet.

The series now shifts to Nashville for Game 3, which will be played on Tuesday night.

Video: Marc-Edouard Vlasic saved by his visor after taking Shea Weber shot to the face

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It’s a scary night for players getting hit in the head with pucks.

After Brian Elliott was hit in the head by a Jason Spezza slapshot, it was Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s turn to narrowly avoid disaster.

In the third period of Sunday’s game against the Predators, Vlasic took a puck to the face. The end result could have been catastrophic had Vlasic not had a visor.

You can see the incident by clicking the video at the top of the page.

Hockey Twitter breathed a collective sigh of relief after Vlasic got back up:

It sounds like Olli Maatta won’t be ready for Game 3

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You’ve all seen it by now (if you haven’t, click the video at the top of page). Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta was forced to leave Game 2 against the Capitals after taking a late hit from Brooks Orpik. Not only was the hit late, but Orpik also caught Maatta in the head.

After the Penguins’ optional skate on Sunday, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan wasn’t optimistic about Maatta’s chances of playing in Game 3 on Monday night.

“Olli’s being evaluated as we speak, so I don’t have any real update as far as his status is concerned,” Sullivan said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s being evaluated today, we’ll probably have more information in the morning.

“I don’t have a lot of sense of his availability. I’m probably not optimistic, though.”

After the game, Capitals coach Barry Trotz stood up for his defenseman.

“We’ll let the league handle it,” Trotz said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic. “If you know anything about Brooks, he plays hard, he plays clean. He’s not a dirty player.”

And the league certainly did handle it, as they suspended Orpik for three games.

Related:

Penguins coach takes issue with late, high Orpik hit on Maatta

Brooks Orpik suspended three games for hit on Olli Maatta

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Brooks Orpik has been suspended for three games for his hit on Olli Maatta (top). The Caps defenseman will be forced to miss Games 3, 4 and 5 of the best-of-seven series against the Penguins.

Orpik delivered a late, high hit to Maatta in Game 2. The Penguins defenseman was wobbly getting off the ice and he was unable to return to the game.

Here’s how the Department of Players Safety saw the play:

“Orpik steps up to pressure Bonino, who quickly moves the puck to Maatta. Orpik peels off Bonino to pressure Maatta, who releases a shot from the top of the circle. The two continue on their path toward the goal line, as the puck is kicked into the slot. A full second after Maatta releases the puck, Orpik delivers a high, forceful hit making significant head contact. This is interference.”

To watch the NHL’s Department of Player Safety’s full explanation, click the video below.

This is the third time Orpik’s been suspended in his NHL career.