2010-11 NHL season preview: Philadelphia Flyers

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Thumbnail image for prongerknockshishelmetoff.jpgLast season: (41-35-6, 88 points, 3rd in Atlantic Division, 7th in Eastern Conference) You probably heard the story already if you’re a big hockey fan, but it’s still pretty amazing to think about it. The Flyers went from needing a failed Olli Jokinen shootout attempt on the last day of the season to eek into the playoffs to being down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins in the second round to making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Sure, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks was disappointing, but the Flyers exceeded just about everyone’s expectations last season.

Head coach: Peter Laviolette pulled off a very Dan Bylsma-like feat with the Flyers last season, taking over a struggling club during the season and installing a more aggressive style that propelled them to the Cup finals. He didn’t win a Cup like Bylsma, but Laviolette has a championship on his resume from his run with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Flyers are in solid hands with Laviolette.

Key departures: F – Simon Gagne, G – Ray Emery, D – Ryan Parent. It’s weird to mention Emery as a “departure” since he seemingly injured himself so long ago. Gagne might be a bit injury-prone, but he’s a speedy sniper who made an impact when he returned to the Flyers during the playoffs. He’d be missed a bit more if Philly wasn’t so loaded at forward.

Key arrivals: F – Nikolai Zherdev, D – Andrej Meszaros, D – Sean O’Donnell, F – Jody Shelley. The Flyers rolled the dice with the talented but flighty Russian Zherdev. They also took on expensive and questionable defenseman Meszaros, sturdy blueliner O’Donnell and fighter Shelley. The Shelley signing would have been ridiculous if Rangers GM Glen Sather didn’t decide to one-up everyone by making Derek Boogaard rich.

leightonandboucherpals.jpgUnder pressure: Most people would say their goalies (Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher) are under the most pressure and that’s probably true. But we’ll get to them in a second.

One other person to watch is sniping center Jeff Carter, a consistent goal scorer whose performance in the playoffs left much to be desired. He’s in a contract year, so don’t be surprised if Carter leads the Flyers in points. (If he can handle the pressure, that is).

Protecting the house: Leighton and Boucher won’t go high in any fantasy hockey drafts and will be the source of plenty of derision in plenty of season previews. Leighton is struggling with back issues and doesn’t have a long track record as a starting goalie. Boucher is a journeyman goalie who is a 1b at best. Neither goalie is a likely Vezina Trophy candidate, but if they stay healthy, they might be sufficient.

Why? Because they play behind what is (on paper) the best defense in the Eastern Conference, if not the NHL. He might not be Mr. Popular, but Chris Pronger is the most intimidating blueliner in the league (sorry, he’s just a little bit nastier than Zdeno Chara). When Scott Stevens retired, Pronger took the mantle as the most sadistic defenseman on ice. Let’s not forget about the Kimmo Timonen, another great (and highly-paid) blueliner in his own right. Matt Carle benefits from Pronger’s imposing presence while Braydon Coburn is a solid companion for Timonen. Sean O’Donnell should be a solid bottom pair guy while Andrej Meszaros might make sense in a smaller role.

It might not rank alongside the Anaheim Ducks defense that included Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, but you won’t find many groups better than Philadelphia’s … especially in the East.

Top line we’d like to see: Carter-Mike Richards-Danny Briere. Richards provides the two-way play and some great leadership (not to mention plenty of skill). Carter can just focus on being a sniper while Briere would abuse teams that would have to focus on him less than his two line mates.

Oh captain, my captain: Richards can do a little bit of everything, from scoring to winning a big faceoff to killing penalties with aplomb. His leadership was challenged when the team faltered and it seemed like Pronger wore the pants in the family, but Richards justifies his position as an NHL captain quite well.

jodyshelleyfights.jpgStreet fighting man: Shelley is (probably) the biggest fighter, but this is the Broad Street Bullies we are talking about here. Throwing knuckles is a requirement in Philadelphia in the same way that employees must brew their own beer at Sam Adams. Dan Carcillo will wrack up the PIMs and keep Shelley company in the penalty box. You have to wonder if scary brain injuries might slow down last year’s leading fighter, Ian Laperriere, though.

Best-case scenario: Carter uses that expiring contract dangling carrot to score 50 goals while Briere capitalizes on his playoff points-leading run by putting up big numbers again. Philadelphia takes advantage of their considerable scoring and defensive depth to win the Atlantic Division. Pronger wins his first Conn Smythe while the Flyers prove that the ‘cheap-goalie plan- works by winning a Cup with the Leighton-Boucher duo.

Worst-case scenario: Chris Pronger shows his rapidly increasing age and goes down with a serious injury. Both Leighton and Boucher flop under the full season focus. Ville Leino and Claude Giroux end up being Fernando Pisani-level busts while the Flyers shockingly miss the playoffs.

Keeping it real: The Flyers really do have a ridiculous amount of depth, especially in the forward position. Just look at that talent: Carter, Richards, Briere, Giroux, Leino, Scott Hartnell and James van Riemsdyk are all worthy contributors who could have nice years. Combine that forward depth with a very good defense and they might not need great goalies.

Make no mistake about it, though, Boucher and Leighton aren’t great goalies. These shortcomings might cost them the Atlantic Division title – I say they battle the Penguins for second place – and will keep them from winning the Cup. They should be interesting to watch, though.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, there’s a part of me that wants to say ‘5 out of 5,’ but instead I’ll go with a 4. The goal situation makes me a little timid, I’ll admit it.

Defenders as important to Fleury, as he is to Golden Knights

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LAS VEGAS (AP) Marc-Andre Fleury has been the foundation for the Vegas Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Yet while he has a 1.68 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, he’ll be the first one in the locker room to credit the defensemen in front of him.

“It’s a team game – win as a team, lose as a team,” said Fleury, who looks to become the 11th goaltender in NHL history to have his name on the Cup at least four times – and the fourth of that group to win with multiple teams.

“These guys are a big part of our success. We’re well balanced, we got some veteran guys, some younger guys, got some offensive guys, some defensive guys playing together. Those guys have been rallying all playoffs, trying to help me out, blocking shots and letting me see the puck, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

The pairings of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland, and Colin Miller with Luca Sbisa or Jon Merrill, have helped the Golden Knights become a very tight defensive team during the playoffs, something that will have to carry into Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena, on Monday against the Washington Capitals.

Schmidt has developed into the team’s top defenseman after struggling to find consistent ice time in Washington last season, when he averaged 15:29 on the ice. The fifth-year pro leads the Golden Knights with an average 22:14 on the ice and brings a familiarity to the Final, having played with Washington’s top scorers Evgeny Kuznetsov (24 points) and Alex Ovechkin (22), who rank first and second, respectively, in overall playoff scoring.

“I know a lot of those guys, I know what they like to do,” said Schmidt, who has six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in the postseason. “For what I want to do on the ice, it helps me and I think it helps our group as well that we’ve had success against them. But it’s a whole other type of animal this time of year.”

The Golden Knights swept the regular-season series against Washington, winning 3-0 on Dec. 23 in Vegas and 4-3 on Feb. 4 in D.C.

With five more Capitals have double-digit points – Nicklas Backstrom (16), John Carlson (16), T.J. Oshie (15), Lars Eller (13) and Tom Wilson (11) – Vegas will need one last big effort from a defensive group that has helped allow the second-least number of goals among playoff teams that have played 10 games.

Washington coach Barry Trotz said he knows the Golden Knights have three dynamic duos that each feature one offensive guy who can skate and move the puck – that being Miller, Theodore, and Schmidt – paired with more of a traditional stay-at-home defenseman who isn’t afraid to get physical, block shots and slow the opposing team’s pace – such as Sbisa, Engelland, Merrill and McNabb.

“But they still bring some offense, too,” Trotz said. “They play 5-5-5 all three zones just as we talk about with the Capitals. Watch the TV, you see five guys in the picture, then you’re doing good.”

Schmidt said using speed against them worked during the regular season, by moving their feet more than Washington did, and helping to develop plays in transition. But again, this is the Stanley Cup Final, and Schmidt said he knows Washington can skate well and will be a challenge.

“I think another thing is just making sure you’re really disciplined against this team,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got to make sure you stay out of the penalty box, keep Ovechkin off the power play and keep that unit off the power play.”

To Vegas’ credit, however, it does have the fourth-best penalty kill in the playoffs, stopping 82.5 percent of the power plays it has seen. And, as Sbisa said, that circles back to Fleury and the chemistry that’s been built with the defensive pairings.

“That bond is definitely there,” Sbisa said. “You don’t have to worry about anything else, play it loose, play to your strengths and that’s what we’ve been doing as a group. The six Ds that are playing that night, they’re tight; we play as a three-man group (with Fleury). Flower’s a guy that doesn’t take too much credit for himself, even though he should, because he’s been that good and it’s obviously nice to hear stuff like that coming out of his mouth. But he definitely deserves all the credit here.

“As a D-man, knowing that you have the best goalie in the world behind you, saving you when something happens, it makes a huge difference because it allows you to play your game. Praise has to go both ways.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Ovechkin slays demons on first trip to Stanley Cup Final

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Raw emotion came from Alex Ovechkin as he wore an “Eastern Conference champions” hat for the first time.

“Oh my God,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I can’t explain my emotions. I’m just happy for my boys, for organizations, for fans. Finally.”

Finally.

Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will play for the Stanley Cup. It’s a journey 14 years in the making from Ovechkin being the first overall draft pick to the greatest goal scorer of this generation – and a player who until this year hasn’t made it out of the second round of the playoffs through little fault of his own. Yet he’s gotten an uneven proportion of the blame.

Ovechkin essentially willed the Capitals to the Cup Final with 12 goals, 10 assists and the best postseason of his career. In one spring, the 32-year-old Russian superstar has ended Washington’s 20-year final drought, slayed demons and destroyed the old narrative that he can’t get the job done when it matters most.

“The special thing is because we’re winning,” Ovechkin said before the Capitals left for Las Vegas. “That’s the whole thing. That’s all I can say. We win and we move forward. We’ve never been in this position before. All my career, I played for this team, and we never get the success like that.”

Ovechkin bore the brunt of nine playoff appearances ending after the first or second round despite being a point-a-game player. With time running out on chasing the trophy he knew all about as a kid, this season has featured a different-looking player.

General manager Brian MacLellan sees a new level of maturity on and off the ice that he believes comes from Ovechkin getting married. A different offseason training regimen allowed Ovechkin to produce more at even strength, and the result was an NHL-leading 49 goals.

“I think the way he plays this year is more within the team structure,” MacLellan said. “This is the most systematic he’s played throughout his career, in my mind.”

In the playoffs, Ovechkin has raised his game even further. His vintage physicality and his willingness to get his body in front of shots and hustle down ice on the backcheck have been noticeable.

“When you see him blocking shots, you see him coming back hard, you see him playing physical, he’s getting more and more excited,” linemate Tom Wilson said. “It seems like every round you win, he’s playing even harder. And that’s what you need out of your top guys. When he’s going, you’re aware he’s on the ice. Everyone in the building knows he’s on the ice.”

During the third round, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Ovechkin has “taken 14 years of frustration out in one playoffs.” Ovechkin is reluctant to talk about previous playoff disappointments, but they’ve been tied to him.

Even though this is a team sport, someone has to be the greatest player to never win the Cup. Until now, arguably that’s Ovechkin, a label he has the chance to shed beginning in Game 1 of the final Monday at the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

“He’s an elite player that shoulders the responsibility of how our team performs, whether that is fair or unfair, and I think that happens to all those elite players in the league,” MacLellan said. “They get built up when they win and they get torn down a little bit when they lose. It is not always fair, because it is a team game. And for him, he has shouldered a lot of the burden that has gone on here for the last 11 years or whatever the time period has been, and hopefully this is a time when he gets payback and enjoys it this year.”

Ovechkin is enjoying hockey seemingly like never before. Coach Barry Trotz wondered if being the face of the franchise and carrying the burden weighed on Ovechkin all those years.

Getting past the Pittsburgh Penguins and the second round made Ovechkin look “freer” in Trotz’s eyes.

“You want your top guys to be on a mission, and I think that has freed him to carry on the mission rather than have to explain why he didn’t go farther and have to do it every spring,” Trotz said. “He’s having fun. He’s producing. He’s all in. If you’re going to have success, you have to have all-in contribution, and he has. I think he’s enjoying the run, the playoffs, maybe for the first time in a long time.”

Since returning home to Washington after advancing to the Final, Ovechkin said fans have come up to him to say thank you, good job, and to express pride. But he doesn’t want to celebrate too much because he knows how difficult every step of the playoffs is to conquer.

“It’s hard. It’s not easy,” Ovechkin said. “This organization, it’s been too long to be in this position, and I’ve never been in this position. Only Brooks Orpik has won the Stanley Cup and been in the final. Now this group is excited and we’re ready to go.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better coaching?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Barry Trotz doesn’t have a contract beyond the conclusion of this current season. He entered the year with no job security, no sense of what his future would hold and still steering his troops to the top of the heap in the Metropolitan Division, and now, the Stanley Cup Final.

Washington’s start to the season didn’t help and rumors of Trotz’s pending axing swirled. But the man who sits fifth all-time in coaching wins turned his team around.

Trotz has found another gear behind the bench and has guided the Caps with calmness during these playoffs. It’s paid off. The Capitals were able to exercise their demons against the Pittsburgh Penguins and then come back from being 3-2 down against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Oh, and he did this:

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

There isn’t a world where Gerard Gallant doesn’t win the Jack Adams this year for top bench boss in the NHL. He’s simply done the unthinkable with a team no one expected to be competing, never mind being one of two teams set to do battle for the Stanley Cup.

Look, Gallant was given a bunch of players from all over the league and a mandate to try and figure out how they all fit together, who plays on what line. Who pairs with who on defense. What the power play and penalty kill look like. It was a tall task to begin with, but Gallant has nailed it every step of the way.

There’s been lots of talk of how poorly the Panthers fared when they lost both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith in the expansion draft. But one of Florida’s biggest losses was firing Gallant and leaving him on the side of the road.

That decision paved the way for Gallant to join the Golden Knights and smash nearly every record by an expansion team ever.

Gallant has given his players the controls. Mistakes don’t mean less ice time. Gallant has inspired his team and doesn’t have them playing scared. It’s a perfect approach and one that’s evidently paid off.

Advantage: Golden Knights

Trotz is a great coach, but there’s just something about the spirited way Gallant has Vegas playing that simply cannot be denied. We’ve seen it all season and all playoffs.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
• Who has better special teams?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better special teams?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

There is no team with a better weapon on the power play than Alex Ovechkin (sorry, Patrik Laine). The fact of the matter is Washington has clipped along at damn-near 30 percent (28.6%) in the playoffs on the power play through three rounds. The only team better is the Boston Bruins, and well, they were ousted in the second round.

And it’s not just Ovi producing on the power play (he has nine points). Defenseman John Carlson leads the team with 10 power play points. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been simply sensational in the playoffs, has nine, as does T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom.

One of the X factors in this series is going to be special teams, and for Washington, specifically, they’re going to need to tighten up on the penalty kill. They allow one goal every four opportunities they give to an opposing team on the power play. Couple that with the fact that they’re the most penalized team in playoffs (61 times shorthanded), and you can see where this all could go wrong. Perhaps the good news for the Caps here is that their road PK percentage (79.3%) is better than their home numbers (71.9%).

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Vegas’ pedestrian 17.6 percent power play success rate is a full 11 percent behind the Capitals, so Washington has them beat in this regard. Vegas is the second-most shorthanded team in these playoffs (57). Forward Erika Huala leads the team with 12 power-play points while William Karlsson (8), Reilly Smith (7), and Jonathan Marchessault (6) round out their top-four point producers.

The Golden Knights could use a spark on the power play away from home, where they take advantage of just 13 percent of their man advantages.

Vegas has been much better than the Caps when shorthanded, however, at 82.5 percent. Given how many penalties the Golden Knights have taken — and the fact they played Patrik Laine and the Jets in the Western Conference Final — that’s pretty impressive. They muzzled the Jets all over the ice, but were particularly good at keeping Laine and Mark Scheifele off their game on the power play.

Vegas’ PK has been good both on the home and away from T-Mobile Arena — much like everything they’ve done this season.

Marc-Andre Fleury owns a .909 save percentage on the penalty kill, compared to Braden Holtby‘s .857.

Advantage: Capitals (ever so slightly)

Washington’s power play pushes them just over the top here, especially against a team that gives up so many opportunities. It has to be said though that this battle is very close on paper. Vegas has the better goalie in shorthanded situations and they have a better penalty kill all-around.

Special teams is certainly an x-factor in this series and should be fun to watch given the talent on both teams. 

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck