Thanks for Collin from our friends at Broad Street Hockey for joining us and answering some questions about those Philadelphia Flyers. With two games in two days, we're going to get to know these guys all the better as the playoffs loom around the corner.
#1 - Being right in the thick of the playoff chase after a terrible start, the Flyers are currently in the playoffs and have a strong record over their past 10 games (7-2-1). What's your feeling about the team right now? Safe to say they're still on the upswing towards the playoffs? Any major nagging concerns?
There are still a ton of concerns with this team as they head into the final five weeks of the season; the 7-2-1 record in their last 10 does nothing to console most fans of the team, as their next 12 games will certainly make or break their season. All 12 of their opponents over the next four weeks are in a playoff position, starting with this home-and-home against the Penguins. They'll face the Blackhawks, Stars, Blues and Kings after this. That's, uh, scary.
On a good note, the Flyers have certainly played better since October, as the team was on a 107 point pace between November 9th and their loss to New Jersey this past Tuesday. If I'm not mistaken, that's good for the league's fifth best record in that time-frame. It seems this year's team lives and dies by their special teams play. They're not very good possession-wise at 5-on-5, but, like the Penguins, they boast pretty elite power play and penalty kill units. In fact, in you examine penalty-kill success through shot suppression, they're one of the best teams in the league in that aspect.
Any major nagging concerns? Well... where do I begin? The defense is, as you've probably heard, immobile. There's really no other way to put it. Remember when Erik Gustafsson was praised for his composure and ability to move the puck up the ice during that exciting Flyers-Penguins playoff series of 2012? Well, he's found himself out of the lineup. We're not really sure why. Craig Berube seems to say all of the right things: the team needs to think quicker, act quicker and move the puck up the ice in an effective manner; but the team lacks the personnel to fully carry out his plan, and it's extremely frustrating.
Steve Mason is, well, Steve Mason. Do I need to elaborate?
#2- Goals against is always a big deal, especially in Philly and with 188 goals against in 64 games this season, it's near 3 (2.94 per game to be exact). How much of this falls on Steve Mason? The defensive unit? Overall lack of attention to detail? And how do they correct it, if you think that's possible?
The Flyers have had a pretty frustrating season, if you examine it further. When the team found themselves unable to score in the first two months of the season, Steve Mason was playing out of his mind. He had a .928 SV% in October and .938 SV% in November. Seriously. Since you kind of have to score -some- goals to win hockey games, the team found themselves in a pretty deep hole. They were 1-7-0 and 4-10-1, respectively, to start the season.
When the offense finally starting clicking, Steve Mason turned back into Steve Mason, and, in three of the next four months, he found himself with a SV% below .900. Some, but not all, can be put on him. There's a giant divide here in Philly; you've got the fans who put everything on the defense and refuse to blame Mason because they've witnessed his amazing start and think he's capable of sustaining that (nevermind his three straight years of complete suck), and then you've got the fans who complete abhor Mason and think the Flyers would be in a different spot (read: better) without him in net. Realistically, it's somewhere in between, although Mason has given up more 'easy' goals than he did at the beginning of the season.
And then there's the backend. Since the Flyers' problem on the backend is personnel-based; it's not that easy to correct. The team's too slow to drive play up the ice from a possession standpoint, and there's really only a couple scorers on the pairings (Streit and Timonen). Timonen's still magical at driving play and reducing shot attempts against, but he's getting older and can't be relied on to hog as many minutes as he used to. Streit, albeit not recently, is a little bit of a liability in his own end. I haven't seen enough of MacDonald to tell whether or not he's going to be a point producer in this system, as Berube's got him on the third pairing with Schenn. Great.
Except for Timonen, not the best collection of "hockey minds" on the backend. They'll have lapses in judgement and either over-correct or lose assignment constantly. It needs to be addressed in the offseason.
#3- Who are two Flyers this season playing above expectation, and who are a couple that need to improve their output down the stretch?
I love how you worded this question with regards to "above expectation." That rules out Claude Giroux. This city expects him to be great, and Giroux's certainly lived up to that expectation. At this very moment, he's averaging a point-per-game.
Wayne Simmonds has really shined on the first-unit power play and second line with Brayden Schenn. And the best part? He's doing it while getting dragged down with a colossal even-strength possession anchor by the name of Vincent Lecavalier. At the beginning of the season, I'd have classified Wayne Simmonds as a nice third-liner with enough skill to be a regular contributor to the first-unit power play. Now? He's a staple in the top-six, and it's nice to see. The man needs 4 more points to eclipse his career high, set in 2012.
Jake Voracek's another Flyer that's playing way above expectation. A couple weeks ago, during the Olympic Break, Broad Street Hockey ran our Midterm Top 25 Under 25; guess who was number one? In looking at his point totals through adjusted TOI, he ranks right up there with elite right wingers such as Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Corey Perry. He's one of the most exciting Flyers to watch, and he's in the top 8 of the league with regards to Corsi Rel (or the relatively simplistic way of measuring how effective a player is in driving possession relative to the rest of his team.) He's just incredible at entering and exiting the zone with possession, something that isn't tracked by most people. The team really needs him, as they're pretty piss-poor possession-wise at EV.
Who do the Flyers need to step up down the stretch? Let's say 'secondary scoring.' Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Matt Read or Scott Hartnell. Couturier and Read are the two taking the hardest competition, so they are most likely to be deployed in the defensive zone. The second line is a mess with Vinny at left wing, and Simmonds and Schenn aren't great at driving play in their own right, so something has to give. I don't think this team is capable of making some waves on the shoulders of Giroux and Voracek alone.
I'd like to think that Vinny Lecavalier could improve his output down the stretch, but I've seen nothing from him up to this point that makes me believe he's capable of contributing (remember: the Flyers face 12 straight teams that are currently situated in the playoffs.) If he can chip in a couple points on the team's second-unit power play, I'd be ecstatic. Jesus, what an albatross of a contract.
Bonus- With a Pens home-and-home, what's the one key you're looking for. As in, if the Flyers can (do this), they should be successful.
If the Flyers can neutralize Sidney Crosby, they'll put themselves in a pretty damn good position to win. Crosby's a complete animal against the Flyers: In 45 career games against Philadelphia, he's got 74 points, second only to his output while facing the New York Islanders. It's pretty easy to laugh at the Penguins' bottom six, so if Berube can take advantage of the team's last change on Saturday and perform admirably against Bylsma on Sunday, then things can very easily go the Flyers' way. The Flyers did pretty well in their only visit to Pittsburgh this year; Berube outcoached the crap out of Byslma and had Couturier on the ice for a little over half of his total ice time (13+ of 26 minutes.) Look for more of that this weekend.
Never bet on goaltending before a Flyers-Penguins match-up, and the top two lines on each team have enough firepower to get it done. It's going to come down to coaching.