Off The Post: Jeckyl And Hyde Flyers Need Consistency To Get Out of The Woods

By Anthony Mingioni (@AnthonyMingioni)

The name Pennsylvania, the commonwealth in which the city of Philadelphia resides, is Latin for “Penn’s Woods.”

300 years ago most of the region surrounding the city was a densely packed collection of tall trees and foliage. Not a place for the faint of heart or anyone less than the hardiest of individuals to try and make a living.

Today, it still has a substantial amount of heavily wooded areas that if one isn’t careful, they can easily lose their way in.

This, when you think about it, is as apt an analogy as anyone can use to describe regarding the Philadelphia Flyers right now.

Still, it was jarring to hear the team’s franchise goaltender use it in as candid a comment as any member of the Philadelphia media has heard or witnessed in years.

In the aftermath of a stunning 9-8 loss (and the Flyers’ third consecutive loss) on Thursday, Ilya Bryzgalov stood before the local media contingent and uttered these words:

“I have zero confidence in myself right now. I am terrible. I will now apologize now in front of the fans, in front of my teammates. I don’t know what’s going on right now. I can’t stop the puck.”

When a reporter asked if it was a matter of simply working things out:

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I can’t tell anything right now. I am lost in the woods right now.”

Bryzgalov recovered with a 24 save performance in a 5-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday, which allowed the Flyers to finish the month on a high note.

Needless to say, he was in an improved state of mind in speaking with the media.

“I found the way very quick, huh? I used the iPhone compass.”

In a symbolic and literal sense, as Bryzgalov goes, so too go the Flyers. His play often acts as the compass that can point the team out of those proverbial woods created by his 3.45 goals against average and .870 save percentage performance prior to Saturday.

“I know I can do all the things. I did it before. Sometimes you need to turn the switch on in your head.”

While their game over Carolina is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t gloss over the fact that they have basically been two teams as diametrically opposed to one another as can be. One could easily question whether or not the players in front of Bryzgalov have “turned the switch” themselves.

While a four goal 3rd period, a big performance from their top line of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, and Jaromir Jagr, and Bryzgalov’s performance are all positives, there were times during the first two periods when the Flyers were teetering on the edge of trouble, especially with their defensive coverage down low.

In that respect, they’re not “out of the woods” yet.

When Philadelphia started their October schedule, they were as confident and self-assured in the play as they’ve ever been. They sprinted to a 4-0-1 record with victories over the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks, both Stanley Cup finalists from a year ago.

In the six games since, the team has gone 2-4 since with losses to a pair of previously struggling teams in the Montreal Canadiens and the Winnipeg Jets, giving up a combined 14 goals in those two games.

In terms of overall performance, it’s as drastic a 180 degree turn as a team can have.

Lack of Defensive Commitment

The first problem that many are likely to point to is the absence of franchise defenseman Chris Pronger, who suffered a too close for comfort eye injury during their 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But while his absence has certainly been keenly felt in the two games since, it can be easy to overstate it. The Flyers were showing some disturbing defensive lapses in the two games prior against Washington and St. Louis.

If you closely watched the defense play in the Capitals and Blues games and you would have noticed that Andrej Meszaros has been regularly been beaten to the puck and has given several turnovers in bad areas (namely playing one of the points in the offensive zone) that led to momentum changing goals.

Watch Brayden Coburn before his plus- four performance against Carolina and you would have noticed his defensive zone struggles and inconsistent physical play. Or the fact that Pronger’s regular defensive partner Matt Carle had a marked increase in ice time coinciding with an unsightly minus eight rating in the first two games following Pronger’s absence.

AP Photo/Tom Mihalek

Throw in the unreliability of the third defensive pairing, with lackluster performances from Matt Walker and Andreas Lilja, leading to the recall of rookie defenseman Erik Gustafsson to try to solidify things there.

Add the concern that no one has taken on the role of clearing the crease of opposing players. During their recent losing skid, opponents have been able to pitch a tent in front of the Flyers’ crease with little concern for paying for that real estate.

Not all that difficult to understand why the Flyers are currently ranked 27th out of 30 teams in giving up an average of 3.27 goals per game.

Chemistry: Sometimes The Mix Works, Sometimes It Doesn’t

It’s been a central part of the Flyers public relations campaign for the 2011-2012 season.

Watch or participate in hockey and you’ll invariably hear the word mentioned by players and management alike.

Chemistry is not something to be taken lightly and it’s the responsibility of management and coaches to come up with the proper mix to put their players in the best position to succeed.

Sometimes the mix works and sometimes the results can blow up in your face.

Head coach Peter Laviolette, even when the team was relatively healthy, made several line changes in tweaking the overall performance of the roster. The most notable of the changes occurred after the team recalled center Brayden Schenn from the Adirondack Phantoms prior to the Capitals game.

With the adjusted lineup, the Flyers played a relatively close game through two periods before Washington bombarded them in the third period in a 5-2 loss.

The next day, he decided that the best course of action was to put the team through a hard practice. Sometimes those decisions work…sometimes they don’t as evidenced by their lackluster performance the following game, a 4-2 loss to St. Louis.

Some of his experiments have proven very successful as Giroux, Hartnell, and Jagr combined for 12 goals and 23 points in the four games since they were grouped together. But the continued insistence of playing rookie forward Matt Read at the pivot should only occur out of necessity because of injuries, because his play is noticeably better when playing on the wing.

Outside of the coach’s lineup changes, other immediate issues crept to the surface.

Hockey is played at levels and those levels must support one another. On the whole, systematic breakdowns have occurred across the board with forwards not back checking with intensity, sizable gaps between the forwards and the defensemen who are forced to make stretch passes easily intercepted and turned back the other way, and goaltenders unable to make a timely save.

When things aren’t going well, teams attempt to cheat on plays, or make that extra pass when the scoring play is on the passer’s stick or force shots when they should look for a better option.

Juxtapose that image with what they were doing in their first five games of the season. Plays were kept simple, transition from defense to offense was as smooth as could be, forwards back checked hard and supported the defense, defensemen were finishing their checks and clearing out the slot with regularity, and Bryzgalov especially did a great job of making the initial save and limiting rebound opportunities.

A Question of Youth?

Which brings another issue to the fore: are the Flyers more mistake prone because they are a younger team, especially up front? Not that Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were aging players, but the Flyers return in the trading of those players netted them an even more youthful group. Do they lack that innate sense of what the right play is at times because of that inexperience?

Defenseman Kimmo Timonen doesn’t buy into that theory.

“You know, you have to show up. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re 18 or 40 years old, it doesn’t matter. It’s a learning process, obviously,” he said. “But still, playing defense is more desire and execution and really desire to play defense.”

The upside of the youth question for the Flyers is that in facing such adversity in the early going, they learn some hard lessons that as a group can help them to improve. The systematic issues can be corrected if the team shows that it can learn from their errors.

It’s in the difficult moments that a team’s true character emerges. As cliché as that sounds, it’s still a truism.

Bryzgalov’s analogy was correct: October was a disconcerting journey in the woods for the Philadelphia Flyers

Their play in November will determine whether they’ll find a clearing.

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Be sure to tune into www.talkusa.tv on Monday November 7 at 9:30-10pm for the premiere episode of “Off The Post TV” co- hosted by yours truly and Russ Cohen from Sportsology.net and XM/Sirius.

Our weekly show will be spinning you around the league to discuss what’s going on.

More details will be forthcoming this week, so be sure to follow me @AnthonyMingioni and Russ @Sportsology on Twitter.

You can also contact me by email: anthonymingioni@yahoo.com

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