The old axiom "it’s been a roller-coaster season" was apparently created for this edition of the Philadelphia Flyers.
These Flyers entered the campaign with great promise thanks to a nice mix of terrific young players and experienced veterans, then started with 10 wins in their first 15 games. They followed that by winning just two of the next 12, had a coach fired, and still it took a few weeks to heat up and win eight of 10 under new boss Peter Laviolette.
So what we’re left with is a perplexing team expected to be near the top of the Eastern Conference, but fighting for it’s playoff life with teams, including Montreal, that have inferior looking line-ups.
Of the eight teams battling for the final three playoff spots in the East, the Flyers should be the best but don’t always play like it. But after dispatching New Jersey twice this week they show signs, once again, that if they can just get in they might be the team none of the top clubs want to face.
That said the Flyers should have their hands full with a Montreal team playing with a spirit and enthusiasm that belies its current problems. With several key injuries and a half -dozen players that started the season in the American Hockey League, the Canadiens beat Pittsburgh and Washington in recent days largely because they outworked and outskated them.
Habs coach Jacques Martin has his detractors, but make no mistake he’s had an impact on this team. In every area directly influenced by coaching – goals against, power play and penalty killing – the Canadiens have shown steady improvement all season long.
Like the Flyers, if they get good goaltending, the Habs can beat any team on any night.
On the hot stove:
Another old saying in hockey is "they aren’t firing on all cylinders" which may also be attributable to these Flyers. They have two scoring lines but somebody always seems to be in a slump.
Lately it's Simon Gagne who’s goal against New Jersey on Wednesday was his first in 13 games and Danny Briere who has scored once in his last 11 games. The two have only scored in the same game twice all season and not surprisingly the Flyers won both.
Gagne and Briere make almost 12 million bucks between them and in the last two weeks have both been outscored by Daniel Carcillo. They’re healthy now and must make a greater contribution down the stretch or there might not be any playoffs.
The same could be said for Montreal's’ Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, although they’ve come alive in recent games since injury sidelined Mike Cammalleri.
ISO camera on:
It is and always seems to be pointed directly at the Flyers goaltending. Since the declining days of Ron Hextall and the Flyers' last appearance in the final in 1997, Philadelphia has had 15 different goalies for six different coaches and the two are unmistakably intertwined.
So desperate have the Flyers been in goal they’ve employed three of the goalies (Sean Burke, Brian Boucher, and Michael Leighton) twice.
From John Vanbiesbrouck, to the quirky Roman Cechmanek, the Flyers thought they’d solved the problem only to break down in goal time and time again.
Now, reclamation project Ray Emery has a hip problem and is on the shelf until the trade deadline or beyond.
With all due respect to the improved but unproven Leighton, who now has 10 wins in the NHL for the first time, I suspect GM Paul Holmgren has a back-up plan if Emery is finished for the season. It would make sense to show some interest in Marty Turco.
It’s hard not to cheer for Montreal's recent call up David Desharnais, it’s just hard to see him in a crowd. At only five-foot-six, Desharnais has been told at every turn he’s too small for the next level but has defied the odds all the way to the NHL.
As Captain in Chicoutimi, he had two 100 point seasons in the QMJHL, won a tryout in the East Coast league and put up another 100 points in Cincinnati. The Habs gave him a chance in the AHL and he’s had a season-and-a-half of solid productivity in Hamilton.
Desharnais's biggest problem may not be his own size but the fact the Canadiens have so many other forwards that aren’t much bigger. When he and Glen Metropolit hugged after a goal against Washington it looked a bit like the kids who played in the intermission.
Montreal didn’t get any bigger or more rugged with the pick up of Dominic Moore from Florida, but he gives them a little more experience and depth up front and is pretty good at face-offs and penalty killing.
Critics suggest Philadelphia/Canada defenceman Chris Pronger will have big trouble with the speed of forwards at the Olympics. He has, however, been as good as any defender since the New Year began and the small Canadiens will give us an idea of how he handles speed these days.
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