By Stu Hackel
They're last season's Eastern Conference champion and a Stanley Cup favorite now. They have seven 20-goal scorers in their lineup, and one more tally by Ville Leino will give them eight. They have great centers and a solid and deep defense corps. They have one of the game's best young captains and a very good mix of youth and veterans. But the Flyers' play in the last two months is not making an encouraging case for their chances of going far in the playoffs.
As The Globe and Mail's fine columnist Roy MacGregor wrote last weekend, it's always wise to not take too seriously any team that plays unusually well or unusually poorly in the last couple of weeks before the season ends. So it should be easy to dismiss Philadelphia's play in its last 10 games, in which the Flyers have gained only nine of a possible 20 points. But the team's struggles have gone on longer than 10 games.
On Feb. 17, the Flyers were atop the East with a seven point lead over second place Tampa Bay. Since then, they've gone 8-11-4, picking up just 20 of a possible 46 points, and they now trail the Capitals by four points for the top spot with the Bruins only two points behind. The Flyers have said that their big lead made them complacent and got them into bad habits that they've been unable to break. Or that they were so busy looking forward to the playoffs that they forgot about the present. Those are plausible reasons, although the Canucks certainly didn't have that problem in the West. They just kept getting better.
One explanation the Flyers themselves won't use is the absence of Chris Pronger during the last 14 games. Teams never like to attribute bad stretches to the loss of key players, in part because it gives them an excuse for poor play, something no coach will tolerate. Instead, those still in the lineup are encouraged to step up and play a larger role in the injured players' absences.
But Pronger is a huge presence on the Flyers. He plays over 20 minutes a night -- more as the stakes get higher. Take him out of the lineup and the Flyers have to elevate the minutes of their other defensemen, and this is not a very young group. Even without Pronger, who is 36, they've got 39-year-old Sean O'Donnell, 36-year-old Kimmo Timonen, and 32-year-old Nick Boynton (who has been scratched more often than not since coming over on waivers from Chicago, some of his down time reportedly due to back and shoulder problems). It also means that someone else has to come into the lineup. Boynton hasn't been effective, nor has Erik Gustafsson. Danny Syvret is the latest to be the sixth d-man, but whoever gets plugged in is a pretty big drop-off in talent.
Pronger's work on the power play is especially crucial, and Philly went through an 11-game stretch in which their man advantage play was 2-for-29 before they connected for a pair against the Senators on Tuesday. In addition, Pronger's ability to dominate the defensive zone is among the best in the NHL, as was obvious during last year's playoffs. His size alone is a critical element in discouraging forwards' creativity, and he's got the added element of a serious mean streak.
Pronger's not the only tough guy missing. Jody Shelley has been out with a broken orbital bone after being hit with a puck in practice a few weeks ago. He may return as soon as this Friday, which would be ahead of schedule, but how much fighting he'll be doing is uncertain. Danny Briere has missed a couple of games with a groin injury. Blair Betts, one of the best defensive centers in the game, went down with a knee injury this week. But again, Vancouver has had its share of injuries, too -- maybe more than its share -- and wasn't stopped in its drive to the Presidents' Trophy.
This being the Flyers, there are going to be questions about their goaltending going into the postseason. Coach Peter Laviolette chose rookie Sergei Bobrovsky as his playoff starter just as the team was recalling Michael Leighton from the AHL. Brian Boucher is slated to be the backup, but with three goalies, you have to think the Flyers are preparing for any eventuality.
It seems strange to consider this team in trouble with the postseason at hand. A look at the roster, so impressive up front, just makes one wonder how the Flyers could play so poorly for such an extended stretch. "We've been getting outhustled, outworked, outbattled, out-power-played, out-penalty-killed," Hartnell said.
GM Paul Holmgren obviously had enough. He addressed his players and coaches at their practice rink and one source told The Philadelphia Daily News' Frank Seravalli, "He was pretty angry." Seravalli added: "Holmgren, according to sources, spoke about the need for the Flyers to win puck battles during the game and compete, something they've done little of during the final quarter of the season."
Things in the playoffs being what they are, Philly's bad habits could all vanish once the second season puck drops next week. The playoffs create their own momentum and confidence can build from something as small as a big save, a powerful hit or a timely goal. But without Pronger, or even without him at 100 percent, finding that confidence could be more trouble than anyone anticipated.