Hockey is the ultimate team game, yet the first two games between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers underscored how important one man can be to a club.
No, I'm not talking about Evgeni Malkin, who absolutely, positively took over Game One in Pittsburgh, leading the Pens to a thorough 4-2 triumph.
And I'm not addressing the Flyers' loss of emerging star blueliner Braydon Coburn two minutes into Game Two. He was struck in the face by a deflected puck as he marked Malkin closely and didn't even see the shot come up and off of the Pens' Petr Sykora's stick.
This is a study in how the loss of one man, Kimmo Timonen, negatively impacted the Flyers.
His absence sent a ripple effect through the lineup that certainly played a part in the Flyers' dire situation. Finding out as the team prepared to leave for Pittsburgh that Timonen would be lost for the series due to the discovery of a blood clot in his left ankle played a role on a mental level. As Mike Richards confided, "We were pretty rattled the night before the game when we found out. Friday we were more business as usual in getting ready."
Well, not quite.
Timonen is, as coach John Stevens put it, "arguably our best player." Paired with Coburn through the first two rounds, Timonen led the Flyers in minutes played in all situations. His loss on the power play was evident immediately when, in Game One's first few minutes, his point position replacement Randy Jones misfired from mid-ice on a glorious slap shot opportunity. Then, in the second period, Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar zipped a pass from the top of the face-off circle in his own zone, past a desperately diving Jones in the neutral zone and all the way to the Flyers's blueline enabling the wide open Malkin to waltz in and score shorthanded. The goal left Jones and the rest of the Flyers to contemplate what would have happened in those two specific instances if Timonen had been available.
Of course, athletes in the moment don't scrutinize their situation in those terms. They simply go out and perform to the best of their abilities. Still, after the game, Richards opined that, at the very least, lack of familiarity with a new partner on the blueline for the powerplay "is going to have an effect." And the effect ran much deeper than on the powerplay. The even-strength blueline pairings became a jigsaw puzzle for Stevens due to the loss of his main man Timonen.
First, Stevens reunited Coburn with Derian Hatcher, his partner for more half the season. Then Jones, who had played extremely well in the first two rounds while paired with Hatcher, found himself with captain Jason Smith, who had played the second round with Lasse Kukkonen, who now found himself skating with veteran Jaroslav Modry -- reinserted into the lineup due to Timonen's absence -- and moved from the left side to the right side. To Stevens, that made more sense due to the "lack of desired results" in round one by Smith and Modry as a tandem.
Then Coburn went down in Game Two and all Stevens could do was ask his already compromised crew to do more. All performed admirably, especially Hatcher, who logged over 28 minutes of ice-time -- turning back the clock 10 years when his knees were sturdy. Veteran warriors Smith and Modry likewise battled hard, but by the end of the third period on Sunday night, they looked weary.
So, while the series started with Modry in for Timonen, the story -- and the impact -- was far greater than that. Unfortunately for the Flyers, that won't change in Timonen's case and it only gets more complex if Coburn is unavailable as the series shifts to Philadelphia for Games Three and Four on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
Stevens will find it impossible to complete the puzzle if his most important pieces are lost. For his team, they'll have to overcome the very real specter that you can't fully compete when incomplete -- not against a team the caliber of the Penguins. Not at this time of year.
Darren Eliot is TV analyst and Hockey Development Liaison for the Atlanta Thrashers. He also appears on Versus playoff game broadcasts and Westwood One radio..