Unlikely hero keeps surging Flyers' hopes alive; games to watch; more
Off The Draw
It’s hard not to smile at a story like Rob Zepp’s. On Sunday night, the Flyers’ 33-year-old rookie goalie made his NHL debut, and thanks to an overtime winner off the stick of Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek, Zepp became the oldest netminder to win his first NHL game.
It’s been a long and winding road for the Newmarket, Ont., native—one that included two drafts and took him to Finland, Germany and Lowell, Mass. There was no real reason to believe that there’d ever be a place for him in the NHL, but sometimes in the goalie business, it’s all about luck and opportunity. Finally, 13 years after the Hurricanes selected him in the fourth round of the 2001 NHL draft (which was actually two years after the Thrashers had taken him in the fourth round), Zepp got to live out his dream. Flyers starter Steve Mason went down with an upper-body injury last Friday, and Zepp joined the team on the road. Backup Ray Emery started on Saturday in Toronto, leading to Zepp getting the nod on Sunday night in Winnipeg. He made 25 saves and Philly rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period to tie the score at 3–3. Voracek sealed the win for Zepp just 10 seconds into overtime.It was the Flyers’ fourth win in their last six games, and the victories over the Maple Leafs and the Jets were a perfect way to begin an eight-game road trip that will extend well into the New Year. If Philadelphia keeps improving its lackluster 5-9-3 record in away games, the Flyers could play themselves back into playoff contention in the middling Metropolitan Division. Right now, they are six points out of the final wild card spot in the East. It’s a sizeable gap to overcome, but it’s not impossible. Back on Dec. 22, 2013, the Rangers were six points out of the wild card race too. They went on to play for the Stanley Cup.
Still, for that to be a viable hope for Philadelphia, there are some issues that need to be resolved—namely on defense, where the team produces less than 25% of its shots. And though the Flyers currently have two of the top three scorers in the NHL—Voracek leads the league with 44 points, while Claude Giroux ranks third with 40—the production drop-off from there (Wayne Simmonds, with 14 goals and just 23 points) is precipitous.
Last season, New York turned things around with a strong January, going 10-4-1 while playing mostly at home. The key for the Rangers was that they were in postseason contention at the trade deadline, when they dealt for Martin St. Louis. The big difference for the Flyers, however, is that help will almost certainly have to come from within. Saddled with a handful of untradeable contracts, GM Ron Hextall will need a small miracle to acquire a key piece and/or unload an albatross at the 2015 deadline. The talent that is already on the roster will need to step up. Matt Read, a two-time 20-goal scorer, has scored only three times this season, and off-season acquisition R.J. Umberger has a dismal stat line: 3 goals, 3 assists, –10.
Bringing the best out of what’s on hand could simply be a matter of Philadelphia believing in itself once again. And with the Flyers giddy after winning for journeyman Zepp, hope remains. — Sarah Kwak
What to watch tonightPenguins at Panthers (7:30 p.m. EST; TVA, SN, Root, FS-F)
What you may have missed
• Before their game against the Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, the Rangers were among the New York pro sports teams that offered a show of support to the families of police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were shot and killed while sitting in their squad car in Brooklyn on Saturday.
• Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski was ejected on Sunday for laying a vicious hit (video) on Brian Gionta that knocked the Sabres winger out of the game. Bartkowski reportedly won't face further discipline from the NHL for the play.
• Scary moment on Saturday as Vancouver winger Jannik Hansen collapsed on the bench after taking a hit from Calgary defenseman Dennis Wideman. Hansen, fortunately, was later seen walking around near the team’s dressing room while undergoing testing.
• Embarassing moment for the Flames on Saturday as they scored an own goal that traveled the length of the ice during a delayed penalty.
The numbers game
• Sizzling Tyler Seguin leads the NHL with 25 goals, and also tops the league with seven multi-goal games. He’s now the second player in Stars history to score 25 times in the team’s first 32 games of a season. The other: Dino Ciccarelli in 1981–82 and ’86–87.
• The Rangers have posted eight shutouts (a league-leading total) in their first 31 games of a season for the first time since 1928–29, when John Ross Roach manned the pipes. That team reached the Stanley Cup finals, but New York lost to Boston.
• The Avalanche’s Calvin Pickard is now is the first rookie goaltender in franchise history to allow no more than one goal in each of three consecutive starts during a given season.
• With the World Junior Championship tournament on tap (Canada takes on Russia in a pre-competition game in Toronto tonight), here are 10 players not named Connor McDavid who are worth watching.
• Different season, same old bugaboo for St. Louis, which is still dogged by the flaw that has derailed some of their most promising teams.