By Stu Hackel
With ice packs the size of cantaloupes strapped to each knee, Chris Pronger ambled from the trainer's room across the Madison Square Garden hallway and into the dressing room area to meet the press. This wouldn't be one of his sarcastic, smirk-inducing encounters, not after a 7-0 obliteration by the Rangers, the turning point of which was the opening faceoff.
It was the Flyers' fourth straight loss, their longest skid of the season. They've only managed to grab five of a possible 16 points in their last eight games, and since the All-Star break have lost more than they've won. This does not read like the record of a potential Stanley Cup finalist.
Until Sunday's crash-and-burn performance, those who have been observing the Flyers had excused their recent form. Philly has been bitten by the flu bug (Jeff Carter was an unhealthy scratch on Sunday) and had cruised through most of the season. Supposedly the Flyers now have little incentive to keep their foot on the accelerator, unlike last season when losses piled up early due to a bad run of injuries. Once healthy, they surged to that dramatic Game 82 encounter with the Rangers, winning the postgame skills competition to squeak into the eighth spot. Now, many of the teams that are beating them are in the same place the Flyers were last year.
"It's been pretty easy here for 55 games," coach Peter Laviolette said last week (video). "We've had our way. You've heard me say a lot during the first 55 games, 'We're a pretty consistent group.'"
"A couple of deep breaths never hurt anybody," Pronger remarked after the Rangers game when asked if his team was coasting. "But having said that, we're in a stretch drive here...It's a chance to look at how we're playing and obviously, we're not happy with it. All these games coming up, they're playoff implication games that mean a tremendous amount. It's got to mean something to us to."
Now comes the hard part: getting this team back on the rails. Laviolette acknowledged that every team goes through ups and downs during a season. No team will ever again dominate in the manner of Scotty Bowman's mid-70s Canadiens, who went through three complete seasons, 240 games, and lost only 29 times. A tie for that club was considered a disappointment. No longer can teams corner the market on talent the way Habs GM Sam Pollock did or be driven game after game to excellence the way Bowman drove his players.
Teams today go through hot streaks but, inevitably, they take the good things they do for granted and bad habits creep into their play. This is the time of year to be expunging bad habits, not embracing them. Against the Rangers, the Flyers were nothing but bad habits from the opening faceoff as New York rushed into the offensive zone and seemed to stay there all game. It took less than a minute for the Rangers to find weaknesses in the Flyers, as Brandon Dubinsky reversed his field skating behind the net and lost his check, Braydon Coburn...
...resulting in Ryan Callahan's first goal of the game and giving New York the early lead. Coburn finished minus-4.
Normally, you'd expect the Flyers to push back. To the dismay of the hundreds of highly visible Orange Army members scattered around the Garden, the push never came. Only the home team showed confidence and energy. The Flyers didn't get very good goaltending from Brian Boucher, either. Boucher gave Callahan the entire upper part of the net for his second goal...
...as the Flyers defense corps, one of the NHL's best, couldn't catch, much less hit, the Rangers. By contrast, Philly couldn't mount an effective forecheck all afternoon. When the Flyers gained the zone, rather than use their rugged game along the boards, they tried being too fancy. They gambled and got burned. This gave the Rangers repeated odd-man rushes, like the one in which Ville Leino skated right into defensive zone coverage and a gambling Pronger got trapped...
...leading to Matt Zuccarello's first goal of the game.
When the Flyers had a chance to reverse things on the power play, the Rangers pressured the point of attack all over the ice, forcing poor passes and disrupting Philly's rhythm. Turnovers were epidemic, none worse than Kris Versteeg's right in the slot...
...which gave Callahan a hat trick before the game was 27 minutes old.
"Some guys are on one page, other guys are on another page," Pronger said. "Turnovers are what's killing us. We've got to get the puck in deep, get on the forecheck and get some sustained pressure in the offensive zone and start grinding on teams the way we have in the past. Until we do that, teams are going to pick us apart, like they have."
That fourth goal was the end for Boucher, who showed his leaky tendencies last season. His replacement, Sergei Bobrovski, was only marginally better, and certainly did not look great on the Rangers' sixth goal of the game by Artem Anisimov.
By then, Callahan had gotten his fourth goal and Zuccarello would add his second before it was over. But, really, it was over early.
Goaltending is the Flyers' annual bugaboo, and has been perhaps for a couple of decades, since the prime of Ron Hextall. Bobrovsky was thought to be the answer, as were so many netminders before him, but Pierre McGuire speaking on Ottawa's Team 1200 radio this morning (audio) said that Bobrovsky's tendency to surrender bad goals has some teammates concerned. "One thing that's really important when you're in a slide is you can't give up a bad goal," McGuire said.
Today, the Flyers didn't skate. Some hard practices last week didn't deliver the wake-up call. "Instead, they have continued to hit the 'snooze' button," Sam Carchidi wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer. So Laviolette is giving them a break. Carter should be back for Tuesday's game against Edmonton, and after a day off, perhaps the Flyers will have clearer heads and some urgency in their game.
"I think we're at the stage now where it's a test of our character," Pronger said before waddling on aching knees back across the hall to the trainer's room. "Hopefully, since there's some adversity, we have to show our mettle here and understand it's going to take some hard work to get out of it."