By Stu Hackel
There's no brotherly love in Philadelphia today. All three of the city's major sports teams dropped games on Tuesday night: the Phillies blowing a 4-0 lead to the Mets, the 76ers failing to clinch their series against Chicago, and the Flyers being eliminated by the Devils. That last one is, as hosts Mike and Ike said on their WIP Radio midday show, "the deepest wound of all."
What hurts the most, Mike and Ike told their listeners, is that Flyers fans fully expected their team to beat the Devils, that allegedly nondescript team from that nondescript neighboring state. After the Flyers dispatched the hated Penguins in their tumultuous first round series, the Orange Army had their sights set further ahead, to the Eastern Conference Final where they would take on the hated Rangers or the hated Capitals. They'd be one step away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. And why not? The Penguins were, most believed, the favorites to win the Cup. Fans' emotions often get the better of them in that way, making them feel like they know what is truly unknowable -- and everyone should know by now that this year's playoffs are the most unknowable of all.
The real problem for the Flyers, however, was that their fans weren't the only ones who discounted the Devils. The players did as well. Mike and Ike played postgame remarks by Claude Giroux, the Flyers' de facto captain, in the dressing room after the game. Wearing his street clothes because he'd been suspended, Giroux confessed to a battery of hand-held microphones that his team suffered from overconfidence heading into the second round (video). "I think we were thinking we were going to walk over New Jersey and it's kind of our fault a little bit," he said. "I guess we've gotta learn from it. They're a good hockey team. They're well-balanced and they played a pretty good series."
We can applaud Giroux's honesty here, but the fact remains that the guy coach Peter Laviolette called the "best player in the world" after the Pittsburgh series fell short in the leadership department, not only by setting a poor example in taking undisciplined frustration penalties against the Devils, an example his teammates followed, but also failing to recognize and warn against the hubris that infected the Flyers. Now humbled, indeed it's a lesson for him and for them.
By no means, however, are Giroux's shortcomings the only reason the Flyers will be cleaning out their lockers this week. This was a collective failure. As they did so well to distract the Penguins, they trash talked and tried to bully the Devils, attempting to get them into scrums after whistles and pull them out of their game. Whether that was a conscious tactic coming down from the coaching staff or something the players initiated on their own, it didn't work. By contrast, the Devils' players maintained after Game 5 that their coaching staff insisted upon them keeping their composure.
“Stay disciplined," goalie Martin Brodeur echoed (quoted by Rich Chere in The Newark Star-Ledger). "You could talk about scoring goals, forechecking them and playing well and all that, but I think what was tough on them was us not retaliating to any of the stuff they were doing and all the stuff they were saying every single game. Guys just turned away and didn’t respond to anybody. They were able to get Pittsburgh all wrapped up in that stuff. It must’ve gotten tough on them a little bit to just talk to themselves all day long.” And that, as well as the Devils' superiority at actually playing hockey, likely frustrated the Flyers even more.
There's more: In each of the Flyers' four losses, they scored the first goal, which means whatever strength they had at the beginning of each game dissipated as it went on. They proved incapable of holding the lead and were not resilient enough to get it back. The team that looked so formidable against the Penguins, that deluded itself into believing the Devils series would be easy pickings, failed to establish its style of play in the second round. The Devils' fierce forecheck kept the Flyers bottled up in their own end and seemingly lacking the strength and willpower to effectively push back. Giroux's line with Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr did very little against New Jersey, unless you count Giroux and Hartnell taking bad penalties and Jagr looking like he was out of gas. The secondary scoring vanished. The battered and bruised defense corps, which put up a brave front against Pittsburgh's elite forwards, crumbled. It's a fair question to ask whether that crazy Penguins series took too much out of the Flyers, too much emotion, too much energy, and replaced it with too much confidence.
But since our scapegoating culture always looks to single out a particular culprit when things go wrong, it's little surprise that eccentric goalie Ilya Bryzgalov took the most abuse from the fans who phoned into WIP. Frank Servalli of The Philadelphia Daily News did his part by calling Game 5 a "Bryzaster," not inappropriate considering the game-winning goal by David Clarkson:
That series-signature moment is destined to be on TV blooper segments forever (a worthy addition to TSN's top goalie gaffes), and it looks bad on the Flyers' goalie, but over Hockey Night in Canada, analyst Garry Galley also recognized Kimmo Timonen's culpability for the blunder.
"Another Flyers season ends, and with a searing, haunting image," writes Jack McCaffery in The Delaware County Times. "How many have there been? There was Bob Clarke, often, caught standing in his VIP box, peering down on an emptying building, barely moving. There was Brian Boucher, blasting Bill Barber, the coach. There was Leon Stickle, not making a call. There was Eric Lindros skulking out of Joe Louis Arena. The searing image of the (Patrick) Kane goal will be tough to top — particularly because it was unacceptably soft in an overtime of a Cup-deciding game. But it will take years — years, years and years — before Bryzgalov sheds the image of handing the puck to Clarkson in a 1-1 hockey game in such a charitable fashion that he should have been credited with an assist. Of course, he is under contract to the Flyers for eight more years. So he can take his time."
Bryzgalov's inconsistency all season will certainly make him a focal point when discussions turn to how the Flyers can improve next season. If it wasn't for the Maple Leafs' decades of playoff futility, the oldest joke in hockey would be the Flyers' chronic goaltending problems. Bryzgalov -- despite the massive contract that paid him an obscene $15 million this season, bonuses included -- is the latest punch line. Anyone who looked at his flimsy playoff history might have guessed that would be the case before the Flyers pulled the trigger to acquire him. He surrendered three goals or more in 10 of their 11 postseason games this spring and sported a garish save percentage of .887, worst among all playoff netminders except Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury. Barring some unforseen turnaround in which he plays an entire season like he did in March, Bryzgalov is not the solution. But the Flyers are stuck with him. He is untradeable, representing $5.66 million in cap space, not that any team looking for a goaltender would want him at half the price.
Even with an unpredictable goalie, this might have been a different series had the Flyers' defense corps been at full strength. But Chris Pronger was gone most of the season, perhaps never to return. Timonen was heroic, but banged up and he may not be back next year. Andrej Meszaros, out since early March after back surgery, only returned for Game 5. Nicklas Grossmann missed a couple of playoff games and played with an upper body injury. Late season pickup Pavel Kubina was also slowed by an upper body injury and looked just plain slow for the pace of these playoffs. Braydon Coburn, however, played perhaps the best hockey of his career and any rebuilding that this defense corps undergoes may revolve around him.
The Flyers' forwards are a very good group and most likely not an area for tinkering by GM Paul Holmgren. Yes, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are going to the next round in L.A. but Holmgren picked up Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and the draft pick that became Sean Couturier in exchange for those two players and that's a very good return. But those four are youngsters and, like their teammates, they also emerged from the head-on collision against Pittsburgh messed up, believing that their next foe would fall easily in front of them. As it turned out, beating the Penguins was the Flyers' Stanley Cup.
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