Thursday, April 24, 2008

Meet the Flyers: Key Pillars

So important are the playoffs that they warrant a special look at the special players on the other team for once. Anyone who has watched a game or two of the Bruins series will know plenty about the Habs, though you still may want to check our original playoff preview here: Tobalev's Habs Preview.

However after a bigger dose than anyone wanted of the Black and Gold, we now have a fresh opponent to tangle with. Without further ado:

The Philadelphia Flyers.

To begin, I thought I'd remind everyone of a few key thoughts:

1) Just like the Bruins, the regular season Flyers could not figure out the Habs

2) Unlike the Bruins, the Flyers had an inferior record against the rest of the league (only by 1 point, though)

3) The Flyers are hot in OT, coming off a series-ending OT win and another earlier in the series – they were prone, however, to losing in OT in the regular season (3-5) with a losing record in shootouts too (3-6)

So, on the whole these are not a superior version of the Bruins, but an equal, or quite possibly inferior. Who knows what would have happened if we had played them 8 times, like we did the Bruins – we are about to find out.

I have sent requests to a few Flyers fans for insight, but must go ahead before I get it. I will be sure to include any if and when I receive it.

The last line – Martin Biron

Canadian Junior goaltender of the year in 1995, Martin Biron was only the second goalie selected in his draft year (following Hartford's selection of JS Giguere). This immediately raises questions about Biron and his pedigree. Firstly, what happened? Well, as it turned out, Biron's charmed season with Beauport was to come to a crashing halt when Jose Theodore and his Olympiques handled them with ease in the QMJHL playoffs that year. Giguere, in contrast, didn't even make the playoffs, but was a talent on a poor and struggling expansion Halifax team.

The reason this history is important is because that playoff defeat seemed to derail this decade-earlier, French Canadian Carey Price super prospect of his day. To say he is prone to derailment would be false. the fact is he was, always was with Buffalo. This would be the reason he couldn't wrestle a starting job from Noronen, and why as soon as Buffalo acquired an American standard bearer for their franchise, Biron was set free. But things have been different for Biron this season: he has won a starting job for the first time, he won 30+ games for the second time and his best save percentage ever – an elite save percentage for the first time in 6 years. In other words, at the tender age of 30, Martin Biron has finally become what he was projected to be 13 years earlier: a legitimate NHL starter.

His stats, while not staggering, have been good, especially when you consider defencemen 3-6 on the Flyers on any given night: 2.59 GAA, 0.918 Save% with 5 shutouts. And while many will post his abysmal stats against Montreal this season, he has generally been a thorn in Montreal's side of the years, with a save percentage a good level above his usual play (not helped by this year's game, of course).

He owes some of this success to the innate ability of all Quebecers to come to Montreal and play on another plane. While we can't discount the possibility that he'll tap this resource for the series, history has shown that homeboys mostly find that harder to do over a series than they do for a single game.

If it's chinks in the armour that you're looking for, it's worth considering that, in 62 starts, there were 17 occasions in the regular season that Biron let in 4 or more goals. Also, note that he let in 4+ twice in the last 7-game series. So while he shuts out opponents with some frequency, and generally stops shots at an elite level, he is not immune to bad nights like Carey had in games 5 and 6. Finally, consider that tonight Martin will be suiting up for only the 8th time for NHL playoff hockey, just like his decade-his-junior counterpart.

All in all, I would expect good solid goaltending from Martin. He gives the Flyers a good chance to succeed (as is the case for all the goalies at this stage of the competition).

The Game Maker – Kimmo Timonen

One question I asked my blogging colleagues from the Flyers camp was:
Who do you think has played the biggest role in the Flyers turnaround this year?

While I haven't received their responses, I am beginning to form my own picture of events through the research I have done. My conclusion is that Timonen is a man in the running.

His career stats page has more lines on it than I have seen in years. In the lockout year alone, he played for Finland twice and 3 different professional teams. I guess the man likes his hockey.

Timonen is no newcomer to the NHL. Since he made his first NHL roster in 1998, 5 years after being drafted in the 10th round, he has made an impact to his teams and the league. He has been one of the most consistent offensive defencemen around since 2002. Including this past season, he has 275 points over 6 seasons (an average of 45 a year). That is what made his trade and release from the Nashville Predators all the more remarkable, especially considering their need for salary just to make league minimum at the outset of the summer. The Flyers got themselves a real steal.

To the Flyers, Timonen has provided a steady NHL defenceman with legitimate potential to contribute up front. In other words, he is their Andrei Markov. And just like Markov, he has been charged with bringing up the main defensive prospect from the organisation in Braydon Coburn.

Coburn, not unlike Komisarek when alongside Markov, has benefited greatly from the wily Finn on his flank. Coburn, in the space of a year has gone from frustrating ne'er do well and throw away prospect (for Alexei Zhitnik!!) to pillar of steadiness on the Flyers top pairing. And, it is herein where lies Timonen's value to the team. While his own number's have fluctuated to an ebb by his standards (8 goals and 36 assists), his protege's contribution has soared.

Canadiens fans will surely be getting used to seeing Kimmo Timonen night in, night out, since his coach deploys him against all the top players in the league (read Kovalev). If Kovalev is hoping for an easy ride like he got against the Flyers in the regular season, perhaps he should cast an eye on the highlights of the just-completed Washington series. This is what his coach had to say bout him:

“He was unbelievable,” coach John Stevens said after the Flyers' 3-2 overtime win over the Caps in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals . “He looked like he could play all night out there (he actually played 28 minutes and change). He's playing against the guy (Derian) Hatcher said is the hardest guy (Ovechkin) he's ever had to play against.

“Kimmo embraced that challenge, he wanted it. Not only that but he contributes to the power play, penalty killing, all situations. He really stepped up for us. He wanted to be the guy and he brought (Braydon) Coburn along with him.”

The Game Breaker – Daniel Briere

Daniel Briere is on fire!

That could be my headline for a player I bill as the game breaker after he scores 6 playoff goals in 7 games with 5 assists to accompany them. Of course, the cynic in me want to write this headline:

Daniel Briere likes playing against AHL-calibre defences

That sort of headline would be grossly unfair to a player who is once again stepping up his play once the playoffs roll around for his team. This playoffs, his goals have been difference makers – with 4 out of 6 of them either tying up the game or putting the Flyers into the lead. In addition, his previous two playoff years, Briere has given point-per-game reliability – in fact, if you cast a glance at his career stats, you will see that he is PPG for the career in the playoffs. His kind of clutch play will be of utmost importance to the Flyers who would have to look hard to find another pure offensive talent on their roster.

In addition to having a great start to the playoffs, Briere actually had a pretty good season. If you accept that his contract-winning season of 95 points was an anomaly for the little man, you could see this season (his second highest goal and point totals ever) as quite a success. In trying to sell him short (yet again), I discovered that Daniel (or Danny as the Flyers homepage calls him) scored just as many points and goals against playoff-bound opposition as non-playoff teams. In doing so (and combined with his playoff excellence), he has once again shown his eager critics that he is a player to be reckoned with. You would only have to ask the Sabres to understand his full importance to his team.

As a game breaker, Danny is ruthless. He attacks with cunning and with speed. And unlike previous game breaker Marc Savard, Briere can do it all. His passes are top class and hiss goalscoring totals are impressive. As I mentioned earlier, he has a penchant for scoring important goals.

The Canadiens will no doubt put a lot of effort into creating a containment strategy for Briere. Luckily for us, we have some of the tools to do that. Especially with home ice, we can look to Komisarek and Markov every time Briere darts into the zone.

Of course, no preview of Briere would be complete without some mention of his Montreal snub just last summer. As we know, Gainey had at least approached the Briere camp with a stratospheric offer by Canadiens standards. For one reason or another (money), Briere turned it down (money). Some say his wife asked him not to play in Montreal (she wanted more money after tax), while others suggested he asked too much of the of the coach in line commitments. While the Canadiens would probably be a better team right now with 30-year old Briere on the team, there is no doubt in my mind that the offer rumoured to be for 7 years would have saddled the Canadiens with a player who would lose his value by year 6 and 7. While I am relieved we didn't sign Briere for the rumoured terms, I would be a fool to say i don't envy a French Canadian scorer who saves his best for the playoffs.

The Great Hope – Mike Richards

How many times did we have to hear about Mike Richards and Jeff carter being drafted by the Flyers as the major coup of the 2003 entry draft (ahem, Andrei Kostitsyn)? The fact is, it was a deep draft and the Flyers needed to get over that. The people who passed on Carter at 11 all got a better player in my estimation. Mike Richards was a good late round pick, but so were Corey Perry and Patrice Beregeron both picked later. Oddly, the Flyers have made a game of picking up whoever they can from the 2003 draft – with Coburn and Kukkonen both featuring on the big team.

As for Mike Richards, he has had a breakout season. Or rather, he had a breakout first three months. In his first 35 games, Mike looked like a real challenger for the scoring title, with 18 goals and 43 points. An injury helped to mask his lack of production which fell to 32 points (10 goals) over his next 38 games. I bring this up mainly because these first three months made Mike a very rich and famous man and rolled the Flyers fate for the forseeable future up with his own. That's because on December 13, he was handed a 12-year contract for $69 million with a maximum salary of $7.6 million for the 2013-2014 season. Quite definitely the most ridiculous contract in NHL history.

What the Flyers have now and what they think they paid for are two completely different entities. The Flyers, through their fixation on the year 2003, have committed to 12 years of Richards based on what they tab leadership. It is worth having a look at what they saw, as it could factor into the series at some point.

Basically, what the Flyers saw was the leader of every team he had ever been on. He captained the Kitchener Rangers to the Memorial Cup,and Canada to the World Junior Championship, while playing a huge role in Philadelphia's Calder Cup of 2005. This is what the Canadiens must also be wary of – a player with the extra gear. A clutch performer, so to speak. That said, I till think they could have signed him for less...

As if to live up to his best-case billing, he played very well in the first round. He posted 7 points in 7 games, playing in many important situations for his team. He'll look to continue making vital contributions to his team's cause in the second round.

If the Canadiens are to take heart, it is in the fact that Mike Richards was in play when they faced the Flyers before and they still managed to win. In addition, he was a minus player against the habs, just as he was against Washington this spring. He plays a straightforward game and gets his breaks from superior effort not otherworldly skills – as long as his effort is matched, the battle can be kept in balance.

So you see, there is more to the Flyers than their dirty play and skill-free bangers. How much more beyond these 4 is difficult to say, especially with Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble missing from their ideal line-up card. If the Canadiens can put complacency and doubt behind them and try to set the agenda in the majority of these games, then the talent math goes in their favour. Furthermore, the Flyers aren't as likely to use the same wait and see gameplan the Bruins did. When they try to open up, the Canadiens might just love the seams they begin to see.

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