Philly Sports Talk

Hail to the Chief … so far

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When the Flyers abruptly ended the Peter Laviolette era 3 games into the 2013-14 season, their selection of former enforcer Craig “Chief’ Berube seemed like a stop-gap measure.  After his tenure began with a 3-5 string to close a moribund month of October, nobody was quite sure if he should take the time to decorate his new office.  Indeed, as he looked at a November schedule of 15 games in 30 days, Berube himself must have wondered when he would find the time to install his plan for the team.

October ended with a disappointing loss to Anaheim that saw them play what might have been their most spirited and complete period of the season to that point.  They were up on their skates and their lively sticks were in every passing and shooting lane.  Nicklas Grossmann had set the tone with a thunderous hit as they took a 2-0 lead and the promise of better things up the tunnel.  The team that played that 1st period stayed in the room and the Ducks worked their way back for a 3-2 road win.

November began with one of the most flaccid and dispirited performances in Flyers history.  Embarrassed by the Capitals on their home ice 7-0, they drifted lifelessly through the first two and a half periods until Wayne Simmonds roared onto the ice with mayhem in his eyes.  The Soul Patrol crashed into every Washington player he saw until finally trading hands with Tom Wilson.  In the madness that ensued, goalie Ray Emery skated the length of the ice to assault his counterpart Braden Holtby.  Brayden Schenn and Vincent Lecavalier eventually found their own dance partners as the Wells Fargo Center awoke from its blowout-induced slumber.  Ultimately, all the bluster was in vain, as the game was lost and so were Lecavalier and the newly reacquired Steve Downie. Both of whom would miss time from injuries sustained in fights.

At 3-9 and looking absolutely torpid, they needed to dig their skates in and start driving forward.  A date the following evening in Newark against their ancient enemy Martin Brodeur could not have been a reassuring thought.  Luke Schenn was a healthy scratch after celebrating his 24th birthday with a particularly callow effort against the Caps.  But, the Flyers held the Devils to 14 shots, all of which were turned away by the pugilist Emery.  Two points and a pensive foothold were earned in a 1-0 win.

That foothold was short-lived as a solid defensive effort against the Hurricanes was wasted by a late goal to tie and an OT winner in a 2-1 loss.  A few days later, the Devils repaid them with a shutout of their own.  The 3-0 loss dropped their record to 4-10-1.  In those 15 games, they had only managed to score more than 2 goals one time.

The team needed to get away.  After one more home game, a 4-2 win against Edmonton, there would be ten days away from the pressure of home ice and games in Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg.  To ask for 3 or even 4 points out of that trip would have been a reach.  But, something seemed to click in the Canadian capital.  They played their most complete game of the season and Steve Mason was flawless in a thorough 5-0 trouncing of the Senators.  The next night, Brayden Schenn scored twice and Ray Emery turned away 30 of 31 shots in a 2-1 win over the hated Penguins.  When they squandered a 2-1 lead against the Jets a few days later in a 3-2 shootout loss, it was a reminder that this was a work in progress.  But, having taken 5 of 6 possible points on the road seemed to imbue the team and the fan base with a sense of purpose.

They came home to solid wins over Ottawa (5-2), Buffalo (4-1) and the Islanders (5-2).  Suddenly, they were one of the hottest teams in the league, on a 6-0-1 run having lit the lamp at least 4 times in 5 of those 7 games.  Their record stood at a previously unthinkable 10-10-2.  They had clawed their way from 3-9 back to .500.

Naturally, they flew to Florida and their game went south with them.  To their credit, they recognized that their losses in Miami and Tampa bore a striking resemblance to their somnambulist performances in October.  To a man, they were contrite and forthcoming with the press.

They backed that contrition with a solid, if unspectacular, Black Friday win over Winnipeg and, the following night, they closed out a successful month of November (9-4-2) with a come-from-behind 3-2 shootout win in Nashville.  Again, Mason was spectacular.

At 12-12-2, they no longer need binoculars to see the playoffs.  Their 26 points place them within reach of the 3rd guaranteed playoff spot in the Metro currently held by the New York Rangers.  There is a palpable sense of accountability and ‘want to’ present with this team that was not there only weeks ago.  While winning breeds confidence and a trusting bond among teammates, you do have to give the coach some amount of credit, as well.

But, this is still a team that is repeatedly out-manned in the corners when they are on the power play and a team that does not appear to have a plan when they are 5-on-3.  They are still plagued by odd-man rushes, third period lapses and inconsistent offensive production.  Their 57 goals are the second lowest total in their division (Carolina – 55) and league-wide only Buffalo (48) has fewer.  On the bright side, the tandem of Mason and Emery have been the one consistent factor throughout the first two months of the season.  Their 61 goals allowed leads the Metropolitan Division and is 3rd best in the Eastern Conference.

Clearly, any optimism at this point is to be cautiously tempered.  But, if they can continue to limit the opposition as they have thus far (2.44 goals/game) and this recent outburst of scoring becomes more of a rule than an exception, Flyer fans could be in for an enjoyable winter and (dare I say?) spring.

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