Who and What is Most Important – Thoughts After Flyers 5, Rangers 3

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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Mike Milbury is a jackass.

Yes, that’s my Flyers lede the morning after their season-best sixth consecutive win, a convincing 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The Flyers are absolutely rolling right now. They are 16-5-1 in their last 22 games and have outscored their opponents 83-56 in those 22 games. That’s an average of 3.78 goals per game while allowing just 2.55. That’s a margin of victory of more than a goal a game. That plus-27 goal differential is astounding, especially since the Flyers are plus-30 for the entire season.

That goal differential of plus-27 in just 22 games would be fifth-best in the NHL if it took place over the entirety of the season to this point – never mind how dominant it is in just 22 games.

But, that’s how well the Flyers are playing right now – and we’ll get into specifics in a minute – but I just can’t get away from Milbury for a second, because the fact that this dope still has a job as a studio analyst for national broadcasts is NBC doing a disservice to fans of the sport.

Milbury has been saying dumb or erroneous shit on NBC broadcasts for years now, but this exchange with Keith Jones happened prior to Sunday’s game in New York:

When I watched it live, I was beside myself. Not because it was a simple difference of opinion, which is perfectly acceptable if the conversation is something debatable, but anyone who watches and analyzes hockey can tell that Couturier means more to the Flyers than anyone else. He’s their leading scorer. He’s their best defensive forward. He’s probably going to be the Selke Trophy winner in the NHL this season. He plays against the best players on the other team and consistently comes out on the plus side of the ledger. The Flyers’ success as a team this season has centered around how the forwards support the defensemen and by their relentless pursuit of the puck both on the forecheck and the backcheck, and also how they play without the puck in the neutral zone.

Couturier has been the poster boy for this aggressive system, and everyone else has sort of followed suit.

I would argue that about 98 percent of people who watch the Flyers would agree that Couturier means more to this team than any other player this season.

And yet Milbury not only arrogantly dismissed the notion after Jones suggested it, but then tried to make an argument that the most important guy was Jake Voracek.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been an ardent defender of Voracek, especially to the dim-witted on Twitter who want to see him and Claude Giroux traded out of town – but by no means is Voracek alone the most important player, or even really close to the top of the list.

Had Milbury suggest Carter Hart, because he’s the goalie the Flyers are going to lean on to win games down the stretch or in the playoffs, I’d say fine. It’s not right, but at least he picked out a guy at a position that will have an impact on the Flyers success. I probably would have let him go if he mentioned Ivan Provorov, since he is the team’s No. 1 defesemen, or rolled with the captain, Giroux, who seems to have found his game in the past month or so.

Again, both would have been wrong answers, but at least would have interesting arguments for their respective cases.

Voracek? Not so much. All Milbury had to go on was the fact that Voracek had four assists Friday against the Rangers.

Great.

It got me into a bit of a mood prior to the game, that even I called for his head at NBC, which I am not wont to do normally:

I think the thing that bothered me most is he standing right next to Jones, who is the Flyers’ full-time television analyst. You would think Milbury would defer to his colleague’s opinion. But no.

And I get these on-air segments are pre-scripted in the sense that they knew Jones was going to talk about Couturier and Milbury was going to talk about Voracek before they even had their make-up applied. That’s fine. But Milbury should have just agreed with Jones and then said, “Another really important player for the Flyers is Jake Voracek…” and the segment flows better, both points are hit on, and you give constructive analysis.

Instead, Milbury has to be a pompous ass, as per usual, and tried to belittle Jones’ take – which, again, a vast majority of people agree with – and did so awkwardly with a pre-planned package that would never support his crappy belief.

It makes him look like he doesn’t watch the games at all – which he might not, I don’t know.

At least Jones was able to get a quick dig back into Milbury at the end of the above clip, but the fact is, NBC continues to expose audiences, comprised of both hard-core and casual fans, to this misleading drivel. That’s irresponsible.

NBC has a real issue with Milbury. There are a lot of good hockey analysts out there. Bring them in instead and put Milbury out to pasture.

But all this Milbury discussion Sunday did get me to thinking, who and what are going to be most important for the Flyers not just in the remaining 17 games, but also in the playoffs, which very well could extend further than it has in the past decade.

So, that’s what the rest of this analysis is going to identify.

But let’s start with a prediction:

The Flyers will reach the Eastern Conference Final

Woah! That’s a bold statement, Anthony. Especially because as recently as two months ago you had the Flyers as a fifth place team in the Metropolitan Division scraping and clawing for the final playoff spot. What gives?

Yes. I did say that. Here’s me admitting I was wrong. And things changed back in early January when the Flyers came off that dreadful holiday road trip in which they went 0-5-1.

It actually started with the final game of that trip, an overtime loss in Carolina. The team was playing like ass for several games and needed to fix it quick. A daunting schedule was just ahead of them and the Flyers could have found their way toward the bottom of the standings.

But they responded with a strong effort against the Hurricanes, despite losing in the extra session, and came home the next night to win a thrilling matchup against Washington by one goal.

It was, in many ways, their season. Those two games could have gone completely differently, and the Flyers would have been out of contention.

But they didn’t. They went as well as could be expected and it showed that unlike previous seasons of the Flyers recent past, this team was not mentally fragile. Quite the opposite, they showed their mental toughness.

It wasn’t long thereafter that coach Alain Vigneault declared the Flyers will make the playoffs. It was a bold declaration, but one being made by a talented and calculating coach who knows how and when to push the right buttons.

It’s why the Flyers are now in the conversation not only to get a home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but also to potentially win the very tough Metropolitan Division outright.

Yes. A win Wednesday over Washington and the Flyers will end the day just one point out of first with 16 games to go.

The Flyers want home ice – and badly. They are 23-5-4 in home games this season. The more they can play at home in the playoffs, the more likely they are to win, especially because on most nights they have a coaching advantage.

They match up well with Washington and Pittsburgh, having gone 3-1-2 against both teams so far this season. And, with the exception of the Islanders, who they are 0-1-2 against this season, the Flyers have dominated the rest of the Metropolitan Division head-to-head(10-1-1).

It’s why it’s not ridiculous for me to say the Flyers are the best team in the Metropolitan Division now, and that they’ll make it through two rounds, regardless of the opponent (even the Islanders, who have given the Flyers fits, don’t have the offensive firepower to stay with the Flyers over the course of a seven-game series).

And that’s all because of coaching – which is why, after Couturier, the next most import people on the Flyers are the coaches, collectively.

AV and the two Mikes

Coaches are more intangible in hockey than other sports – in game decisions, while important, don’t dictate outcomes as much as say, a baseball manager’s pitch-to-pitch strategy or a football coach’s play-calling.

But, from time to time, when the matchup on the ice is closer to even, coaching can sway the outcome of a game – or even a series – one way or the other.

And if you look at possible playoff matchups for the Flyers, they have distinct advantages over a good number of coaches.

The Islanders give them fits because Barry Trotz has won the Cup as a coach. Pittsburgh has beaten them twice, and that’s because Mike Sullivan is a Stanley Cup-winning coach himself. So a series against the Islanders or Penguins in the first round would be good chess matches.

But the Flyers have distinct coaching advantages against every other Eastern conference team (I don’t think Florida gets in, otherwise it’s hard to say the Flyers coaches have a nod over three-time Cup winner Joel Quenneville).

But the adjustments this group of Vigneault, Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo have made have been sensational. Yes, there’s been some tinkering. Yes, there was some trial by error. But the goal was to have it figured out in time for the playoff push, and the Flyers did just that.

Vigneault finally found the line combinations he wanted. Yeo had the penalty kill playing great for a while, but when it started leaking a little oil, he suggested that any trade acquisitions that GM Chuck Fletcher make take the penalty kill into consideration. Both Nate Thompson and Derek Grant are good penalty killers and upgrade the unit that prior to Sunday had killed off 86.5 percent of opponent power plays in the month of February.

They even have six shorthanded goals since Jan. 8, including this one Sunday on nice teamwork by Grant and eventual goal scorer Michael Raffl:

And credit Michel Therrien for fixing the power play. It was the one unit that seemed to be scuffling along toward the lower third of the NHL rankings for a bit. But, in conjunction with the Flyers run of 16-5-1 in their last 22 games, the power play has bee excellent, going 18-for-68 (26.5 percent) in those 22 games, and it has been especially good of late going 12-for-35 (34.3 percent) in the last 11 games, including these three power play tallies Sunday against the Rangers.

Matt Niskanen:

Couturier:

or, as I described it:

And then there was this one from Travis Konecny:

The Flyers are pumping on all cylinders, and that’s because this trio of coaches know what the hell they are doing. I’ll tell you, if Alain Vigneault isn’t a Jack Adams finalist as coach of the year (and potentially even the winner, if they win the Metro) it would be a crime.

Cah-tah Haht

That heading is a tribute to Hollywood Hayes, who embodies the personality of this Flyers team right now. Using his Boston accent to pronounce the name of the Flyers’ 21-year-old wunderkind goalie.

Hart has had his issues on the road this season, for sure. His number are still ugly there. But, he’s won two of his last three road starts, including Sunday where he looked good and made a number of key saves as the Flyers built a 5-1 lead.

It’s definitely progress for the young goalie, who the Flyers are going to rely on to carry the load for the rest of the way (I’ll say the split the last 17 games is 12 starts for Hart, five for Brian Elliott).

Come playoffs, it’s defense and goaltending that win games. The defensive system is already in place and working very well. Hart’s been lights out on home ice, so it’s a matter of getting the confidence back to win on the road. He’ll get a few more opportunities on the road this year and likely against some good teams (Washington, Tampa and either Dallas or Nashville for sure).

It’ll be important for him to get that confidence, because if he does, there’s no telling how far this Flyers team can go.

Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers

These guys are going to be the keystone on defense the rest of the way. Not because they are the best defensemen on the team, but because the Flyers are going to need them to play bigger minutes and do so relatively mistake-free.

That’s the key.

There’s no doubt the top pair of Ivan Provorv and Matt Niskanen are the unit that’s going to play the biggest and most important minutes for the Flyers, and the third pair with Justin Braun and Robert Hagg have provided stability against the bottom six of the opposition and on the penalty kill, providing a strong 15 minutes each per game.

So, it’s going to come down to Sanheim and Myers to carry the load, likely against still offensively dangerous units on the opposition.

The thing is, this duo, while dynamic, has also been most susceptible to errors. That’s been more Myers than Sanheim, who has been getting progressively more steady as the season goes on, but it is on both of them.

Myers had perhaps his best game as a pro against the Rangers on Friday. When he plays like that, with confidence in his game, he is a tremendous asset on the ice. But there are times where he still lets a little mistake compound into a bigger one.

That’s still be expected from a developing player, and if the Flyers were simply playing out the string, those learning moments wouldn’t be as widely scrutinized.

However, the stakes have certainly been raised. The Flyers are shooting for Division crown. They feel like they can play hockey into late May, or later. As such, the spotlight will be brighter and more harsh.

If this pairing solidifies itself, then there isn’t a real weakness on this team. An ability to roll four lines. A stingy team defense. Young, dynamic goaltending. Excellent special teams. A dominant record on home ice.

I’m not sure what more a fan could want from a team as it careens toward the playoffs.

But, knowing Mike Milbury, I’m sure he’ll find something wrong that really isn’t between now and then.

For more Flyers coverage, follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy provide pregame and intermission coverage of every Flyers home game from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts   

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6 Responses

  1. One the many things the NHL does wrong. Such a bush league …

    The Flyers are becoming machine like, in a very good way. They are hitting that sweet spot where the talent has bought into the system and bounces go your way. It’s a formula St. Louis used last year.

  2. The flyers went on a run like this last year with interim coach Scott Gordon. This team has had the ability to skate with the NHL’s elite the last several years, they just couldn’t do it for 60 mins a night or 82 games a year. I agree they are on a positive trajectory, but there’s still almost 20% of the season left to play. So many things can change in that time period. One key injury (Coots, either goalie, Provorov, or G) would devistate them. The Caps and Penguins have sucked over the past 10 games, that is not likely to remain the same. The Bruins have been solid all year and the Lightning are on a roll right now, as if they finally figured out the Presidents trophy is not the Stanley cup. They Flyers are 4th or 5th best team in the conference, which is an improvement and something for them to build on. Let’s not get carried away just yet. Tuck this article away for the first week of April. One thing we can agree on, NBC can easily do much better than Milbury.

      1. In the article he explicitly states Couturier leads the team in points, he doesn’t. Can you read, fuckface?

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