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Gut Check Time

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Yesterday’s game at the Verizon Center should leave only one thought in the Flyers’ minds: Vegeance.  It’s time to utilize every ounce of effort, finishing the Capitals off once and for all. 

This sequence, drawn from Game 6 of the 2004 playoff series between the Flyers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, contains everything the Flyers will need to do on Monday night if they want to advance.  Robert Esche makes save after save after save to keep his team in the game.  Exhausted players, stuck deep in their own zone, desperately work to clear the puck so they can change.  Sami Kapanen sustains a huge hit from Darcy Tucker, is all but knocked out, and manages to claw his way close enough that his teammates can pull him into the bench.  Jeremy Roenick jumps out to replace Kapanen, digs deep for that extra energy burst, and scores the game-winning goal.  Keith Primeau, in a display of career-defining leadership, stays with the injured Kapanen while the rest of the team swarms around Roenick.

It’s about every player stepping forward, making the decisions and sacrifices necessary to win the big games.  The Flyers did not come out prepared to battle on Saturday until the third period; you can’t win that way in the postseason.  Now, with Game 6 approaching, it’s go time.  Someone must step up and decide they don’t want summer to start yet.

Candidates for such leadership:

Mike Richards.  He’s the presumed captain of this team, the heart and soul.  He is capable of carrying a team to a championship – watch the Kitchener Rangers’ Memorial Cup run or the Team Canada World Juniors Gold Medal games.  He was a difference maker.  It’s not about scoring goals with Richards.  It’s about doing the little things well – winning faceoffs, drawing penalties, winning puck battles – and forcing the desperate plays that inspire a team to push onwards.  Richards has made great strides during the regular season; is he prepared to find that next level in the playoffs?

Jeff Carter.  True, he’s got a few goals in this series already.  Carter’s style frequently draws comparison to Mats Sundin and Jarome Iginla.  But those two players have the capacity to make their linemates better.  Will the Carter line be able to accomplish great things minus veteran Mike Knuble?  Carter may very well be they key to answering that question.

Marty Biron.  Biron has been solid for most of this series, particularly in his fierce denial of Alexander Ovechkin.  I counted at least 4 times in the past two games when Ovechkin took shots from within 3 feet of the goal – all stonewalled by Biron.  Will Marty be able to steal a game, to make the big saves that inspire the team in front of him?  The best goalies discover a way to do so.

Scott Hartnell.  The biggest difference in yesterday’s game was the disoriented play of Scott Hartnell.  I’m not blaming the loss on Hartnell; the team as a whole failed.  But Hartnell stopped doing the little things that made him successful during the regular season and the playoffs – crashing the net, throwing big checks to clear room for his small center (Briere), and wreaking havoc on the defense.  Recently a journalist asked Hartnell about being an agitator a la Sean Avery, and he seemed offended at the title.  Rightfully so – Hartnell doesn’t engage himself in off-ice antics like Avery.  But Hartnell does find success when he’s jarring the other team because he combines a sharp tongue with a high level of skill and physical force.  Those traits enabled Briere and Prospal more time and space.

Overall, the Flyers need to play the cliched “full 60 minutes” on Monday night if they want to extend the season.  A Game 7 in Washington would favor the Capitals, and place the Flyers among the 9% of teams leading 3-1 that fail to advance.

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