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If Philadelphia had a Big 3 . . .

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Watching the end of Game 4 between the Flyers and the Habs, I noticed that John Stevens utilized a rare line combination: Richards, Umberger and Carter.  The situation – a late third period faceoff in the Flyers zone with Halak prepared to leave the ice at any moment – warranted three defensive forwards who could all take the draw, if necessary.  But it struck me that if Tampa’s Big 3 featured Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Brad Richards, then I was watching Philadelphia’s Big 3 in action.

All three entered the league following the lockout on the heels of a Calder Cup victory with the Philadelphia Phantoms.  All three are versatile forwards who can perform well in any situation, from even strength to special teams.  All three were first round draft choices. 

I remember reading an article about RJ Umberger prior to the Capitals’ series mentioning that he would start Game 1 on the fourth line.  Anyone who has watched the Pittsburgh native play could have predicted he wouldn’t stay down for long.  Umberger is an incredibly strong player with size and a scoring ability who can produce numbers regardless of game situation or linemates.  His 13 goals this season do not reflect his capacity to shine on the ice. 

A few points to ponder as we head towards the Pittsburgh series:
1.  Umberger always seems to find big games when facing his hometown Penguins.  Six of his regular   season goals (including a hat trick in December) were against Pittsburgh goaltenders.  Will he find the key to the red-hot Marc-Andre Fleury as he did with Carey Price?
2.  Umberger received his knee injury from an encounter at the Mellon Arena.  That knee injury kept him out for a few weeks at the end of the season and resulted in a demotion from the top line with Briere and Prospal.  He’s clearly still coping with the injury – consider his time down on the ice following a cheap hip check from Plekanec.  Is some retribution in order?

Garth, a Buffalo Sabres blogger at Hockeybuzz.com, wrote an excellent blog on the Flyers’ youth today; he mentioned that Umberger showed “shades of Rod Brind’amour” in the Habs series.  While there is truth to that, Mike Richards has quietly displayed his own Brind’amour-esque qualities.  He has acquired 11 points in the playoffs, divided between 4 goals (balanced across one at even-strength, one short-handed, one power play goal, and one penalty shot) and 7 assists.  He’s also delivering faceoff wins in key situations, hard hits, defensive prowess, leadership, and snarky efforts when needed. 

Points to ponder:
1.  Richards has scuffled with Sidney Crosby in the past.  They had a notable war of words during a December contest at the Wachovia Center (in which fans also replaced the Let’s Go Flyers chant with a Crosby Sucks chant).  Could more fireworks be in store?
2.  Richards did suffer a late season hamstring injury during a game against the LA Kings.  His stretching routine between periods has become extended and somewhat unsettling to anyone watching.  He’s also been used for long stretches of time in every situation, average over 21 minutes of ice time during the playoffs.  How much does Richards have left in the tank?

Jeff Carter may be the most talented forward in the Flyers’ roster, with his big size, dominating wrist shot, and brilliant speed.  He may not have high scoring in these playoffs, but don’t forget that Umberger got hot while on the Carter line and most of Upshall’s goals come with a Carter assist.  His development has been slightly slower than Richards – we didn’t see much emotion from him until Richards went down with a hamstring injury.  But there isn’t a more important player for Paul Holmgren to sign come free agency this summer.

Points to ponder:
1.  Carter continues to be a streaky player in the scoring department.  That’s primarily a development issue, and I would expect him to iron that out over time.  However, in the context of this playoff series against Pittsburgh, the Flyers need Carter to find a hot scoring touch to defeat an offensively gifted Penguins squad.  Can he find the next level before the Flyers are eliminated?
2.  Carter’s most valuable skill this year is in his own end.  He served in many games as the team’s primary checking center, and he exerted those abilities on Alexander Ovechkin and Alexei Kovalev in the first two series.  Can Carter complete the triptych by shutting down Evgeni Malkin?

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