Let's go back to December 14.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were in town to face off against the Flyers, and with a win that night, the Flyers ended the Pens' 12-game winning streak and jumped into the Atlantic Division lead. Now, three months later, they have yet to relinquish that position.
Some weak play in the last few weeks has us all on edge, thinking that they're about to fall out of the East's top spot and perhaps even the Atlantic lead. These feelings are totally natural, too, because quite frankly, the Flyers look like utter crap lately. What are they doing differently, though?
I think I've put my finger on the issue.
Again, back to that game on December 14. The Flyers forced the Penguins into submission early and often. Remember this one? It was the one where Pittsburgh iced the puck five times in the first five minutes of the game as the Flyers pounded the offensive zone and outworked the Penguins in the corners.
They simplified the concept of gaining the zone by employing a simple dump-and-chase. Whether it's a dump from a defenseman at the red line or a chip from a forward at the blueline, there was none of that dipsy dooing around in the neutral zone stuff that we've seen a lot recently.
The start of the game is an absolutely picture perfect example of how simplifying the attack can work in your favor. The Flyers won the faceoff, gathered the puck and dumped in from the red line. From there, they went to work.
Sure, on this initial opening play, they didn't win the puck battle, but even in the instances where they don't win those battles, they're still winning like Charlie Sheen. (Has that jumped the shark yet, by the way? I hate Charlie Sheen.) By making the Penguins go 200 feet, they're doing defensive work at the same time.
It's the basics of the dump-and-chase. You win the puck battle and get set up in the offensive zone, or you lose it and you're making the other team go the length of the ice. The Flyers are very successful when they employ this, for the most part, and that's because they're damn good at winning those battles. Guys like James van Riemsdyk have really climbed into that role quite a bit.
Besides, when you're working the hell out of the opposing defense throughout 60 minutes of hockey, rolling four lines that can pound the puck in deep and battle, you're going to get more opportunities. After all, offensive depth and the ability to roll four lines is taken advantage of in more ways than just putting pucks in the net.
The other team is going to ice the puck more often. The other team is going to take more penalties. It's really very simple, and it's one of the ways the Flyers have been so successful this year so far.
Most of the Flyers chances in that game against Pittsburgh in December came from the corners, meaning they either worked the puck out in front after winning it in the corner, or they dished it back up top to a defenseman after winning it in the corner. How do they get the puck to the corner?
Well, let's put it this way: it usually doesn't happen by carrying it through a defenseman.
The one thing I've noticed time after time in the last few weeks is an inability to even gain the offensive zone with any regularity. Simply put, the Flyers are getting away from dumping the puck. They're getting too fancy in their offensive game when they really should just be trying to keep things simple.
I haven't done an analysis of every chance and every play in the course of the last seven games, but how many times have we seen the following during this stretch?
That's two lazy giveaways -- one by Ville Leino, one by Danny Briere -- in the neutral zone in one shift, and ultimately, it led to a goal against (albeit a very fluky goal against). It's not just that line, though. Here's Kris Versteeg and Mike Richards, guilty of the same thing near the blue line.
Instead of gaining the red line and dumping the puck, where the other two players are ready to give chase, the guys are looking for a tape-to-tape pass through the neutral zone or they're trying to deke through the defensive shell the opposition has fallen back in to. It doesn't matter the level of hockey -- from pick up on a Sunday afternoon to the NHL, trying to beat guys one-on-one typically doesn't work with any regularity.
Sure, guys like Leino and Briere and Giroux can do it, and it obviously is possible for teams to gain the blue line by carrying the puck across it. Saying otherwise would indicate that you've never watched hockey in your life. But when it's not working, as it hasn't for the last few weeks as the Flyers have tried to get too fancy with their offensive game, you need to revert to simpler methods.
Chris Pronger voiced his concerns about the fancy play and the needless turnovers after the Edmonton win. As we entered the locker room after that game, he was heard in a pretty heated exchange with a teammate on the subject. When he spoke with us a few minutes later, he still wasn't happy.
"We did a great job in the first period of limiting them, getting pucks in deep, moving our feet, and doing the little things you need to do to win hockey games," he said. "After that, the wheels fell off and we started turning the puck over and stopped moving our feet. Our gaps as defenseman got bad and our forwards gaps got bad. If you turn the puck over like that the other team is going to gain a lot of momentum."
(And yes, I realized I used a first period example from the Oilers game. Things were worse, as in more frequent, in the latter two periods of that game. I simply used one of the first examples I came across when I reviewed the game.)
Kimmo Timonen voiced the same concerns as Pronger following the Atlanta loss on Saturday.
"It's has been like this the last few games," he said. We stop playing. When you stop playing in this league you are going to lose games. This game is about hard work, and making good plays, making simple plays. It seems like every time we get it to be 3-0, 4-0, or whatever, we start turning the puck over. We think the game is over. It's not over. That's one of those things we have to change now. We can't wait. We can't keep doing the same mistakes game after game, after game."
"They are individual mental errors. It's 60 minutes, and it seems like we're not focused on 60 minutes. It's one of those things where you get it 3-0, you come here, you think the game is over, but it's not over. These teams are fighting for their lives and playoff hopes are on the line, so they are going to play hard for 60 minutes. That was the case today. We gave up five goals in the third period. How do you expect to win games when you give up five goals? That's something we have to learn, and it has to happen now."
This is the overarching point here. It's not that the Flyers are just simply failing to get pucks deep and failing to outwork the other team. That's more the symptom then the exact issue. When they sit back with a lead or they fail to play a full 60 minutes, that's what happens.
What's the old cliche? You can't win on talent alone, right? The Flyers are seemingly trying to win on talent, lately, and it just ain't workin'.
Who knows what the hell the reasoning is for it? Maybe it's just a mental lapse. Maybe it's a feeling among some players that they can turn into the Washington Capitals and dance around the opposing defense for pretty goals. But of course, that's not who this team is. They simply don't have success that way, and that's been proven over the last two weeks.
My hope is that it's just a quick mental issue, and that when the playoffs come (or, hopefully, starting tonight in Florida) they'll get back to what's made them successful: getting pucks deep, winning battles, tiring out the opposition. This is how games and series' are won in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Flyers are built to do it.
Now we just have to hope they remember that.