The schedule says the NHL playoffs don’t start until next week. Someone forgot to tell the Flyers and Penguins.
The Flyers and Penguins, who seem destined to meet in the first round of the playoffs and are scheduled to play one more time (Saturday) during the regular season, engaged in another nasty battle Sunday in Pittsburgh. The game featured yet another Flyers’ comeback from a 2-0 deficit – their second successful comeback in two weeks against the Penguins – a series of nasty hits and a brawl with just over a minute left in the game.
The intensity was ratcheted up a few notches when Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette, upset that Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma put his best fighters on the ice for the shift in which the brawl took place, took Max Talbot’s stick and broke it in anger on the boards by the end of the bench. Laviolette, standing on the boards at the edge of the bench, shouted at Bylsma. Penguins assistant Tony Granato stood on the boards at the edge of the Penguins’ bench and returned verbal fire:
As if that weren’t enough, the postgame comments were classic playoff fodder.
- Laviolette described Bylsma sending out his pugilists as gutless, saying “Those guys hadn’t played in 12 minutes. It was a gutless move by their coach. It’s just gutless.”
- Bylsma and star center Sidney Crosby complained about Brayden Schenn’s cross-check of Crosby.
- Crosby suggested that Laviolette shouldn’t have put Briere on the ice for a late shift if he was worried about him getting hurt (Briere is out “indefinitely” with a back contusion)
- During Monday’s edition of “Daily News Live” on Comcast SportsNet, Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube accused Crosby of diving when cross-checked by Schenn – which occurred shortly after Crosby sticked Schenn away from the play – and described Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as the two dirtiest players on their team.
- The NHL made it feel like the playoffs by fining Laviolette $10,000 and Granato $2,500 for their actions during Sunday’s late-game brawl.
Injuries are also part of the playoffs. In addition to Briere’s back injury, defenseman Nicklas Grossmann sustained a right knee injury that is expected to cause him to miss the rest of the regular season.
What’s going to happen during Saturday’s regular-season finale? That will depend on the situation. If home-ice advantage is still in question, the Flyers and Penguins may be reluctant to give the opposition too many power plays. Even if that’s not the case, expect the NHL to warn both teams about extra-curricular nonsense.
Having said that, Penguins forward Joe Vitale, who delivered the crushing (but clean) hit on Briere and the knee-to-knee hit on Grossmann, which seemed unintentional, should be prepared to drop his gloves. If you play such a physical style, sometimes you must be ready to answer the bell.
If the game doesn’t affect home-ice advantage, both coaches may opt to rest some of their stars rather than expose them to potential injury. By contrast, don’t be surprised to see Flyers enforcer Jody Shelley in the lineup.
Whether the game determines home-ice advantage or means nothing in the standings, expect a nasty, intense hockey game.
The playoffs don’t start until next week. For the Flyers and Penguins, however, the playoff gamesmanship has already begun.
FORGOTTEN RIVALRY: All the controversy involving the Penguins and Saturday’s rematch seems to have made some people forget that the Flyers have two other games this week. They host the first-place New York Rangers tonight (Tuesday) and the Sabres on Thursday.
The Rangers have not lost against the Flyers this season. Regular-season success in the NHL doesn’t necessarily carry over to the playoffs, but the Flyers certainly would like to experience some success against the Rangers, who are trying to finish first overall (ahead of the Canucks and Blues in the Western Conference). The Sabres are in a battle with the Capitals to finish eighth in the conference and face the Rangers. Entering Tuesday’s games, the Sabres trailed the Capitals by two points but had played one less game.
PENGUINS SCHEDULE: The Penguins enter Tuesday’s games with a one-point lead on the Flyers. The Penguins’ remaining games are tonight (Tuesday) at Boston, home against the Rangers on Thursday and, of course, home Saturday against the Flyers. If the Flyers and Penguins finished tied in the standings, the Flyers would get home-ice for the playoffs based on more wins in regulation and overtime (not including shootouts).
EIGHTH IS ENOUGH: The Capitals squandered a golden opportunity to take command of the battle for eighth place in the Eastern Conference when they lost to the Lightning on Monday. That opens the door for the Sabres to snare the final playoff berth in the East this week.
The Capitals host Florida on Thursday before closing out their season Saturday against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Sabres host the Maple Leafs tonight (Tuesday), then finish their season with road games against the Flyers (Thursday) and Bruins (Saturday). The Rangers might have nothing to play for by their finale (at most they’d be playing for home ice in a potential Stanley Cup final), and may have the opportunity to influence who their first-round opponent will be.
TOP STARS: Wayne Simmonds and Ilya Bryzgalov were honored by the NHL this week. Simmonds was named first star of the week for scoring five goals in a four-game span, including one that deflected into the net off his face. Bryzgalov was named first star of the month for posting a 10-2-1 record and 1.43 goals-against average. Bryzgalov registered four shutouts, including a stretch during which he didn’t allow a goal for a franchise-record 249 minutes, 43 seconds.
Bryzgalov has been sidelined with a chip fracture in his right foot. The Flyers would like him to get some playing time this week in order to prepare for the playoffs.
WELCOME MATTS: The Flyers signed free agents Matt Mangene and Matt Konan . Those aren’t exactly household names, but, remember, this is the time of year when the Flyers have signed players such as Matt Read, Erik Gustafsson, Ben Holmstrom, Harry Zolnierczyk and Brandon Manning. And that list is just from the past two years.
The 23-year-old Mangene (5-foot-11, 190 pounds), who played both defense and forward for the University of Maine, will report to the Phantoms. Konan (6-3, 190), who is 20, will continue to play defense for Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League. Medicine Hat swept its first-round series against Saskatoon and will open its second-round series with Moose Jaw on Friday. (I thank Konan for the opportunity to work Moose Jaw into my Flyers Notebook!)
COACH OF YEAR: There have been some suggestions that Laviolette deserves consideration for NHL coach of the year. Given the number of major injuries the Flyers have sustained, not to mention his handling of the goalie situation, Laviolette certainly deserves consideration. But the clear-cut winner is former Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock, who has resurrected the St. Louis Blues and has them battling for the best record in the NHL.
AWARDS TIME: The Flyers will be handing out their own awards this week. There should be no suspense about the Bobby Clarke Award, which will go to Claude Giroux as the team’s MVP. There may be some late support for Braydon Coburn, but Kimmo Timonen should receive the Barry Ashbee Award as the Flyers’ best defenseman.
The Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy for the most improved player is trickier. Do players who were with other organizations last season count? Does Bryzgalov’s dramatic in-season turnaround qualify him for most improved? If they restrict the award to improvement within the organization, Matt Read could be the winner. If a player’s performance with another team counts, Simmonds should receive strong consideration. Although this award usually goes to a younger player, the Flyers’ most improved player this year is actually a veteran: Scott Hartnell.
WILD, WILD WEST: The Western Conference playoff picture remains a complete mess. The Canucks (107 points) and Blues (106) are one point apart in the battle for the top seed. The Red Wings (99), Predators (98) and Blackhawks (98) are one-point apart in the log-jam at fourth, fifth and sixth place in the conference.
Then it really gets wild. The Kings (93 points) are in first place in the Pacific Division, which earns them the third seed. The Kings have two games remaining. The Sharks (90) and Stars (89) are chasing the Kings in the Pacific, but they’re also trying to make the playoffs. If the season ended after Monday’s games, the Stars would finish out of the playoffs.
Two other teams to watch are the Coyotes (91), currently in seventh place overall, and the Avalanche (88 points), who have played one more game than the other contenders for the final playoff berth.
Rather than go through all the schedules, keep an eye on the Sharks. San Jose finishes with three games against Pacific opponents: at Dallas on Tuesday, followed by a home-and-home series with the Kings on Thursday (at L.A.) and Saturday (at San Jose). The Sharks results will go a long way toward clearing up the playoff picture in the West.
TRADING PLACES: Speaking of the Kings, there were questions about how the Flyers would replace the scoring of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, both of whom are now with Los Angeles. The answer, at least for one season, is with the players they acquired.
Richards and Carter have combined for 38 goals this season, six fewer than Simmonds (27 goals) and Jakub Voracek (21), the young players with NHL experience acquired in these trades. When you add in rookies Brayden Schenn (11 goals) and Sean Couturier (13), the more coveted acquisitions in last June’s trades, the scales tip even further in the Flyers’ favor.
To be fair, Carter has been limited to 55 games due to a series of injuries, the latest of which is a deep bone bruise in his ankle sustained last Wednesday. Carter has 21 goals and 13 assists, including six goals and three assists since being acquired by the Kings, whose resurgence coincided with the acquisition of Carter.