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Flyers Notebook: Defense holds together

Posted by Eric Fisher On November 11

The Flyers defense was supposed to be a joke – and that was with Braydon Coburn and Andrew MacDonald, the (by default) No. 1 pair.

Coburn was injured in the season opener. MacDonald made it through seven games before suffering the dreaded “lower body” injury.

But the defense didn’t disintegrate. It hasn’t been spectacular, but the defense has been steady. How has the defense held together?

First, it should be pointed out that defense is a team concept. The centers and wings are part of the defense. When the forwards aren’t conscientious about defending in the neutral and defensive zones, even the best defensemen aren’t going to shut down the opposition.

Having said that, though, the defensemen have been much better than expected. Let’s take a look at the defensemen who have been holding down the fort while Coburn, who returned this past Saturday against the Avalanche, and MacDonald were out of the lineup.

Mark Streit appears to have picked up where he left off at the end of last season. Streit looked more comfortable during the latter part of last season, his first with the Flyers. He has two goals and eight assists and distributes the puck very well from the blue line on the power play .

Nicklas Grossmann has been a steady physical force in his own end. Grossmann appears to have moved beyond the injuries that plagued him last season.

Despite an awful game or two that dropped his plus/minus rating to -5, Luke Schenn has been pretty good. Like Grossmann, Schenn adds a physical element to the back line.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been Michael Del Zotto. Signed in early August after it became clear that blood clots would prevent Kimmo Timonen from playing the first half of the season, if at all, the 24-year-old Del Zotto was feeling unwanted. The 20th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, Del Zotto was still unsigned when the Flyers called.

Not much was expected from Del Zotto, but he has one goal and seven assists. He’s moved the puck well and jumps into the offensive zone to support the forwards. He’s good enough in his own end that head coach Craig Berube has often given Del Zotto the most ice time of any of his defensemen. (That’s a situation likely to change with the return of Coburn.)

If Del Zotto isn’t the biggest surprise among the defensemen, it’s Nick Schultz. Starting out as the seventh man, Schultz was immediately thrown into the action after Coburn’s injury. Schultz has played so well that Berube is going to have a difficult decision to make regarding which defenseman to scratch when MacDonald or Schenn, who sustained an “upper body” injury Saturday when he was cross-checked off-balance by the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and went head-and-shoulders first into the boards, return to the lineup.

The players who filled in for a few games – Brandon Manning, Shayne Gostisbehere and recently signed veteran Carlo Colaiacovo – also deserve credit for plugging holes on the blue line.

The Flyers certainly have exceeded expectations thus far, which is a major reason the Flyers are in third place (through Monday’s games) in the Metropolitan Division despite going winless during the season’s first four games.

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HOME, SWEET HOME: The Flyers have won five straight games at Wells Fargo Center.

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MASON’S NO. 1: When Ray Emery picked up the Flyers’ first four wins this season, there were some rumblings that perhaps Emery would replace Steve Mason as the No. 1 goalie. That speculation was squashed last week as Mason started three straight games, all victories.

The Flyers are certainly pleased to have a backup as capable as Emery, but the three straight starts by Mason should remove any doubts regarding who is the No. 1 goalie. The Flyers want Mason to be the team’s No. 1 goalie.

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VORACEK PROVIDES ASSISTANCE: With three assists on the power play during Saturday’s 4-3 victory over the Avalanche, Jakub Voracek has 16 assists, tops on the Flyers and second only to Penguins center Sidney Crosby in the NHL. Voracek has six goals, tied for second-most on the Flyers. He is also second to Crosby in points in the NHL with 22.

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SCHENN CHANGES PLACES: In last week’s Flyers Notebook, I mentioned that Brayden Schenn finally made significant contributions, scoring game-winning goals in wins over the Red Wings and Kings. But, when Michael Raffl suffered a “lower body” injury blocking a shot, Schenn wasn’t moved up to the top line, which is where he started the season. Instead, Schenn was dropped to what is considered the third line.

Instead of sulking, Schenn has registered a goal and three assists in the Flyers’ last three games. He worked very well with linemates Sean Couturier and Matt Read. Schenn even dropped the gloves and fought veteran Jarome Iginla on Saturday during the Flyers; win over the Avalanche.

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NUMBERS GAME: It’s difficult to believe the Flyers have five players with double figures in points and only three in double figures in penalty minutes. Two of the three players in double figures in penalty minutes (Wayne Simmonds and Nick Schultz) have 10 penalty minutes.

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HARTNELL RETURNS: Popular forward Scott Hartnell returns Friday (7 p.m.) with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The injury-plagued Blue Jackets, who are missing, among others, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has an injury to the index finger on his left hand. Entering Tuesday’s game against the Capitals, the Blue Jackets are 4-4-0 in games started by Bobrovsky and 0-5-1 in games started by their other goalies. Hartnell is third in points for Columbus with 14, but has a plus/minus rating of minus-7.

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STRANGE SCHEDULE: The Flyers are in the midst of a five-day stretch without a game. They play the Blue Jackets and Canadiens on Friday and Saturday, with the second game in Montreal, before having three more days off. Who made this schedule?

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