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January 28, 2014 | 8:50pm ET
Lack of discipline costly for 'fragile' Flyers
By David Strehle, TheFourthPeriod.com

PHILADELPHIA, PA -- As the January temperatures plummeted to new lows in the Philadelphia area, the play of the local hockey team followed suit. When the Flyers dropped an embarrassing 6-1 decision on home ice to the Boston Bruins on Saturday, it was the club’s fourth straight defeat as their record fell to 2-5-2 over their last nine outings.

The recent turnaround that saw the club pick itself up off the mat and begin to firmly entrench themselves in a Metropolitan Division playoff position has quickly eroded, and the Flyers have fallen below the Eastern Conference's wild card spots.

The early-Saturday contest against Boston kicked off what was being described by the club as a “weekend celebration of hockey”, with the Broad Street Bash – which brought back all of the living members of the 1974 Stanley Cup champion squad for fans to meet at XFinity Live!, housed at the site of the old Spectrum across the parking lot from the Wells Fargo Center -- following in the evening, and the 37th annual Flyers’ Wives Carnival on Sunday.

Both the ‘Bash’ and carnival were both rousing successes, but the on-ice prelude by the current version of Flyers left everything to be desired.

"We’re picking a terrible spot to play some pretty crappy hockey," goaltender Steve Mason said following the Boston debacle. "Teams that are around us are winning, and we’re falling behind.”

He’s right. With the lone exception of the Washington Capitals (3-5-2), every other division foe has been playing well since the turn of the New Year. The front-running Pittsburgh Penguins are 7-2-1, New York Rangers 7-3-0, Columbus Blue Jackets 8-2-0, Carolina Hurricanes 7-3-0, New Jersey Devils 5-2-3, and New York Islanders 6-3-1.

The Rangers and Blue Jackets have made their moves in the standings to push past Philadelphia – who had sat second before their latest slump -- while the last-place Isles good fortune has brought them from the brink of lottery pick back into the hunt. Their 50 points leave them just six behind Columbus and the Flyers for the third and final playoff spot in an ever-tightening group of Metro teams.

Claude Giroux didn’t even attempt to mask his feelings regarding the matinee massacre suffered in front of the home fans.

"It has to be the most embarrassing game I’ve been involved with," the captain said of the effort Saturday against the Bruins. "We didn’t win any battles, we didn’t play as a team.

“I think the last three or four games we’ve gotten away from how we want to be as a team and how we want to be looked at. The reason why we were winning games was we were working hard and winning battles.”

There have been many factors in the dramatic drop off in play, but a couple of nasty issues continue to plague Craig Berube's squad as their performance as of late has mirrored some of their early-season struggles.

When he took over the helm of the Flyers three games into the current campaign, Berube preached that there would be an increased level of accountability for the players, a sentiment echoed by GM Paul Holmgren based upon his new coach's demeanor.

"He demands respect, he holds people accountable and he's a no-B.S. kind of guy," Holmgren said at the time.

With less than 30 games remaining in the regular season, Philadelphia has amassed the most penalty minutes of any NHL team. With 845 PIMs, they've accumulated more than double that of the Devils (405), the league's least penalized club.

That wide-spanning differential translates into a huge disparity of Philly's 15.9 PIMs per game, as compared to the paltry sum of 7.6 for the Devils.

Despite some fine play by their penalty killers for much of the year, Philly has been yielding its inevitable share of goals while skating a man down.

“When you get scored on in a penalty kill, it’s because we don’t clear the puck out when we have it,” said Berube of his team’s shorthanded unit. “That was part of it, but eventually you are going to get scored on if you keep taking penalties.”

"We talked about penalties and defensive zone plays, and for myself to take six minutes and three penalties pretty much, it’s unacceptable," said defenseman Nicklas Grossman, whose double minor in the third period led to a pair of Boston goals and doused any hopes of yet another Flyers' comeback in the process. "We said to stay out of the box, and then we go in anyway and we give them goals, pretty much lost us the game.

“It can’t happen. It shouldn’t happen. Personally I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror and clean it up, and we’ve got to find a way to turn this around.”

One of the biggest problems is the team’s inability to clear the defensive zone when they maintain full possession of the puck. This was an issue early in the season as well as last year, before a rash of injuries led to youngsters Oliver Lauridsen, Brandon Manning, and Matt Konan being recalled from the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms.

"Defensively, I think they were just moving the puck around us," Giroux said. "We’ve got to do a better job of working and winning those battles."

It’s appeared as though the Flyers don’t match up well with other clubs due to their speed, but it would seem that opponents have done their video homework and caught onto a game plan to beat Philadelphia. No longer do teams sit back and play passively, but realize that furious forechecking pressure cuts off passing lanes and gives the Philly rear guards little time to make decisions with the puck. This has brought forth a bountiful amount of giveaways and turnovers that have led to quality scoring chances and often times goals.

The problems are compounded when the back-checking effort isn’t there, and opponents capitalize by jumping into the huge gaps that are left. It’s something that the players have noticed, and it’s whittled away at the overall positive feelings that were so prevalent just a few weeks ago.

“We played well back then and somehow we’ve kind of fallen off that path, and now everything feels harder to do and everything just kind of takes extra time," said Grossmann. "We’re not that fast to the puck, and that’s what happens when you don’t have that confidence in the game."

In addition to everything else there might also be a bit of bad luck going against Philly during the club's slide, with several goals finding the net off of various parts of Flyers' defenders. It seems to be happening at least once in each recent outing, with several glancing off of knees, skates, and even posteriors.

But as is the case most of the time, lucky breaks can come as a result of hard work after pinning your opponent deep in their own end for long stretches of play.

"We’ve been getting hemmed in our own zone, and then we take two back-to-back penalties and they get a lucky break off of a skate," Mason pointed out of Zdeno Chara's bank shot goal that caromed in off of Braydon Coburn's skate. "Breaks like that weren’t necessarily happening as much at the beginning of the season as they have now."

The result of the overall play seems to be wearing on Mason. The Flyers’ unquestioned MVP at the midseason point of the schedule had bailed out his teammates for much of the year, but he’s been pulled twice in his last three starts since signing a three-year, $12.3 million contract extension. He hasn’t appeared to be nearly as sharp as earlier in the campaign, when Philly was affording him little to no offensive support. Although receiving more goals from his teammates, Mason has managed just one win in his last six starts while posting a goals-against average of 4.51 and an .851 save percentage.

The team as a whole has been extremely up and down for most of the campaign. After a 4-10-1 start, the Flyers went 7-2-1 in their next 10, 2-3-2 over their next seven, and 9-2-0 before their latest struggles.

That schizophrenic performance has done little more than leave Philadelphia hovering around the .500-mark at 25-22-6.

“That’s something that we have to correct, because that doesn’t get you anywhere,” Berube said of the rollercoaster levels that have been his team’s play. “We need to be a consistent team and that’s what we strive to be, so that’s what we are going to work towards. If you want to be a good team, want to be a playoff team and you want to do something in the playoffs, you’d better be consistent.”

“Right now, I look at our team as a fragile team out there,” Berube added. “That’s what I see, but we could correct that and we can get going in the right direction again. I don’t know why that happens. It shouldn’t. We’re a great hockey team, and you are going to go through some stretches where good teams lose three in a row. They all do.”

Little has to be conveyed via word of mouth, according to Giroux.

“We know what to do,” he said. “We know how to play, nobody has to say anything. You just have to go out there and play and do the right things out there.

And that’s really what it will take to bring the Flyers out of their present slump. Talking about it is one thing, but translating that into their on-ice play is the only thing that can snap Philly out of their winter doldrums and get them back to the point where they were a brash bunch of hungry skaters.

That’s where the coach comes in.

“It’s confidence,” Berube said. “They’re not really confident right now. I’m going to try to get them confident again because that’s my job. We’ll get some practice in, work at things and get back to playing the way we were. We need to talk about it, keep working at it, and work our way out of things. That’s what you do.”

David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.


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