Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where Are You Luca Sbisa?

Frankly, I wasn’t at all optimistic about the Flyers in their series with the Penguins- picking them to be excused in five. I got a lot of chances to watch them this weekend at the sports book in the Bellagio. They’ve actually played better than I thought- only the first game was one between teams on two different levels. Not that it matters. Carter and Richards would do well to schedule tee times for Friday now.

My whole problem this year with the Flyers is the passivity with which they approach the roster. Despite last year's nifty run through an advantageous draw, their problems were clear: the goalie is a journeyman, merely adequate player and the defense is not a collective you count on. We all know they blew a ton of leads in the tournament last year.

They did nothing to solve either problem. Biron is still in goal. The defense has already failed to protect one of the two third period leads this blog predicted they would choke up. So we can’t complain that the Flyers are looking at the same result- a quick elimination- against the same outfit that inflicted defeat on them last year.

My problem with Biron is not his acts of commission- he isn’t a bad goalie, he makes the stops a pro needs to. It is that he is testament to the Flyers passive approach- their culture of omission. To wit, in this series, Biron has played well enough for the team to win if they can score four, maybe even three goals. But, just as certainly, he just isn’t capable of that “steal a game” effort the Penguins got from Fleury last night: 45 saves on 46 shots. Two games separate these teams right now- and right there is one of them. Pittsburgh’s goalie can win a road game on a night his team scores two goals and takes a rash of penalties. Our goalie can’t.

Worse: the Flyers know this. They absolutely know Biron categorically cannot personally win a game or two here- move a toss up game into the Philadelphia column. For years now, they have suffered passively, unwilling to admit the only route to a Cup Final is a series of advantageous match-ups and luck.

Same thing with the defense. The Flyers have to know the current blue line unit can’t possibly defend leads playing in a typical third period shell. In recent play-off games, they’ve failed again and again and again and again and again (and again here in Game 2). They fail literally more than half the time, including multiple two goal leads, over the past two years.

Nothing changes. They don’t even try. Where are you Luca Sbisa?- the one guy who might, might mind you- have been a real upgrade to the group had be given an oportunity to play all season. It would have been a risk- he would be a rookie in a big spot- but really, what is the risk? They have to know they can’t beat a Pittsburgh-level team playing well (something they’re going to have to face sometime inf our rounds) with the existing infrastructure- so change it. It probably wouldn’t work- but this defense/goalie combo can’t work.

Then add in a coach, John Stevens, who categorically refuses to acknowledge his defense isn’t that strong. Psst… no matter what Keith Jones and Brian Engbloom are saying on television, the top pair of Coburn and Timonen ain’t untouchably superb either. The defense is always being asked to do the thing it fails to do repeatedly- play the defensive shell game with wingers supporting play the neutral zone rather than forechecking.

Coaching is about putting players in position to succeed. And this defense isn’t close to the Devils circa the late 90’s. They need the forecheck at the other end of the ice to be successful- play only nine minutes in their end in the third period versus thirteen. Anyway, that mixture of suspect coaching and equally suspect defensemen equals one blown third period lead- the other game of difference in this series.

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