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Flyers' power play best in NHL

Tuesday, 01.29.2008 / 3:03 PM / Behind the Bench

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

John Stevens cites consistency of personnel on the two power-play units as one of the reasons for the Flyers' success. watch the Flyers power play in action
Boy, the days of slapping the Flyers around on the road and then laughing at their pathetic power play are no longer. Fortunately for the Flyers, it lasted only one season.

One thing after another went wrong a year ago as the Flyers stumbled to the NHL's worst record among its 30 clubs, 22-48-12 for 56 points, 11 fewer than the next-worst team. Their power play finished 28th in the NHL with a paltry 14.1 percent success rate. It was worse on the road, 11.4 percent. Their 16.8 percent success at home was good for only 22nd place.

"The addition of defenseman Kimmo Timonen and center Daniel Briere have made a world of difference," said Flyers coach John Stevens about his NHL-leading power-play units. "We use Kimmo up high and Danny down low and everyone feeds off of them."

The Flyers acquired Timonen and Scott Hartnell in a June trade with the Nashville Predators and signed them to long-term deals. Briere signed as a free agent five days later and also received a long-term contract.

At the All-Star break, the Flyers led the NHL with a 25.1 percent success rate, a solid 1.2 percent above the runner-up Montreal Canadiens. The Flyers also rank first at home with a 26.9 percent conversion rate and second on the road with 23.3 percent success.

John McGourty

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Sixty of Philadelphia's 160 goals this season have come on power plays, or 37.5 percent. By comparison, the New Jersey Devils, with whom the Flyers were tied for first place in the Atlantic Division at the All-Star break, have scored 28 percent of their goals on the power play, very close to the same success rate enjoyed by the Detroit Red Wings, who have the NHL's best win-loss record.

"There's no one reason," Stevens said. "I know I looked at the preseason schedule and thought it was really busy so I decided in training camp to leave power-play practices for game days. We had a lot of new people here and so many areas where we needed to focus. If you work on ten things, you get confused.

"I gave responsibility to assistant coach Joey Mullen to get video ready of what we do and what the guys will be facing from the opponent," Stevens said. "We always use resistance, four penalty killers, when practicing the power play and the only time we don't practice it on game days is when we have an optional skate. Any day we skate as a group, we always finish the practice with a power-play drill. The guys look forward to it."

Stevens cites consistency of personnel on the two power-play units as one of the reasons for success. At present, Briere centers Mike Knuble and Simon Gagne with Timonen and Mike Richards at the points. Jeff Carter centers the second unit with Hartnell and R.J. Umberger on the wings and Braydon Coburn and Randy Jones at the points. Joffrey Lupul, who is injured, and Scottie Upshall have also seen time at forward while Jim Vandermeer has played point on the second unit lately.

"It depends on the injury situations," Stevens said. "Simon Gagne was out two months so I put Lupul on the first line. I put Richards on the right point with Timonen and he was kind of an unknown there but it has worked well. Mike played for me in the minors with the Philadelphia Phantoms and I used to use him on the other (left) point. He is such a competitor and he has great vision with the puck. He has a willingness to shoot and that makes him a great fit on the back end of the power play.

"We've had Carter and Hartnell together on the second unit all season. The third guy was Lupul, and Upshall for awhile. Now, it's Umberger. With both units, we've had four guys consistently together all season and we've been able to take advantage of that. Umberger has done a good job. Upshall had an opportunity and did well. There's been a lot of continuity."

Success feeds success and avoids a vicious circle that is usually created by a lack of success, Stevens said. A unit that succeeds gets to stay together and their familiarity improves. Units that don't succeed get broken up, resulting in a team trying to get success from players that are constantly being thrown together in varying combinations.

 

That individual Flyers are benefiting from continuity can be seen by examining the power-play statistics page on NHL.

The Flyers are the only team in the NHL with four players in the top 30 in power-play points. Richards is tied for second with 26 power-play points and tied for fourth with 19 power-play assists. Briere is tied for fourth with 25 points and tied for 14th with nine goals. Knuble is tied for fifth with 11 goals and tied for 19th with 21 points. Timonen is tied for tenth with 17 assists and tied for 26th with 20 points.

"The fact that you have success allows you to do that," Stevens said. "No success? That's when you see a lot of changes."

Stevens has at least one thing in common with the fans in the seats behind him -- he wants to see more shooting than we've seen from NHL power plays in recent decades. For a long time, NHL teams focused on getting unobstructed shots, passing around the perimeter while waiting for a clear shot. You'd have to be deaf to not realize it drove the fans crazy.

"If you look at any good power play, and we scout the other teams to watch the best power-play units, they initiate from the top," Stevens said. "Even though defending teams collapse in around the net, it's important to shoot and have people at the net. If you shoot first, then the play opens up. Our guys have done a great job of getting shots in on goal while the other players have shown a willingness to go to the net. We've had a lot of goals that way.

John Stevens has at least one thing in common with the fans in the seats behind him -- he wants to see more shooting than we've seen from NHL power plays in recent decades.

That's how they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins to gain a share of first place at the break while keeping Pittsburgh in second place, a point behind. Vandermeer put the Flyers ahead, 3-2, on a power-play shot from the right point, after just missing on a shot seconds earlier. Knuble put them ahead to stay, 4-3, on an even-strength goal when Carter flipped the puck into the Pittsburgh crease and Knuble outmuscled Rob Scuderi to push it past Ty Conklin.

"When we have time, we chart goals and see where the scoring shots come from," Stevens said. "You'd be surprised. It's hard to defend shots from the top. We have extra people on the ice and try to outnumber the opposition at their net. You often get rewarded with a goal."

Stevens coached the Phantoms to the Calder Cup during the year of the NHL work stoppage. The AHL was experimenting with some of the rules later adopted by the NHL, including pushing the goal line back a couple of feet. He was asked if working with the new rules that year gave him a head start on some NHL coaches in developing new power-play strategies.

"Not really," Stevens said, "because when the AHL moved the goal line back, they pulled the blue line with it so there was no more room in the offensive zone than before. It didn't change things a whole lot. But in the NHL, when they moved only the goal line back (increasing the area of the offensive zone) it was one of the greatest things the League has ever done. There are a lot more offensive opportunities.

"You have to be willing to shoot from the back. If you pass, teams check too well. You can do more now because there is more room up top."

Stevens was asked if his team has "buried" the half-wall strategy that became so popular, where the center or a wing controls the play from the boards about halfway between the blue line and goal line. Former Flyers center Peter Forsberg was a great practitioner of that style. Stevens said it can still be Effective, but his strategy works best with this personnel.

"You can operate from there, but it's what you do from there," he said cryptically. "Every team has three or four coaches and at least one is assigned to the power play to try to figure out what opponents are doing.

"Montreal is doing very well with Alexei Kovalev working along the wall. He's unbelievably dangerous because he'll come off there and shoot. If teams know that player won't shoot, it's much easier to defend. Montreal does a great job of moving the puck and shooting the puck. When the emphasis is on a half-wall play, you can set up there but you have to have a Plan B to attack.

"There are several different power-play styles in the NHL now," Stevens concluded. "Anaheim is very effective with a 1-3-1 and numerous teams have more of an "umbrella" type of set up. At the end of the day, you have to attack the net."

 

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