VOORHEES, N.J. – When looking at the first two games of this first round matchup with the New York Rangers, there are easy distinctions to be made from a Flyers perspective as the difference between losing Game 1 and winning Game 2.
Getting more shots on goal. Skating harder and faster. Going to the net. Taking away the cross-ice passes. Getting strong goaltending.
All of them are true.
But it also takes some smart play from unheralded players. Players who are often plugged under the microscope when things don’t go well and are equally as often forgotten about when things are clicking.
Those players are the Flyers defensive corps. From the top pairing of Kimmo Timonen and Brayden Coburn the sneaky good second pairing of Mark Streit and Nick Grossmann down to the third pairing of Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn who have accounted for two of the five goals the Flyers have scored in this series, the Flyers are getting as good - if not better at times – play from their defensemen than the Rangers, who everyone assumed would have an easy edge in that department.
“I don’t really care what people think of our back unit,” said Braydon Coburn. “We have a lot of good depth. We have three units that play close to equal minutes and we do things by committee out there.”
And while the committee approach in other sports usually falters – whether it’s closing pitchers or running backs – if there were ever a team-oriented sport where it could work it’s hockey – and the Flyers continue to defy the doubters by finding success.
“Defense is not just the two guys back there, it’s all five guys and the goalie,” said Nick Grossmann, who has quietly been a solid all-around defenseman – both in traditional and advanced metrics – since the Olympic break in February. “As a team we paid more attention to details in the second game and eliminated the mistakes we had in Game 1. We just got to stick to the game plan, everyone has to do their part out there and do it right. That’ll help the team win.”
And they’re doing it in several ways. They’re gumming up the middle of the ice, keeping the Rangers to the outside and in low percentage areas. As such, the Rangers were stifled in Game 2 at even strength after scoring their first goal.
They’re also being physical with the Rangers and they have active sticks – taking away passing lanes and forcing turnovers, or at the least, forcing the Rangers to dump the puck and have to hunt it down.
They’re blocking shots, they’re wining battles on the wall and their leading safe breakouts.
Then there’s the offensive end of things, where they are getting more activated and jumping into plays to create more offense. Schenn’s goal was exactly that. Coburn had a chance as well that Henrik Lundqvist stopped. Streit, MacDonald and Timonen are always jumping up on the rush as well.
|Luke Schenn and Andrew MacDonald, both of whom have scored for the Flyers in the playoffs, have proven to be a nice third pairing on the blue line. |
“You look for opportunities when they’re there,” Coburn said. “But the pendulum swings both ways. When you push to do something one way, something opens up the other way. We need to find that balance. We want to support our forwards and help them create offense, but at the same time we want to make sure the Rangers don’t get behind us.”
It’s a fine line for defensemen, who know they are responsible to protect their end first. But it’s one area where Berube would like to see the Flyers core explore more.
“Last game our defense was a lot more active,” Berube said. “But I still think we can do more. I still think there are areas we can exploit and get them more active. I think what happens is, the Rangers gaps are so good that it doesn’t look like you can attack all the time and you worry about turning the puck over. But you have to do a good job of reading the gaps and knowing what to do with the puck.”
Berube added that he was happy with the Flyers gaps in Game 2, saying they were much better than in Game 1 and thinks that had a lot to do with the team’s win, but he’d still like the defense to get more shot to the net. They have 11 through the first two games.
“The Rangers go down on one knee a lot to block shots so maybe you have to fake it and go around them, but you still got to get shots on net,” Berube said.
So, there are still things to work on. There are little things that could be better. But it’s not something that can’t be corrected from one game to the next. It’s not a gaping hole that the Flyers are trying to cover up with a Band-Aid.
Instead, the defensive group has been solid, and nowhere near as close to as bad as many pundits would like to suggest they are.
“We haven’t been amazing but we’ve been O.K.,” Schenn said. “There’s always room for improvement and everyone is trying to make the right plays and get the pucks into our forwards hands and move quicker.”
NOTES: Ray Emery gets the start again in Game 3 as Steve Mason declared himself not ready to return from his upper-body injury… The Flyers are 16-20 all-time in Game 3 after a series was tied 1-1. However they are 10-9 in Game 3 after tying a series at 1-1 in Game 2. They are 14-14 all time in Game 3 at home.
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