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Flyers Rise and Fall with Special Teams

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
Many coaches measure the performance of their team based primarily on even-strength play. While games can be won or lost on special teams, clubs that are consistently better in five-on-five play rarely experience lengthy losing streaks. Nevertheless, no team can afford for its power play and/or penalty kill to be excessively streaky.

The Philadelphia Flyers’ 28-24-3 record through their first 55 games is directly related to the club’s play on special teams. When the club has been clicking on the power play and in synch on the penalty kill, the Flyers have shown themselves capable of competing with the top teams in the NHL.

Philly enjoys a 17-6-1 record in games in which the club has a positive differential in special teams. On the flip side, the Flyers are 11-18-2 in games in which special teams cancel out or the other team comes out ahead. Meanwhile, the Flyers have been moderately better than opposing teams at even strength, scoring 101 even strength goals (94 at five-on-five, 7 at four-on-four) while allowing 91 goals (88 at five-on-five, 3 at four-on-four).
Miike Richards led the NHL with seven shorthanded goals last season. He has one this year. (Getty Images)

It’s no exaggeration to say that the story of the 2009-10 season to date has been directly tied to the club’s successes and failures on special teams. When the Flyers were on a roll in October to late November, the club never ranked lower than third in the NHL on the power play and spent much of the time in the top spot. Meanwhile, the penalty kill ranked in the top one-third of the league and was even in the top five for a short time.

As injuries mounted and special teams play declined sharply, the Flyers went into a freefall that saw the club lose 14 of 17 games. The club then got hot again on special teams in late December to mid-January, and the team’s fortunes rose. Over the last few weeks, the team has been inconsistent on special teams and has played .500 hockey.

Overall, the Flyers rank fourth in the NHL on the power play, connecting at a 22.5 percent success rate. On the penalty kill, the Flyers now rank in the bottom one-third of the league (22nd overall) with an 80.2 percent success rate.

Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger makes no bones about the fact that the club wants to see its penalty killing having fewer multi-game swoons.

“Besides making sure that we don’t take bad penalties, we need to bear down a little bit more when we have some of those make-or-break kills. There’s been times where we’ve been in synch and times when we’re out of synch,” he said.

The Flyers’ recent loss in Edmonton was an especially painful reminder of the critical importance of executing in clutch special teams situations. With the score tied 0-0, the team had a power play opportunity in the last five minutes of the third period. Philly failed to score. In the final two minutes of play, Darroll Powe got sent off for high sticking. The Oilers won the game with 16.1 seconds left when Pronger got beaten off the rush by Sam Gagner, Kimmo Timonen went over to Pronger’s side and Mike Richards was a stride behind ex-Flyer Ryan Potulny, who received Gagner’s pass and directed it past goaltender Michael Leighton.

Although the Flyers’ overall power play numbers remain solid, the club has experienced power outages at inopportune times. During the club’s recent 4-3 stretch, the club scored only one power play goal in the three games the team lost. It is also telling that the club has won only two games when trailing after the first period and has a 1-15-0 mark when trailing after two periods. In these games, the club has had its share of power play opportunities that could have spurred comebacks but the team has often failed to capitalize.

“That’s something we’ve talked about as a team. In those situations, you’ve got to pay the price and find a way to put the puck in the net, whether it’s a deflection, a rebound or whatever,” says winger Scott Hartnell.

If the Flyers are to solidify a playoff spot in the remaining 27 games of the regular season, the club will have to find ways to generate power play goals and stage successful penalty kills at the most crucial junctures. While all goals count the same, the momentum of games often turns based on when the goals are scored.

In addition, last season, the Flyers had an incredible year in the shorthanded scoring department. Led by Mike Richards’ seven shorthanded goals, the club scored 16 shorthanded goals and did not allow a single opposing shorthander until current Flyer Blair Betts scored one for the New York Rangers on the final night of the 2008-09 regular season. The worm has turned this season. The Flyers have allowed seven shorthanded goals (tied for 27th in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers) while scoring just four of their own.

“It’s just one of those things,” says Richards, who has one shorthanded goal on the season. “Last year, I was lucky to bury a lot of the chances. This year, they haven’t gone in. I don’t worry too much about it. The biggest thing is to not get burned defensively.”
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