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Greenberg: Raffl finding the back of the net

by Jay Greenberg / Philadelphia Flyers

The days of the 50-goal floater, hanging at the red line, shooting pucks from anywhere on the ice through the skinny pads of goalies went out with Mike Bullard. Even more than desiring to get to the net, the goal scorer has to want to stand in there, screening, deflecting, and pouncing.

From the pure goal scorer, there are no apologetic little pushes of the puck to the net -- and only after playmaking options appear exhausted. He looks to shoot, not to pass.

Ilkka Sinisalo may have been as gifted a scorer as the Flyers ever employed, but trained on the big rink in Europe, he was just as content to pass as shoot, which is why he never broke 40 goals or became a star. Rod Brind’Amour, who tried too hard for his own good sometimes, was as streaky a scorer as the franchise has ever had but four 30-goal seasons earned in high traffic areas became a testament to how much he wanted to score more than how naturally gifted he was at it.

Tim Kerr so craved that red light that he didn’t even lift his stick to celebrate, almost like he wanted to keep it down and cocked just in case the next Pelle Eklund pass was coming even before the next faceoff. John LeClair went to the net so hard that he sometimes needed reminders from coaches that rebounds were kicking out past him; better that he park 10 feet out.

The size and speed of today’s NHL has shrunk the rink and the stomachs of the faint of heart. But the slot especially has become a place for the famished, why the increasing growl in Michael Raffl’s stomach that has brought him to 20 goals in only his second season, was as worth celebrating as once was the growl out of Dave Schultz’s mouth.

BEST OF MICHAEL RAFFL
  
     WATCH: Raffl scores his 20th goal

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     TWEETS: Raffl takes over @NHLFlyers
   
     FLASHBACK: Flyers sign Raffl (05.31.13)
   

“The biggest thing Michael has done is he’s learned to get to the net better and stick around the net better,” said Craig Berube. “He knows the puck is eventually going to get to him playing with those two guys, and he’s done a better job of [staying there].”

Those two guys, Jake Voracek and Claude Giroux, are the third and eleventh leading scorers in the league. Voracek carries the puck to the net as well as anybody, but he can put it on a string, too, for that Giroux one-timer. Raffl often has to be the third man high, but he also must be the guy taking a defenseman to the net or else Giroux and Voracek are playing two-on three.

“Raffl plays a straight-line game, so he needs to go north and be a hard player and he’s done that,” said Berube.

“He’s got decent hands. He does have a good shot. I think earlier on, and even last year, he missed the net, probably trying to be too fine.”

Getting the shot from the point or the top of the circles past the first guy now practically requires taking off your shoes and belt and emptying your pockets. That’s partly why too many corners are being missed and too many pucks rimming out to center, the other being that the goalies are so big that the only net the shooter sees are at its corners.

Still, it’s never a bad play to use the goalie’s pads to create a rebound. As many seconds tick away during five-on-threes trying for the slam dunk behind the goaltender, it is amazing how many goals during two man advantages come from up the slot, right through goalies distracted by presences on their periphery.

In case there is any confusion, let’s go over this one more time: The object of the game is to put the puck in the net. Some guys, of course, are better at it than others. But others still are not as good at it as they could be.

Ross Lonsberry, considered the most talented junior out West when Bobby Orr was the most talented junior in the East, was so smart and unselfish that he contented himself with being the third guy high even before he came to Philadelphia to take that role with Rick MacLeish and Gary Dornhoefer. Those sacrifices helped the Flyers to two Stanley Cups, sure, but along the way Lonsberry lost the desire to score, why only once in his career did he break 30.

The Flyers want more that just sound defensive zone play from Sean Couturier and in the short stretch he played with Voracek they got it. So Couturier’s underachieving totals may not be as much a manifestation of his shortage of offensive drive as the lack of chances that will come from playing shift after shift with gifted creators. Raffl is playing like he understands he has a better gig than playing on any third line.

Asked how much difference he felt there was between 19 goals and the nice, round, 20 that has long been considered the threshold of offensive confidence and competence, Raffl thought for a second, “I don’t know,” he said, then smiled. “I just know that it feels good.”

See, he wanted No. 20, a good sign. The Flyers won the raffle with this guy, an undrafted free agent out of Austria giving them a winning 50-50 ticket between offense and defense that could leave him a critical component on one of the NHL’s best lines for a long time.

That’s a wonderful opportunity. And scorers seize opportunity.

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