With what Michael Raffl has learned by his second NHL season, the pucks uncannily seem to better understand where the goalie isn’t.
“The whole year is easier than last year, knowing what’s coming,” said Raffl. And his education tells him that what is coming soon is an NHL-caliber defenseman’s stick, which left him no time to hesitate after Claude Giroux’s shot from the high slot, broken down by the Kings’ Jake Muzzin, came to him 15 feet in front of the goal.
“Guys here are quick with their sticks,” Raffl said. “You have to get it away more quickly.”
It was all in the release that Raffl’s fifth goal of the season beat a two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie, Jonathan Quick, on Tuesday night, the Flyers’ first goal in a 3-2 overtime win over the champion Kings.
Reggie Leach could hit the crossbar in practice 10 times out of ten from 30 feet out. So practice, a short, sweet backswing and an era where there was more time to tee it up produced 61 goals and another 19 in the playoffs in 1975-76.
But Mike Bossy, who averaged 57 goals in 10 Islander seasons always said he targeted nowhere but the middle of the net and never was surprised when the goalie still wasn’t set to make the stop or prevent a rebound.
“I’ve been on Michael to get the puck away, don’t aim,” said Craig Berube. Coach always knows best, but Raffl doesn’t have to take it from guy who averaged three goals per 20 NHL seasons, rather heed the lessons of the hockey ages.
Just because goalies are bigger and quicker than ever, doesn’t mean you have to pick the corners to beat them. When you miss the net, at best there is no rebound, and at worst the puck is rimming out of the zone.
Why does Giroux have nine assists in nine games? Largely, because he has put the puck on goal a team-high 43 times. Why does Voracek have 11 assists? He is second on the team with 30 shots.
Correspondingly, why is Raffl, a promising jack-of-all-trades as a rookie, playing like a bona fide first-line left wing?
“It’s not hard, playing with those two guys,” said Raffl, but on the contrary, you can complicate things greatly by deferring too much.”
“He’s hanging out around the net,” said Voracek. “That’s where all the pucks are.”
You have to love the Flyers, who had a pokey start and nevertheless poking their heads above .500 before November 1, just like you have to love seeing Raffl develop a crush on scoring goals - a requirement for putting up first-line numbers.
Brayden Schenn, another guy who needs to fall in love, didn’t give up after being stopped in overtime, jamming the puck (and the goalie, as a bitter Quick argued) into the net, one more good sign.
Schenn’s goal came off a turnover and a breakaway. But generally there just isn’t any longer enough time in the offensive zone to warrant doing much else but cycling the puck low or getting it to the net. And Raffl, who a year ago showed good instincts in almost every other way, seems to be adding the final ingredient to his game that could make him one of the franchise’s best-ever free agent signings.
One cannot debate the merits of the Scott Hartnell trade by comparing his production – so far 10 points in nine games with Columbus -- only to that of R.J. Umberger, who has three points in nine since arriving in that one-for-one trade.
That deal was made not just to eventually lessen the Flyers future cap burdens, but also to clear out space for young players to grow, like Raffl into a first-line scorer, like Schenn into a productive power-play contributor that will lift his overall game.
Wherever Pierre-Edouard Bellemare settles in with the roster spot that trade helped open for him, his addition upgrades the team speed.
It was a trickle-down effect through the roster that manifested in that trickler off of Muzzin that Raffl snapped past one of the best.