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Holmgren Talks Season So Far

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Talk about bad timing…the Winter Olympics couldn’t have happened at a worse period for the Flyers.

When four Flyers headed to Vancouver to play for their countries in the Olympics and the other players packed their bathing suits and sunscreen for warmer climates, the Flyers were riding a four-game winning streak. They finished the pre-Olympics schedule upbeat with home-and-home victories over Atlantic Division-leader New Jersey and Montreal. The Flyers are producing offensively, playing stubborn defense and getting remarkable goaltending from Michael Leighton. When a team is rolling like that, it wants to maintain its edge.

Now, all the Flyers can do is enjoy some R & R and then return rejuvenated for the grueling stretch run: 22 games in 38 days. With 67 points, the Flyers rank sixth in the NHL Eastern Conference (the top eight teams in each conference qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs). They are just one point ahead of Boston and three ahead of Montreal.

“We had a pretty good start, then we ran into a stretch where we weren’t very good,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. “To fight to get ourselves back into the position we’re in now speaks well for the determination of the group. When we come back from the break, the dogfight (to reach the playoffs) will continue.”
Paul Holmgren is pleased with the Flyers defense so far this season, with Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen (pictured) providing the leadership on the blue line. (Getty Images)

Holmgren said the Flyers’ short-term goal is to be a playoff team. “After you get into the playoffs, anything can happen,” he said.

Holmgren indicated he’ll consider trades before the March 3 deadline “if something were to come up that makes us better.”

That means, if there are no deals, the Flyers will rely on Michael Leighton, Ray Emery and Brian Boucher as their goaltenders down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Leighton, 28, has been a revelation. Until he took over for the injured Emery in December, the 6-3, 186-pound Leighton has never established himself as an NHL goaltender. Since then, aided by tips from goaltender coach Jeff Reese, he has played like a poised veteran. Leighton is 12-3-1 with a 2.19 goals against average and .925 save percentage for Philadelphia since being claimed off of waivers by the club.

“Michael has played very well,” Holmgren said. “Jeff made a couple changes in how Michael positions himself. He’s got him back in the net a little more because a bigger guy he doesn’t need to get out as much as a smaller goaltender.”

If Emery isn’t completely recovered from his hip injury and coach Peter Laviolette has to go with Leighton in the nets, Holmgren is comfortable that Flyers can be successful.

“I feel very confident in Michael,” Holmgren said. “He’s not a young guy, he’s been around, he’s put in his time in the minor leagues. He’s been given an opportunity to run with the ball here and he’s done very well. Having said that, we’re hopeful that Ray can be back.”

It took a while for the Flyers to catch on to Laviolette’s system. A couple times Laviolette called timeouts early in games and berated the players. It looked like a drill sergeant tongue-lashing his troops, but evidently it was needed. At times, the Flyers played like a team in a daze.

Referring to his decision to replace John Stevens with Laviolette, Holmgren said, “The coaching change was very difficult to go through. The players now are a little more understanding of what Peter is trying to do in terms of his pressure forecheck. We’ve continued to play real good in our own end. Five-on-five we’re pretty solid.”
To fight to get ourselves back into the position we’re in now speaks well for the determination of the group. When we come back from the break, the dogfight (to reach the playoffs) will continue.” - Paul Holmgren

Anchoring the Flyers defense are Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen. These veterans rarely make mistakes and provide leadership, showing younger Flyers what is required to win in the NHL. My only issue with Pronger is, I thought he’d be a more intimidating presence on the ice. I don’t mean by fighting…just being more menacing. But evidently just being Chris Pronger, all 6-6, 220 pounds of him, is menacing enough.

Holmgren has known Pronger since he was a rookie with the Hartford Whalers in 1993-94 when Holmgren was the Whalers coach.

“I think Chris is one of the top defenders in the game,” Holmgren said. “He can still move the puck very well (and) he’s got a big shot from the point. He’s been everything that I hoped he’d be. He and Kimmo stabilize our defense. A couple times we’ve been down five-on-three on a penalty kill and you put Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen out there, then you’ve got a pretty good chance of not getting scored on.

“The way (Pronger) approaches the game, the way he prepares for practice, that’s the stuff that people don’t see that’s been good for our team.”

Speaking about Timonen, Holmgren said, “He’s very serious about the team playing well, being ready to play and being consistent. He wants to win.”

Another Flyers defenseman, Braydon Coburn, has been playing much better lately. Following his trade to the Flyers from Atlanta in February 2007, Coburn impressed everyone with his skating and offensive skills. People were whispering “future all-star” about Coburn. However, last season and earlier this season, I thought Coburn had regressed. Holmgren gently reminded me that Coburn is still learning as an NHL rearguard.

“I think Braydon started out the year good, then, like a lot of our guys, stumbled when we were having a hard time winning games,” Holmgren said. “He turns 25 at the end of this month. He’s still a young defenseman: he’s going to have his ups and downs. He’s a guy we look for big things from. He’s 6-foot-5 and can skate like nobody in the game.”

Lukas Krajicek has been a surprisingly welcome addition to the Flyers defense corps. Signed as a free agent, Krajicek, formerly with Tampa Bay, has been taking regular shifts while Ryan Parent and Danny Syvret recover from injuries.

“(Krajicek) has fit right in,” Holmgren said. “He’s given the coaches the chance to roll three defense pairs and even out the ice time. We’re not overusing anyone: that’s going to be important down the stretch when you’re playing so many games in such a short period of time.”

How the Flyers react after the Olympics will determine if they make the playoffs. Will they return refreshed and ready to play almost every other day, or will they melt down under the playoff pressure? Hockey in Philadelphia in March and early April should be riveting.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1982, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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