Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Dark Skies in Sunshine State, Phantoms, Growing Pains

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DARK SKIES IN SUNSHINE STATE ROAD TRIP

For the second straight autumn, the Flyers headed into a two-game Florida road trip playing winning hockey. For the second straight autumn, Philly exited the Sunshine State with a pair of regulation losses.

Struggling in the Tampa Bay half of the trip is understandable, because the Lightning have built themselves into one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

While the Florida Panthers are a young and hard-working team that is playing strong team defense and getting excellent goaltending from veteran star Roberto Luongo, it is still a team the Flyers ought to be able to handle a lot better than they did in last night’s 2-1 loss in Sunrise.

The Panthers have done an excellent job of winning low-scoring games this season. In seven of the team’s nine games played to date, neither the Panthers nor their opponent has scored more than two goals in regulation. Nevertheless, the club was playing severely shorthanded last night and had virtually no scoring threats available with Aleksander Barkov, Sean Bergenheim, Brandon Pirri and Jonathan Huberdeau all out of lineup.

The Panthers generated strong puck support and worked very hard. In fact, for the first 30 minutes of regulation, Florida’s depleted lineup won the majority of puck battles. The Flyers generated an anemic 11 shots (four by Michael Raffl) through the midway point of the game.

Philadelphia’s puck pursuit — or lack thereof — for the first half of the game was alarming. It’s one thing to play a containment game against a team like Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston, where your main concern is keeping their dangerous attackers to the perimeter. It’s quite another get hemmed into your own zone by the Florida Panthers, especially when the Cats were minus most of their better forwards.

Over the second half of the game, lack of attack time and shots were not a problem for the Flyers. In the third period especially, Philadelphia fired lots of rubber on Luongo’s net to finish the game with 37 shots. Even so, there were few second-chance opportunities or opportunities from the slots. Florida played the containment game better than the Flyers did.

The other disturbing trend in this road trip was the abject failure of the Flyers special teams. In Sunrise, they went 0-for-6 on the power play including a failed 5-on-3 in the third period. Even worse, Florida generated numerous shorthanded scoring opportunities, including a three-shot rapid fire barrage on the doorstep of the Philadelphia net. Meanwhile, the Flyers went 3-for-4 on the penalty kill and the one failed kill provided Florida with what proved to be a very valuable insurance goal in the third period.

Steve Mason played a strong game in his return to the net for the Flyers. In reality, though, I don’t think he was playing all that badly before this game. His issue was more a team defense problem in front of him than it was an issue of faulty mechanics. Last night, Mason authored his share of tough saves to buy the team time to get going offensively but the goal support just wasn’t there.

Florida’s first goal, scored by defenseman Willie Mitchell at 9:07 of the first period, was shot through a three-player screen (including Philadelphia defenseman Nicklas Grossmann) in front of the net. The puck may have deflected slightly off Grossmann in front. While Mason took blame on himself after the game, saying he needed to track that shot better, there’s a reason why teams preach getting traffic to the net. Jussi Jokinen and Brad Boyes received the assists on the goal.

The 1-0 score held through the second period and numerous failed Philadelphia power plays until Florida went on the man advantage in the final six minutes of the third period. At the 15:38 mark, highly touted rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad blasted home a slapshot through heavy traffic in front to extend the Florida lead to 2-0. Brian Campbell and Jimmy Hayes were credited with the assists.

Philadelphia pulled Mason for an extra attacker with over three minutes left in the game. The remainder of the game was spent almost entirely in the Florida end of the ice. Luongo stonewalled the Flyers until Vincent Lecavalier scored an otherwise meaningless goal with 7.4 seconds remaining to break up the shutout bid.

Jakub Voracek received the primary assist on the Lecavalier goal, registering his 16th point of the season. Voracek has at least one point in 10 of the team’s 11 games to date. Wayne Simmonds got the secondary assist. The goal was reviewed in Toronto’s Situation Room before being officially allowed to stand.

With Lecavalier returning to the lineup after a seven-game absence, Flyers coach Craig Berube shuffled three of his line combinations at even strength. Lecavalier centered R.J. Umberger and Simmonds. Brayden Schenn played left wing on a line with Sean Couturier and the offensively scuffling Matt Read. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare returned to the fourth line with Zac Rinaldo and Chris VandeVelde.

Newly signed defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo might be ready to make his Flyers debut on Tuesday night, when the Flyers host Edmonton. Brandon Manning skated 9:21 of ice time as the Flyers’ sixth defenseman last night. Manning will remain with the team as the seventh defenseman for the time being while Braydon Coburn (left foot) and Andrew MacDonald (lower body) are still on the mend.

************* QUICK HITS: NOVEMBER 2

* The Real Time Scoring in Sunrise last night was hideously inaccurate for the first two periods. Was there even a complete crew working?

Through two periods, neither team was charged with a single giveaway (the Flyers ended up with three and Florida finished without an official turnover). There is no way that reflected reality.

Meanwhile, the two teams were credited with only a combined seven blocked shots through two periods until Florida got credited for eight blocks in the third period. That was also inaccurate. For instance, Flyers defenseman Nicklas Grossmann clearly blocked two shots during the Flyers first penalty kill — including one that he painfully took off his foot that got replayed twice on the Flyers’ telecast — yet he wasn’t credited with any blocks for the night.

The faceoff tracking was also faulty at times in the game. There were at least three faceoffs where the Flyers got possession after Claude Giroux took the draw but the Philadelphia center was charged with a loss. Officially, Giroux finished the game 11-for-24 on faceoffs.

* Shayne Gostisbehere, a native of Margate, FL, remained with the team in Sunrise in order to see his family members and friends who attended the game. He will return to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms this week.

* The recent play of Michael Del Zotto, including last night, has been a bright spot for Berube’s team. The player’s once-sagging confidence seems to be restored. Last night, he logged 23:55 of generally strong ice time and played well without the puck as well as having several shifts where he made excellent plays to lead or join the play offensively.

* Flyers defenseman Luke Schenn celebrates his 25th birthday today.

* Flyers Alumni with October 2 birthdays: goaltender Cal Heeter (26), Martin Grenier (34) and former captain Jason Smith (41).

* Today in Flyers History: On Nov. 2, 1975, the Stanley Cup champion Flyers brutalized the woeful Kansas City Scouts (the ancestor of the current New Jersey Devils) by a 10-0 score at the Spectrum.

On that night, Philadelphia netminder Wayne Stephenson stayed alert enough to record a 19-save shutout while the Flyers compiled a 51-19 shot disparity on the night. Scouts goaltender Bill McKenzie made 41 saves while getting strafed for 10 goals.

The Flyers got two-goal games from Bobby Clarke, Orest Kindrachuk and Mel Bridgman while Ross Lonsberry, Dave Schultz, Terry Crisp and Gary Dornhoefer chipped in one goal apiece. In total, 12 different Flyers recorded at least one point in the game.

************** PHANTOMS DROP 4-2 DECISION ON HOME ICE

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms suffered a 4-2 regulation loss to the Hartford Wolf Pack at the PPL Center on Saturday night to fall to 4-3-2 on the young season. The game was tied at 1-1 after two evenly played periods before things fell apart for Terry Murray’s club in the final stanza.

Phantoms forward Kevin Goumas scored on the game’s first shift, getting open near the net and converting a behind-the-net centering feed from Darroll Powe at the 28-second mark. Brandon Alderson earned the second assist.

Oscar Lindberg tied the game at 4:35 of the second period. The Phantoms line rush coverage broke down and Jesper Fast made an outstanding pass to Lindberg, who made no mistake in beating Rob Zepp (27 saves on 31 shots).

In the third period, former Flyers and Phantoms forward Ryan Potulny put the Wolf Pack ahead to stay at the 2:03 mark. Potulny then set up a Justin Vaive goal at 13:12 as Hartford open up a 3-1 lead. The lead grew to three goals a little over a minute later on a Chris Bourque goal.

Similar to the Flyers’ game in Sunrise, the Phantoms scored a meaningless late goal to narrow the final margin of defeat. With 2:21 left in the game, Nick Cousins scored his third goal and 10th point of the season. Petr Straka (returning to the lineup after a two-game absence due to a minor knee injury) and ECHL callup defenseman Brett Flemming got credit for the assists.

The Phantoms played this game severely shorthanded on their blueline. Mark Alt (shoulder injury), Brandon Manning (NHL recall) and Shayne Gostisbehere (not yet with team following AHL reassignment) were all unavailable. So, too, was Steven Delisle, who was a late scratch before the game. As a result, the Phantoms had to dress just five defensemen for the game.

************** GROWING PAINS FOR FLYERS DEFENSE PROSPECTS

A big part of the process of developing young defensemen is exhibiting patience and keeping in mind that it’s a multi-year process that is going to inevitably have bumps in the road during each lengthy season.

In the early weeks of the 2014-15 season, many of the Flyers top defense prospects were dominating in their respective leagues. Of late, there have been injuries and slumps.

On the injury front, 2013 first-round pick Samuel Morin (who was in Philadelphia last week meeting with Flyers’ team doctors) is still mending from a broken jaw suffered in the third period of a Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL) game on Oct. 12. He was still on a liquid diet but said he was otherwise doing OK. Morin will still need a few weeks before he can make his return to the Rimouski lineup.

Additionally, Phantoms second-year defenseman Mark Alt will miss approximately a month with a shoulder injury sustained in an AHL game last week. He had been played good hockey for Lehigh Valley prior to the injury.

With the aforementioned depletion of the Phantoms’ blueline corps, a very heavy burden has fallen on rookie defenseman Robert Hägg to absorb heavy ice time and play against other teams’ top lines line while also playing on the power play and trying to generate offense. He has struggled of late.

In his first five games of the regular season, Hägg racked up five points (one goal, four assists) and was even in the plus-minus department. Over the last four games, he is pointless and minus-seven. That includes a minus-three last night against Hartford. However, the Flyers’ 2013 second-round pick came close to scoring a tying goal when the score was 2-1 in the Wolf Pack’s favor in the third period.

Over in the Western Hockey League, Flyers 2014 first-round pick Travis Sanheim blasted out of the gates with six goals and 11 points in his first 10 games of the season for the Calgary Hitmen. Sanheim, who was selected for Team WHL in the upcoming Subway Super Series, compiled a plus-seven rating in that span.

Of late, the Hitmen have struggled as a team and Sanheim has been guilty of trying to force the play at times. In his last five games, including last night’s 2-1 loss to Moose Jaw, Sanheim is minus-four with one assist.

It would be nice if player development was always a steady upward arrow and there were never any stumbles or injuries. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality. Always keep the long-term in mind and remember: 1) The reason these players are prospects and not already NHL regulars is that they still need to gain experience, strength and greater consistency, 2) It is important for injured players not to be rushed back to the lineup too soon, and 3) every season has its ups and downs and even the very best players have some stretches where things don’t go their way. That’s the nature of hockey.

Shayne Gostisbehere seems to realize these things very clearly. The reason why the Flyers limited his minutes and told him to keep the game as simple as possible during his two-game first NHL recall was that he is still in a developmental cycle in adapting to the pro game without the puck. Defensively, he gives up a lot of size and he is learning how to adapt to it.

Terry Murray said it best about Gostisbehere: The organization wants him to develop into the type of defenseman who can pull down 20-plus minutes of ice time per game. He’s already NHL caliber in the two minutes of 20 where he is able either to carry the puck or jump into the attack. It’s the other 18 minutes per game — playing without the puck, making split-second decisions, battling in the trenches against bigger and stronger players — that the player is working on refining.

There is plenty of reason for optimism that Gostisbehere and the others will eventually reach the destination the Flyers have in mind for them — the NHL starting lineup — but there is a process that has to be followed first. Things won’t always go easily or smoothly.

In Gostisbehere’s case, the player did some good things in the limited minutes he played in his two games with the big club. He also got a learning experience of just how tough it is to play defense in the NHL. Apart from his talent, Gostisbehere has both mental maturity and work ethic on his side.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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