Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: State of the Flyers as Team Falls to Rangers Again

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Twenty quality minutes of hockey to win one period: That’s all the Flyers needed yesterday afternoon entering the third period of a game at Madison Square Garden — a house of horrors in recent years.

Twenty minutes of playing the game the right way after being fortunate to be tied at 2-2 while getting outshot 29-11 through two periods.

Twenty minutes to take away some of the sting of getting shut out twice by the Rangers in barely over a week and losing seven of eight games. Twenty minutes to go into a brutally difficult road trip with a reason to feel good about their team.

It didn’t happen. The Rangers exploded for three goals in the final stanza to skate off with a 5-2 win. The Flyers dropped to 1-7-1 in their last nine games.

This week, the team embarks on a California road trip that will take the team through San Jose on Tuesday, Anaheim on Wednesday and Los Angeles on Saturday. The Flyers will then make a Dec. 9 stop in Columbus before returning home for three games.

Last year, the Flyers actually managed to win two of three on their California trip. However, they entered that trip coming off a resounding 5-0 shut out win over Detroit and feeling a little better about themselves after dropping their four previous games. It could also be argued that last year’s Flyers were a better team than this year’s version.

Here is the state of the 2014-15 Flyers: They are a one-line, one power play unit team that generates no supporting offense. The blueline is bottom heavy with plenty of viable fourth, fifth or sixth defensemen on a contender-caliber club but without bonafide top three players to anchor the unit. The team’s issues on the blueline have been discussed to death ever since Chris Pronger’s career came to an abrupt end and got worse when the unit lost longtime leader Kimmo Timonen as a steadying influence.

Now for something truly scary: Outside of the top line, the Flyer forwards are actually a bigger problem for the team than the defense right now. At least the majority of the Flyers defensemen have core competencies and reliably put forth a competitive effort.

Beyond Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds in the first five games of the season and Brayden Schenn in the majority of recent games, the Flyers forward corps has been putrid. It’s bad enough that they aren’t scoring and most of their scoring chances either end up getting blocked or missing the net. The rest of the game is lackluster, too.

Back pressure is inconsistent. Forechecking pressure is sometimes non-existent. Too many of the Flyers have been neither physical nor fleet. Add it all together and you have a mess.

For all the talk this summer about improved conditioning and a team-wide focus on the small details of the game, this Flyers team is prone to slow starts, bad third periods in winnable games and losing the small battles. Those issues were very much in evidence again yesterday in failed clears, 50-50 pucks that the Rangers almost away claimed and in communication lapses.

Watch the way the Rangers execute breakouts against the Flyers. Time after time, they do it with ease (and have for each of the last three seasons under both John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault). The Flyers dump in the puck without generating any speed. The Rangers’ defensemen make quicl retrievals. There is almost always an unmarked winger along the boards with no Flyers forwards in sight. As a result, it is easy to make a short-range pass that catches a winger in stride. The Rangers then fly through the neutral zone with speed, forcing the Flyers defensemen to back in for a clean entry into the Flyers zone.

Where is the back pressure? There is none. On the occasions when the Rangers do have to flip the puck into the corners, they get their forecheckers in quickly. The Flyers get stationary and it becomes a major chore simply to clear the puck out of the zone much less generate a counterattack. These types of shifts get cloned again and again.

Craig Berube takes a lot of heat for his handling of personnel but I’m not sure what he could be doing better with the current group. He can only work with the players that Ron Hextall and predecessor Paul Holmgren provided him. With Vincent Lecavalier and R.J. Umberger looking like they are prematurely finished as effective NHL players, Matt Read’s game having inexplicably fallen apart and Sean Couturier not progressing offensively, I’m sure where else he can turn.

Twenty three games into the season, it is no laughing matter than low-scoring defensive defenseman Nicklas Grossmann actually has produced more goals (two) and points (five) than Umberger. It’s not amusing that offensive defenseman Mark Streit’s four goals match the combined goal output of Lecavalier and Read. It’s worrisome that Couturier is pointless in his last seven games and has all of one goal and two assists since Oct. 22.

Jason Akeson, who cleared waivers on Friday and was assigned to the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, was never part of the solution. A few Flyers fans called him the next Patrick Sharp but he will be lucky if he’s the next Patrick Maroon and eventually finds a specific NHL niche because he has one particular asset that is a good fit with two star linemates.

Talk to NHL scouts from numerous other organizations and you will be hard-pressed to find one who are high on Akeson. Almost to a man, they will tell you that Akeson has AHL-caliber feet, suspect physical strength and is prone to playing a one-dimensional game. There was never really much doubt that he would clear waivers this week. Teams including the Flyers don’t care about his offensive stats on generally thin Phantoms teams his first three pro seasons. They need to see more than that.

As for the undeniable fact that Akeson played fairly well for the Flyers in the playoffs last year, ask retired players such as Joe Paterson (1985 Flyers), Tim Tookey (1987 Flyers) and Eric Wellwood (dressed in every playoff game in 2012) whether dressing and playing well in a few playoff games meant they’d made it permanently to the NHL. Akeson did not do enough with his limited ice time this season to merit extended time on higher lines, and it wasn’t only a matter of his linemates or being miscast.

The Flyers goaltending, for the most part, has not been a big problem this season. Mason overall has kept the team in games in which they haven’t deserved to be close. He’s been excellent in November. Ray Emery had a real nice stretch in October

With that said, it’s been awhile since Emery had a high-quality start and Steve Mason has had a few more lapses in games than he did in the first few months of last season. Neither goalie was

more than average in the home-and-home with the Rangers this weekend.

Emery had a pedestrian game yesterday. The Jesper Fast goal and the third period wraparound goal were not very well played. However, the Flyers as a team didn’t deserve to win the game.

That has been the case far too frequently this season. Things won’t magically get better, nor is there some latter day LeClair-and-Desjardins acquisition to be made. What’s out there to be had in trade are the latter day Gilbert Dionnes at forward and end-of-the-line Jaroslav Modrys on defense.

At least on paper, the Flyers should be good enough to be a bubble team in the Eastern Conference. They have obvious flaws but so does most of the conference. There have been a few games against good teams this season where the Flyers have elevated their game to a higher level in stretches.

It is easy to forget now that the current Flyers team has most of the same players — except the traded Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen due to his health concerns — that they did last year. It’s basically the same group that at, one point, successively thumped the Penguins twice in a home-and-home sweep, beat Chicago, defeated Dallas (despite a dominant game by the Stars’ top line), downed St. Louis and then put up a hell of a fight to tie a game in the third period against Los Angeles before losing by one goal. It’s basically the same team that pushed the Rangers to seven games in the playoffs.

The biggest difference: No one outside of the team’s top two forwards has produced with any consistency this season. Meanwhile, Umberger (as likable as he is of a person off the ice) has been basically a dead-wood acquisition thus far to add to Lecavalier playing like dead wood, Read regressing and Couturier not progressing. They are not even playing all that great on the defensive side of the puck.

So what is a coach to do right now? He can’t play Giroux and Voracek 30 minutes a night. So where else are the quality minutes supposed to come when the team’s second and third line caliber players are playing horribly and the fourth line of late has been barely viable even in that capacity. Things would look a lot different — and better — if at least a few other players picked up the pace even moderately.

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