Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Critical Road Trip

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UPCOMING ROAD TRIP A CRITICAL TEST FOR THE FLYERS

After taking a complete off-day on Sunday following back-to-back losses to the New York Rangers over the holiday weekend, the Philadelphia Flyers will practice today in preparation for the start of

a California road trip that could mark a crucial point in the season as the calendar flips to December.

The trip 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.

Losers of eight of their last nine games (1-7-1), the Flyers need to pull together and play about 250 percent better than they have for most of the past month. It is worth noting that the Flyers were foundering last season shortly before they headed out on their California trip in late January and then got the ship righted by playing well during the treacherous slate of games against top opponents that are especially dangerous on their home ice.

Last January, the Flyers lost four games in a row in often-ugly fashion. The nadir was a brutal 6-1 whipping at home at the hands of the Boston Bruins. To make that loss even more embarrassing, it happened on the same Saturday afternoon that the team held a 40th anniversary reunion at the arena to honor members of the 1973-74 Stanley Cup championship team. The next day, before heading to the Wells Fargo Center for the annual Flyers Wives Carnival, the team went through a heavy-duty practice in Voorhees.

At least back in January, the Flyers rebounded from the Bruins debacle to snap their four-game losing streak with a 5-0 home win over the Detroit Red Wings that saw Steve Mason notch a 34-save shutout. The club used that a springboard to win two of three on the California trip, including a shutout of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings and a comeback win in San Jose. Philly actually played well in their loss to Anaheim that opened the trip.

This season, the Flyers are going to need a similar bounceback on the California trip. Unfortunately, they are going in without much in the way of recent building blocks such as the shutout of Detroit. Philly truly needed a big third period effort against the Rangers in Saturday’s game when the game entered the final stanza tied at 2-2. It didn’t even come close to happening, which was extremely disappointing.

The Flyers are going to need to do a lot of soul-searching and to have their best practice of the season today to start establishing a framework for success on this trip. The tone that needs to be set is that they become a much tougher team to play against when players keep their feet moving and pay attention to detail in all three zones of the ice.

Without that foundation, the Flyers will continue to lose and lose some more. It won’t matter how many points Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux produce. It won’t matter if the power play (almost always the top unit) strikes for a goal or two. It won’t even matter if the Flyers get goaltending on par with Steve Mason’s efforts at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 19 and last week’s 0-0 tie (and eventual shootout loss) on Long Island.

Consequently, the Flyers entire focus right now should be on playing the game the right way. The process needs to be reset before the desired result is realistic.

Last year’s game in Anaheim was a step in that direction despite a 5-3 loss.

That was a game where the Flyers really didn’t make that many mistakes but each and every one ended up in their net. To their credit, the Flyers kept their feet moving and didn’t give in to frustration. That battle was lost but it set a positive tone for what turned out to be a successful road trip that built good momentum heading into the final few games before the Olympic break.

Can the 2014-15 Flyers duplicate what last year’s team did? That’s a tricky question.

Fundamentally, I think the answer is yes. This team ought to be better than its current record and is at least capable of being a bubble team in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers are just one of many teams in the East that has a few strengths and some very glaring flaws.

To be honest, however, I do not think this year’s team is as good as last year’s. At least not right now.

While the absence of one or two players can be overcome, the team misses the steadying presence of Kimmo Timonen on the ice. Even in decline due to age and mounting health issues, Timonen was their blueline bedrock and a tone-setter for the club.

Likewise, there is no way to spin the early returns on the Scott Hartnell-for-R.J. Umberger trade as anything but a disaster — and it has more to do with Umberger playing so poorly than it does with the loss of the popular Hartnell. It’s not even about lack of offensive production from Umberger. Meanwhile, Vincent Lecavalier’s game has continued to decline even from where it was a year ago. Matt Read has inexplicably regressed this season. Sean Couturier has been slumping for the better part of a month. Even Wayne Simmonds is pressing.

Last season, people wrote off the Flyers numerous times.

Folks counted the Flyers out in October when the team was 1-7-0 to start the season. They did it in after 15 games, when the club had scored a measly 22 goals for the season to date. They did it in January after the four-game losing streak and humiliation by Boston. They did before the start of the California road trip.

After the Olympic break, many predicted the Flyers would fall out of the playoff race just before the start of a stretch-drive slate of games that saw them play a home-and-home with Pittsburgh (two wins), followed by consecutive games against Chicago (win), Dallas (win), St. Louis (win), Los Angeles (hard-fought loss) and then, shortly thereafter, rematches with the Bruins (shootout loss after a late rally to tie the game in regulation) and Blues (0-0 tie, shootout loss).

When the Flyers made the playoffs, they got written off after losing Games One, Three and Five to the Rangers. Each time they battled back before a bad second period on Game Seven proved to be the difference in a 2-1 loss in which Mason in particular deserved a better fate.

Given that recent history of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps as well as the resiliency the current team showed in October, it is premature to write off the 2014-15 Flyers season. However, they need to make a turnaround on this upcoming road trip. The Flyers have been inconsistent at home this season but pretty bad on the road. If the woes continue through the upcoming four games — can’t overlook Columbus at the end — the Flyers are truly in deep trouble this season.

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