Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Simmonds, Renberg, Hextall, Phantoms and Prospects

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SIMMONDS HEATING UP ON ROAD TRIP

The Flyers’ four-game road trip, which took the team through games against all three California-based NHL clubs and concludes tomorrow night in Columbus, has thus far been a glass half-full or half-empty proposition. The team is 1-1-1 on the trip but just as easily could be 0-2-1 (with the overtime/shootout loss and regulation loss games reversed) or 3-0-0.

The Flyers have played well in certain periods and have gotten dominated in others. They’ve scored first in all three games to date but couldn’t protect a one-goal lead in San Jose or two-goal lead in Anaheim. They got outstanding goaltendng by Steve Mason in the San Jose and especially the Los Angeles games but only had one win to show for it The team has finally started to get a little bit of secondary scoring but Jakub Voracek (one goal, two assists in his last five games) has finally cooled off just a bit from his scorching pace of the first 21 games.

One of the most encouraging signs during the road trip has been Wayne Simmonds’ offensive resurgence. Simmonds tends to score in bunches and to go through significant dry spells, which is the case with many power forwards.

Simmonds notched five of his 11 goals this season in the season’s first four games, as well as seven of his 18 points. Heading into the road trip, he had scored just three goals and eight points over a span of 19 games.

In the San Jose game that started the trip, Simmonds was held off the scoresheet but generated five shots on goal. That was as many as he’d had in his previous four games combined. It is not uncommon for players in offensive droughts to have a game or two or like the San Jose game — lots of shots, but no results — right before they finally break loose.

That’s exactly what happened. Simmonds exploded for two goals in Anaheim, including the game-tying goal with just 2.6 seconds left in the third period. He followed it up with a little self-made good luck on his power play goal in Los Angeles.

Last season was somewhat similar. Simmonds went through the first 16 games of the season by scoring just one goal and four assists. The Flyers as a team had a meager 22 goals through 15 games

After generating four shots but no points in the team’s cathartic breakout game against Edmonton in mid-November, Simmonds caught fire. He posted at least one point in six of the next season games, including four goals, and was on his way to a career-best season to date (29 goals, 60 points).

By way of comparison, through Dec. 7 last year, the Flyers had played 29 games. At that point of the season, Simmonds had five goals and eight assists for 13 points as well as a minus-eight rating at even strength. He is well ahead of last year’s pace. In three fewer games to date this season, he has six more goals, five more points and is a comparative plus-10 (i.e. plus-two for the current season) from where he was on this date a year ago.

The Flyers end their road trip tomorrow against the Blue Jackets and then return home for four games. The team’s attempt to climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves would be helped immensely if Simmonds can reel off one of his torrid offensive stretches amid some balanced scoring beyond Voracek and Claude Giroux.

*********** THEN AND NOW: MIKAEL RENBERG

On the Flyers Alumni Association’s official website, /Flyersalumni.org, we have launched a new monthly feature called Then and Now. Once a month, I will an in-depth look at the career and life after hockey of a notable former Flyers player.

First up in the series is a retrospective and update on Mikael Renberg. In January, I will profile LCB Line right winger Reggie Leach. For February, I will profile a 1980s era player: I have a couple of potential candidates in mind.

As someone who followed Renberg’s career closely from beginning to end, it aggravates me to no end when people say that the Swedish forward rode the coattails of Eric Lindros and John LeClair. The truth of the matter is that Renberg was every bit as important to that line as LeClair, at least for the first season-and-a-half of its existence before Renberg sustained a severe sports hernia — the first of a series of major, career-altering injuries that took him from budding NHL superstar to a slightly above-average two-way winger.

Off the ice, Renberg is also one of the nicest human beings that one could ever hope to meet. He embodies work ethic, commitment to family and friends, placing value on education and embracing personal challenges. He’s bright, friendly, earnest and articulate.

Renberg made millions of dollars during his NHL career but you would never know it to meet and talk with him. He is humble and modest, and has never misplaced the values that made him one of the best-liked players on the Flyers in the mid-1990s. I have posted this link previously, but if you have never read t, I highly recommend reading this article on Renberg’s decision to go to college after his hockey career ended.

Mikael Renberg was a fine hockey player during his playing days. As he would be the first to tell you, however, a hockey career is fleeting. What’s more important is that he remains an even better human being.

It was my great pleasure to select Renny as the first subject for the Then and Now series and to write the accompanying article. I hope readers enjoy it, too.

*********** PHANTOMS GO 1-1-1 ON WEEKEND GAUNTLET

After an ugly 5-1 road blowout loss to the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins on Friday night, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms bounced back to take three of four possible points in a home-and-home set with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday in Allentown, the Phantoms took a 2-1 lead into the latter stages of the third period before yielding a game-tying goal with 5:21 left in the third period. Bridgeport went on to prevail, 3-2, via shootout. Brett Hextall and Darroll Powe tallied for the Phantoms. Rob Zepp stopped 37 of 39 shots in regulation and overtime.

Yesterday, the scene shifted to Connecticut, with the visiting Phantom prevailing by a 5-3 count. Jason Akeson,who was benched for much of the third period on Friday, exploded for even strength and empty net goals as well as a pair of primary assists. On Saturday, the recently waived and demoted forward scored Lehigh Valley’s lone goal in the shootout.

Apart from his own pair of tallies, Akeson set up a first-period Andrew Gordon power play goal that tied the game at 1-1. In the second period, after Powe scored unassisted to give Lehigh Valley a 2-1 lead, Akeson supplemented the advantage with his first goal of the regular season. After Bridgeport drew back within 3-2, Akeson set up a Brandon Manning power play goal that restored the two-goal lead.

New York Islanders’ 2013 first-round pick Ryan Pulock scored a 5-on-3 power play goal in the final minute of the second period to cut the Bridgeport deficit to 4-3. The goal was the hard-shooting Pulock’s ninth of the season. In the third period, the Phantoms nursed their one-goal lead until Akeson put the game away with an empty netter with 33 ticks left on the clock.

Winning goaltender Anthony Stolarz earned his third win of the season in eight decisions. He stopped 34 of 37 Bridgeport shots, including 10 in the third period. An interference penalty called on Stolarz with 2:56 remaining in the third period made for a nerve-racking two minutes of a game in which Bridgeport went 2-for-9 on the power play to the Phantoms’ 3-for-6.

*********** TODAY IN FLYERS HISTORY: HEXTALL MAKES HISTORY

On December 8, 1987, Flyers netminder Ron Hextall made NHL history by becoming the first goaltender to score a goal by shooting the puck into the other team’s net.

Hextall was actually the second NHL goalie credited with a goal, but was the first to get it by his own shot. On November 28, 1979, New York Islanders goalie Billy Smith was credited for being the last player on his team to touch the puck before the opposing Colorado Rockies accidentally put the puck in their own net.

On the Smith goal, the Colorado goaltender was pulled for an extra attacker on a delayed penalty against New York. On a shot by the Rockies, Smith made a chest save and the puck deflected into the corner. Rockies defenseman Rob Ramage (who briefly played for the Flyers at the end of his NHL career) retrieved the puck and made a blind pass from the corner boards with no teammates close enough to receive the puck. The puck slid the length of the ice and into the Colorado net.

Hextall’s goal was a legitimate empty netter. He gathered the puck from near the goal line, flipped it with power down the ice and the puck continued on a straight path directly into the vacant Boston net.

The historic goal capped off a 5-2 home win against the Bruins. Peter Zezel (two power play goals) and Brian Propp (power play and even strength goals) also tallied for the Flyers.

Early in the same game, Flyers defenseman Brad Marsh suffers a frightening head injury on sandwich check by Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, as his unhelmeted head crashed into the stanchion and then hit the ice.

Marsh, who spent the night in the hospital, recounted for HockeyBuzz how he learned of the Hextall goal while still in the hospital and thought he must still be have been delirious until he finally saw a replay and knew it was for real.

For more Today in Flyers History, click here.

********* FLYERS PROSPECT NOTES

* Flyers 2014 first-round pick Travis Sanheim has been on fire of late in the Western Hockey League. In his last seven games played, the Calgary Hitmen defenseman has racked up 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) while compiling a plus-eight rating at even strength. Last night, Sanheim had three assists in Calgary’s 8-3 romp over Moose Jaw. He has points in seven straight games.

* Sanheim’s first assist of yesterday’s game was a secondary helper on 2014 Flyers sixth-round pick Radel Fazleev’s 11th goal of the season. On the Hitmen’s version of Teddy Bear Toss Night, the stuffed animals for charitable donation rained down from the stands and Fazleev celebrated with a moonwalk.

* QMJHL: Flyers 2014 second-round pick Nicolas Aube-Kubel had four assists and a plus-three rating in a losing cause as Val-d’Or dropped a 5-4 overtime decision to Saint John on Sunday. It was a breakout game for Aube-Kubel, who had been struggling a bit since being on the receiving end of a knee-to-knee hit by Quebec Remparts forward Adam Erne in November. For the season, Aube-Kubel has 10 goals and 25 points in 26 games.

* Flyers 2014 fifth-round pick Oskar Lindblom has really started to hit his stride of late since returning from a 13-game absence due to a lower-body injury. He now gets more regular ice time in all manpower situations and the points have started to come. Lindblom, who is a strong candidate for a spot on Team Sweden at the World Junior Championships, has points in four of his last six games (two goals, three assists).

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