Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Flyers Come Back to Beat Jets, Zepp, 4 is Magic Number

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FLYERS PULL OFF TWO-GOAL COMEBACK, KNOCK DOWN JETS IN OT

The Philadelphia Flyers completed a successful weekend in Canada with a 4-3 overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre on Sunday night. It wasn’t easy.

Jakub Voracek scored goals in the opening minute of the first period and the 10-second mark of overtime. Vincent Lecavalier collected third-period goals on a deflection and a bang-bang chance off a Jets turnover to force overtime.

Matt Halischuk, Dustin Byfuglien and Mathieu Perreault scored for Winnipeg.

Making his NHL debut at age 33 — the second-oldest goaltender in NHL history to play in his first game — Flyers goaltender Rob Zepp stopped 25 of 28 shots to earn the win. Twenty-four of his saves came in the first and second periods. Winnipeg counterpart Ondrej Pavelec stopped 19 of 23 shots.

Playing for the third time in three cities (Philadelphia, Toronto and Winnipeg) over a four-night span and playing the second half of back-to-back games, things did not bode well for the Flyers chances when an early 1-0 lead dissipated. The Flyers found themselves trailing 2-1 after the first period and 3-1 after the second. Philly got outshot, 28-23, for the game despite a 10-2 shot advantage over the final 20:10 of the game.

Moreover, the more rested Jets entered the game with the NHL’s fourth-best goals against average (2.21). Winnipeg was 12-1-3 in games in which the club entered the third period with a lead. Ultimately, the Flyers beat the odds by scoring several opportunistic goals and taking the game to Winnipeg as the Jets fell into “prevent defense” mode in the third period.

Winnipeg’s sometimes-defenseman, sometimes-forward Dustin Byfuglien showed both the good and bad sides of his game. On the positive end for his team, Big Buff scored a nice goal on an individual effort off a Winnipeg faceoff win. He also blocked seven shots and logged nearly 27 minutes of ice time.

On the negative, Byfuglien was a significant defensive liability when the chips were down in the game. For all the good plays Byfuglien made, he was a direct culprit on the Flyers’ first and fourth goals and was a secondary culprit on the third Flyers’ goal.

In the opening minute of the game, Winnipeg immediately went on the attack in the Flyers’ zone. Byfuglien made an ill-advised pinch that led to two-on-one for Claude Giroux and Voracek. Once Michael Raffl got the puck to team captain Giroux, the Flyers were off to the races. The NHL’s leading overall scorer, Voracek, made no mistake when he received a cross-ice feed from NHL assist co-leader Giroux at the 46-second mark of the first period.

On the game-winning goal at the 10-second mark of overtime, the much smaller Giroux rode Byfuglien off the puck behind the net, Voracek claimed it to step out in front and score. As Voracek pounced and swung in front, the puck leaked through Pavelec to end the game.

Byfuglien was also out for the third Flyers goal, which tied the score in the final 3:14 of regulation. Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry cleanly won a right circle defensive faceoff, but Jay Harrison hurriedly turned the puck over directly to Lecavalier in perfect shooting position. In the meantime, Byfuglien had inexplicably turned to head toward an already canceled-out Chris VandeVelde on defensive partner Jay Harrison’s side of the ice. VandeVelde had already been knocked to the ice.

Lecavalier’s game-tying goal was his fourth tally of the season and second of the game. At 6:06 of the third period, he drew the Flyers back within one goal. With both Lecavalier and Pierre Edouard Bellemare moving in front of the net, Lecavalier tipped home a shot by Flyers’ defenseman Mark Streit. VandeVelde drew the secondary assist.

Streit, who had two shots on goal and skated 21:15 of ice time, finished the night at plus-four. Defensive partner Nicklas Grossmann was plus-three in 18:44.

All was well that ended well for the Flyers but things looked bleak for much of the game, despite the early lead established on the Voracek two-on-one goal. Before too long, the Flyers found themselves chasing the game.

Winnipeg peppered Zepp — say that 10 times fast – with eight shots over the first four-plus minutes of the opening period. Finally, at 6:38, the Jets knotted the score at 1-1. Halischuk slipped past Sean Couturier and Matt Read and fired a slap shot from the deep slot that beat Zepp.

Fifty-five seconds later, on a Jets offensive zone faceoff win, the puck went back to Byfuglien. Showing the surprising nimbleness that makes the 6-foot-6 Byfuglien one of the league’s most entertaining players, he carried the puck in from the right point, skated untouched around Flyers’ defenders Brayden Schenn and Nick Schultz. Making a sharp cut along the goal line, Byfuglien moved in front. Pulling the puck from backhand to forehand, Byfuglien put a shot in off the post.

The 2-1 score held until 11:21 of the second period, when Perreault put Winnipeg ahead by a two-goal margin. He pounced on the rebound of a Mark Scheifele shot, and jammed the puck home from in tight.

Late in the second period, Scheifele had a chance from point-blank range to open up a three-goal lead for the Jets. Zepp made the stop on the shot from the doorstep. When the Flyers retreated to the dressing room at the second intermission, they trailed in shots by a 26-13 margin. The stop on Scheifele gave Philly a glimmer of hope but there was still a mountain to climb in the third period.

To their credit, the Flyers made the climb successfully and capped it off with Voracek’s OT goal. For whatever reason, as poor as the Flyers are in shootouts, they tend to play confidently and assertively in the four-on-four overtime that proceeds the dreaded postgame skills competition with a bonus point in the standings at stake.

The Flyers conclude the pre-Christmas portion of their schedule on Tuesday night. In the third game of the team’s eight-game road trip, the Flyers will travel to St. Paul to take on the Minnesota Wild. After the NHL’s three-night break from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, the Flyers’ road trip resumes on Saturday. Craig Berube’s team will be in Music City to take on Peter Laviolette’s Nashville Predators.

******** ZEPP MAKES THE MOST OF BELATED NHL DEBUT

Three weeks after his 41st birthday in 1926, the late Hugh Lehman started and won a game in goal for the Chicago Black Hawks (the team’s name was spelled as two words in that era). Eighty-eight years later, Lehman still holds a spot in the NHL record book as the oldest goalie to make his NHL debut.

Last night, 33-year-old Flyers goaltender Rob Zepp did not set any league records but did establish a franchise record as the oldest player (at any position) to make his NHL as a Flyer. He surpassed goalie Neil Little, who was 30 when the frequent emergency NHL backup and longtime AHL starter finally got a start on March 28, 2002 at Carolina.

Zepp, who was the 12th-oldest goalie to make his NHL debut, became the first since Lehman to win his first game. It has been a long, long time coming for Zepp.

Back in July, I wrote an in-depth profile of Zepp, looking at his hockey journey after the Flyers signed him to a one-year, two-way contract. It has long been my view that Zepp was probably good enough to compete for an NHL backup job five years ago. The Ontario native was simply a late-bloomer who found a home as the backbone of the DEL’s Eisbären Berlin club.

Even in signing with the Flyers this past summer, Zepp had to way the pros and cons of returning to North America. He had a good situation in Berlin, where he was the longtime undisputed starter for a championship contender, well paid (not by NHL standards but by “rest of the hockey world” standards) and had played long enough in Germany to be able to represent the country internationally. In coming back to North America, there were no guarantees.

Zepp did not sign with the organization intending to simply be a transitional AHL goaltender hired to mentor 2012 second-round pick Anthony Stolarz as a backup. The two have forged a solid relationship and are supportive of one another but they have a healthy competition between the rookie and the veteran as well as camaraderie.

From the first day of training camp this September, Zepp has impressed with his professionalism and work ethic. He wanted to start as frequently as possible in the AHL and, if an NHL opportunity at long last presented itself, to put himself in position to fulfill that dream.

Zepp knew it was now or never for his NHL dream. He went for it, and reaped the reward last night. The primary credit goes to the player himself for working so hard to earn the chance and then making the most of it.

Credit also goes to Craig Berube. Yes, the Flyers were playing the second half of back-to-back games and Ray Emery has not played especially well over the last month. Even so, Berube had to take a leap of faith in giving Zepp a crack at playing a game during a road trip that is absolutely critical to the team’s hopes of climbing back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.

I don’t know how much discussion Berube had ahead of the decision with goaltending coach Jeff Reese, general manager Ron Hextall and/or Phantoms head coach Terry Murray — all of whom have said since the summer that Zepp is a technically solid goalie and a battler — but the buck ultimately stops with the head coach. It took guts to start Zepp last night, and it worked.

On Tuesday, the Flyers will learn more about Steve Mason’s status. There is no question that the Flyers need their starting goalie healthy and in the lineup. Despite the team’s back-to-back wins behind Emery and Zepp over the weekend, a healthy and effective is a must for the Flyers to have any hope at pushing for the playoffs.

With the exceptions of Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux, Mason has been the Flyers’ steadiest and most dependable player this season. Actually, not just this season. Mason was very good last season, too, in his first full year with the Flyers. As long as Mason is healthy and able to stay in his routine, goaltending is the least of Philly’s concerns. If not, the Flyers are in even deeper trouble than they already were even with Mason giving them a chance to win most every game.

As for Rob Zepp, Sunday’s game in Winnipeg was probably not the start of a much-belated extended stay in the NHL. One would think that Emery will be back in goal on Tuesday. The organization will hope for good news — a short-term absence and no lingering issues — for Mason before the Christmas break. As long as Mason’s absence is not prolonged, the club can piece things together with in-house veterans Emery and Zepp.

Zepp is a capable pro. He’s not a star, but he’s eminently capable of cranking out competitive games at any level. He prepares well and he knows why he was recalled. Zepp also knows he was signed in the first place as a potential emergency recall who could give the team a quality start or two — despite his lack of prior NHL experience and age — on a short-term basis. He realizes that the only thing within his control is how he conducts himself on a day-in and day-out basis and how he performs if he does get a chance to play.

In the NHL preseason, Zepp showed his mettle. He has done the same for the Phantoms throughout the AHL season to date. Last night was really no exception, but it was still one one of the biggest night’s of Rob Zepp’s hockey life.

A long, long transcontinental journey — one that had its share of doubts if that elusive chance to play in the NHL would ever come — reached a conclusion last night. Doubtlessly, Zepp has already shifted his focus toward fulfilling a new goal; working to get a second NHL appearance and performing capably. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll go back to the AHL and continue to plug away.

********** FOUR IS THE FLYERS’ MAGIC NUMBER

The Flyers’ back-to-back wins in Toronto and Winnipeg do not obscure a major problem with the current team: they are a feast-or-famine team offensively and not strong enough defensively to win many low-scoring, tight-checking games. In those games, it is usually the Flyers who make the one fatal mistake or fail to capitalize on their own chance to win.

Here is a breakdown of the Flyers’ 13-14-6 record based on how many goals Philly has produced in a game:

* The team has been shut out four times, including a 0-0 tie with the Islanders in which New York prevailed by shootout: 0-3-1.

* The Flyers do not hold any 1-0 wins this season. When held to a single goal, the team is 0-5-1.

* Philly has won just one 2-1 game (in LA), and does hold any 2-0 wins. When scoring two goals, the Flyers are 1-2-1.

* This is a major red flag: When scoring three goals, the Flyers are 1-3-2. Combined with their record when scoring two goals, a 2-5-3 mark is unacceptable for a team than fancies itself a contender.

* With four goals scored, the Flyers record is 7-1-1. With five or more goals scored, Philly is 4-0-0.

In summary, 11 of the Flyers’ 13 wins have required the team to score four or more goals in regulation/OT. When scoring three or fewer goals, the team is 2-13-5. In other words, there is simultaneously too much pressure on offense — especially Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux — to produce a bonanza of goals AND too much burden on the goalies to be perfect in games where the goals aren’t coming.

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