Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Predators Strike at Achilles Heel, WJC, Phantoms Update

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PREDATORS STRIKE FLYERS’ ACHILLES HEEL

Despite their gaudy 23-9-2 record, special teams have not been an asset for the Nashville Predators this season. Most of their wins come by virtue of even strength dominance. Peter Laviolette’s team entered last night’s game ranked as the NHL’s top five-on-five team in goal differential. However, Nashville ranked near the bottom of the NHL in both power play and penalty kill.

That is, until last night.

In a 4-1 home victory over the Flyers on Saturday night, Nashville exploded for three power play goals on five opportunities. Filip Forsberg, Mike Fisher and Colin Wilson all struck for goals. Wilson later added a third period empty net goal.

On penalty-killing side of the equation, the Predators went 4-for-4. That included a Flyers’ failed 58-second power play to start the season period as well as a power play in the opening minute of the third period.

The Flyers’ lone goal was scored by team captain Claude Giroux at even strength. Giroux briefly tied the game at 1-1 in the second period, leading a 2-on-1 rush with NHL leading scorer Jakub Voracek (who did not record a point in this game) and firing the puck home from the right circle for his 12th goal of the season. Braydon Coburn and Nick Schultz got the assists, as the rush started with a breakout from the Philadelphia zone.

Ray Emery stopped 34 of 37 shots in goal. Two of the three Nashville power play goals were shots through screens. The other was a scramble around the net in which the on-ice goal call was reviewed an upheld.

The Flyers had no answers at the other end of the ice for solving Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne. The big Finn turned back 26 of 27 shots including all seven he saw during Flyers’ power plays.

Philly got outshot in all three periods: 10-8 in the first period, 17-9 in the second and 11-10 in the third period (while trying to play catch-up hockey). The Flyers held their own at even strength — shots were 21-20 for Nashville — but Philly’s all-too-familiar script of penalty trouble at inopportune times and PK killing futility played out in a 15-7 shot differential on the power play.

Entering last night’s game, Nashville’s power play ranked 29th of the NHL’s 30 teams at an anemic 11.3 percent success ratio. The Predators were ranked dead last in power play efficiency at home.

As a matter of fact, Saturday’s three-goal output more than doubled the team’s home power play goal total from two to five. As of the Christmas break, the Predators were 2-for-48 (4.2%) on the home power play for the season.

Unfortunately, the Flyers’ often-horrific road penalty kill proved to be worse than Nashville’s power play. After last night’s game, the Flyers are now 67.3 percent on the penalty kill on the road (as compared to 83.3 percent at home).

Last night’s penalty killing fiasco after the three-night Christmas break was somewhat reminiscent of the way the Flyers got strafed by a struggling (and severely depleted due to injury) Columbus Blue Jackets team in the first game back after a five-night break in November. That game spilled over into a multi-game swoon on the PK that dropped the Flyers from a respectable penalty killing percentage to the bottom of the NHL.

Of late, the Flyers had been slowly picking up their season PK percentage and had inched up from dead last to 27th overall. Now, they are back to 29th again. Additionally, the Flyers are in the bottom one-third of the league in terms of number of times shorthanded.

When the Flyers penalty killing blows a gasket, failed clearing attempts, lack of blocked shots and general passiveness (not challenging the passing lanes, no one clearing the porch, soft play on the walls) are often the culprits. The attention to detail just has not been there with any consistent reliability this season. Philly loses too many of the small battles, and that results too often in crooked numbers on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

Another ongoing problem: The Flyers offense is far too feast-or-famine for a team that struggles to win low-scoring games. Here is an updated breakdown of the team’s 14-15-6 record:

* The Flyers have 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 and have been held to a single goal seven times. When held to one goal, the team is 0-6-1 including Saturday’s loss in Nashville.

* 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.

* 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, including the final game before the Christmas break, the Flyers record is 8-1-1. With five or more goals scored, Philly is 4-0-0. Combined, they are 12-1-1 when scoring four or more goals. When scoring three or fewer goals, the team is 2-14-5.

The Flyers are now 3-1-0 through the first four games of their eight game road trip. The club will try to get back on the winning track and pull its season record back up to .500 on Monday in Arizona.

*********** FLYERS WORLD JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIP UPDATES

All three of the Flyers’ prospects at the 2014-15 World Junior Championships in Toronto and Montreal were in action on Saturday. Eight of the 10 participating teams — with the exceptions of Russia and USA — had games on the docket. Two matches involved Flyers-affiliated players.

* Sweden 5 – Denmark 1: Oskar Lindblom, who had three assists in his WJC debut on Saturday against the Czech Republic, did not record a point but had three shots on goal. Lehigh Valley Phantoms defenseman Robert Hägg, who was coming off a minus-two day in opener, did not have a point against the Danes but was plus-one with three shots in goal.

* Canada 4 – Germany 0: Samuel Morin, who was plus-two in limited ice time in Canada’s opening game, was even with a second-period tripping penalty taken in Saturday’s shut out of the Germans.

There are two preliminary games on tap for Sunday. At 5 p.m. EST in Toronto, Russia takes on Switzerland. At 8 p.m. in Montreal, USA plays Germany. All other teams are idle. On Saturday, Slovakia upset defending gold medalist Finland by a 2-1 score in regulation, while Switzerland downed the Czechs by a 5-2 count.

*********** PHANTOMS UPDATE: DEPLETED PHANTOMS DOWN NORFOLK

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate, keep hanging tough despite a slew of key absences from the club. The team is missing both of its regular goaltenders — Rob Zepp is on recall to the Flyers and Anthony Stolarz is injured — and multiple skaters due to injury, callups or the World Junior Championships (Robert Hägg). Nevertheless, the team often finds ways to scratch out points from games.

The Phantoms have particularly enjoyed playing on their home ice: the brand-new PPL Center in Allentown. The team is now 10-2-3 at home this season following Saturday night’s 3-2 shootout victory against the Norfolk Admirals.

On Saturday night, Nick Cousins (7th goal of the season) and Jason Akeson (6th goal, two-point night) scored for Lehigh Valley in regulation. Recently recalled goaltender Martin Ouellette was victorious in his first AHL start, stopping 33 of 35 shots in regulation and overtime (five OT shots) and then going eight-for-eight in the shootout. Adam Comrie, recalled by the Phantoms from the ECHL’s Reading Royals earlier in the day, wound up scoring the winning goal in the shootout.

On the Norfolk side, highly touted young goaltender John Gibson stopped 42 of 44 shots during the hockey game. He went 7-for-8 in the skills competition. Louis Leblanc and Chris Wagner scored in regulation for the Admirals.

A standing-room-only crowd of 8,918 turned out for the game at the PPL Center. The official seatng capacity for hockey is 8,420. Last night’s attendance was a season-high for the Phantoms, breaking the 8,687 mark in the Dec. 13 game against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The big lure for last night’s game was a Photo Night attraction, which enabled attending fans to have their pictures taken with Phantoms players after the game.

Cousins’ goal, which opened the scoring in the game late in he first period, was a pinballing left circle shot that went off two Norfolk players and into the net. Enforcer Zack Stortini, who had his first two-point game as a Phantom, set up the shot from behind the net.

Early in the second period, the Phantoms gained a 2-0 lead on a sniper’s power play goal by Akeson, scoring the long side top corner. Stortini and Brandon Manning got the assists.

Norfolk would come back to tie the game. Shortly after the Akeson goal, Leblanc potted an odd-man rush rebound to shave the deficit in half. In the third period, the Admirals tied the game with 2:32 left on the clock. Wagner scored a back-door goal near the left post off a setup pass from Max Friberg along the right side boards.

It’s going to be awhile until the Phantoms (14-11-4-1) are back home again. The team opens a five-game road trip on Wednesday and will not be back at the PPL Center until they host the Albany Devils on January 16.

With 33 points, the Phantoms are currently one point behind the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the AHL’s Eastern Conference. Seventh-ranked Albany also has 34 points.

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