The captain will right this ship

Posted: October 21, 2011

It wasn't so terrible for this beta version of the remade Flyers to get smacked down by the undefeated Washington Capitals. It is October, after all, and this game will be no more than a vague memory when the real hockey season arrives in April.

For the Flyers, the most significant aspect of Thursday's 5-2 loss was that it gave Chris Pronger his first opportunity to set a tone as team captain.

If you watched the game, you saw a pretty good Flyers effort turn sour on a series of plays as the puck took wild caroms off various sticks and skates. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov looked like he was trying to follow the Golden Snitch around a quidditch pitch.

Pronger saw something else.

"We lost, 5-2," Pronger said. "[Deflections] are part of the game. We could have had some deflections."

Mike Richards, Pronger's predecessor, might have taken this approach. It's not impossible. But it was more his style to try to smooth things over, at least for public consumption. Richards would have acknowledged that the Flyers had taken too many penalties, maybe insinuated that the Caps had gotten away with a few, and put the whole thing off to one fluky night. It just wasn't his way to give the pesky media much to run with - certainly not much in the way of criticism.

Not Pronger. He sees a very young, still-jelling team. And here was an opportunity to go to the stick rather than dangle a carrot.

"Turnovers and penalties killed us," Pronger said. "At some point, it was going to come back and get us. You stop supporting the puck, start turning the puck over, you get caught on the wrong side a lot. You start reaching in with your stick, your stick comes up. We had a lot of high-sticking penalties."

This is all worth discussing because, frankly, the Flyers shouldn't be as good as the Capitals. Not yet, not after so much change. Coach Peter Laviolette has been changing lines, getting a feel for rookies such as Matt Read and Sean Couturier and, Thursday night, Brayden Schenn.

In a way, the Flyers are doing now what the Capitals did a half-dozen years ago. After giving up on their expensive misadventure with Jaromir Jagr - now mounting a comeback with the Flyers - the Caps brought in a group of young stars and let them grow together. Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom - this core group has had several years to come together, and it shows.

The Flyers had plenty of shots on goal in this game. But their unfamiliarity with each other showed in the tentative way they approached the net. Over time, guys will have more of a feel for timing, shot selection, and where those rebounds are headed.

The Capitals already have that sixth sense with each other. They swarmed poor Bryzgalov at precisely the right moments, creating traffic that rerouted puck after puck.

Of course, this group also has faltered badly in the real hockey season, the playoffs. The Flyers jettisoned their cornerstones, Richards and Jeff Carter, even though they accomplished more in the playoffs over the same time period than Ovechkin and the Capitals. Imagine what the pressure would be like on Ovechkin and coach Bruce Boudreau if they'd had the same results in Philadelphia. There's no chance Boudreau would still be the coach here.

But the Caps stayed the course, added a few pieces, and they're off to a 6-0 start to the season. They have every chance to be the best team in the Eastern Conference again this year. They are one of the teams the Flyers will be measuring themselves against.

So 5-2, as Pronger saw it, was legit. The Flyers' youth was no excuse.

"I don't think that had anything to do with the plays that were made," he said. "At the end of the day, you have to be hard on your stick and hard on the puck."

And, in the captain's case, hard on his team.

That wasn't about this game. The Flyers will play the Capitals three more times, and each will be a mile marker in the long NHL season. In mid-December, the Flyers should be more cohesive than they looked in this game. By March, when these teams meet twice in three weeks, the playoffs will be looming. They are likely to be playing for seeding and maybe even in preparation for facing each other in the real hockey season.

That is when general manager Paul Holmgren's remodeling project can begin to be judged.

There is a lot to like here. Read is off to a wonderful start. Bryzgalov is as solid as they come. Wayne Simmonds is fun to watch. And then there is the continued blossoming of Claude Giroux into a superstar.

A rough loss in October is fine, especially if it leads to better things in April.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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