Sam Donnellon: Foes don't fear playing Flyers in Philly

Flyers' Max Talbot is sent to the ice by the Islanders' John Tavares in the second period.
Flyers' Max Talbot is sent to the ice by the Islanders' John Tavares in the second period. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 20, 2012

THURSDAY WAS giveaway night at the Wells Fargo Center, but the only thing fans received was a Hefty bag full of doubt. An offseason of retooling, of trading two of the team's leaders, adding a slew of prolific rookies and spending lavishly for an established goalie have not changed this team's personality one iota. The Flyers are once again a fastbreaking basketball team on ice, so in a rush to pepper the other net with the puck that they tend to forget to bring it with them.

They have won 11 of their 19 home games, a pace that will mirror the modest regular-season marks of the previous two seasons.

"I really don't know why our home record is not as good as we would expect," Danny Briere said after last night's mistake-riddled, 4-1 loss to the Islanders. "I remember when I was in Phoenix or in Buffalo, Philadelphia was always one of those tough buildings and one of those games when you dreaded coming because it was always so tough. I'm sure it's changed for opponents. They're feeling much more comfortable. I wish I had an explanation for that but I don't."

Here's one: Foes are fairly certain they will wake up the next day in about the same shape as they were the morning before. Only one other team in the Eastern Conference has scored more than the Flyers this season. The difference is that Boston has allowed 44 fewer goals. The difference is that Boston has a goalie it plays responsibly in front of and a humongous defenseman who, whether he is on the ice, about to come on it, or just left it, creates a tentativeness among opposing forwards that is not conducive to scoring goals.

Zdeno Chara was banged up two springs ago when the Flyers completed their incredible comeback against the Bruins. Chris Pronger was not. Last year, Chris Pronger was hurt and, well, Chara was not.

Last year, the Flyers scored 259 regular-season goals and allowed 223, and did not record a shutout all season. From their coach down to their role players, they scoffed at the importance of this, contending that the style by which they won games was irrelevant, as long as they won them. And then they were swept in the playoffs by a team that deemed such a statistic extremely important.

The thinking is as flawed as Andy Reid believing he can win a Super Bowl by making his offensive line backpedal all game or Ruben Amaro Jr.'s immediate postseason contention that his bench had been a bright spot last season. To his credit, Amaro reversed that position over the winter, adding boppers to the roster, creating at least the hope that the Phillies will be more postseason-friendly.

To his credit, Reid used Shady McCoy more effectively this season.

There is no such hope right now with the Flyers. Excitement over the surprising play of such rookies as Matt Read and Sean Couturier is muted by the not-so-sneaky suspicion that they are, with Max Talbot, the most defensively responsible forwards on the team. Last night, playing against the last-place Islanders, the Flyers surrendered five breakaways, three while on the power play. And that was in two periods.

Afterward, coach Peter Laviolette's themes were the usual ones that follow losses. Puck support was bad. The space between players was too great, especially in those first two periods. That New York scored only three goals until an empty-netter had something to do with the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, their 23-year-old gymnastic backup who has built up some gaudy statistics playing against mostly second-rung teams. But it also had something to do with the lack of scoring punch among the visitors, who entered the game with 43 fewer goals scored than the Flyers.

This game easily could have been 7-1.

The Flyers have recorded one shutout this season. It came in the second game. This time around, too much of the blame has been on the play of costly offseason acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryz wasn't out there last night. And against a team the Flyers have absolutely owned, the breakdowns ended in their own net, they weren't not started there.

So what's the solution? With Pronger clearly done for the season - his wife, Lauren, said he has not had 2 good days in a row since being sidelined with a concussion - attention has now focused on acquiring an additional defenseman. The more physical, the better. Of the names mentioned most often, Luke Schenn probably fits that description best, but, at 6-2, 230, he's no physical monster. Then again, the reason the Flyers signed Pronger to a 7-year deal at age 35 is those guys are not easy to find.

Even if Bryzgalov finds the groove that made him such a coveted offseason grab, even if they continue to win more than they lose with this prison-break style, the Flyers can't go far in May this way. Even Martin Brodeur can't win a Cup on his own, as his post-Scott Stevens career suggests.

It has to be a change in approach and attitude. Kimmo Timonen said as much a few weeks ago, after they blew that two-goal lead to the Rangers here for all the world to see. Rally around the goalie, make the simple pass and the simple play. It's not as fun or exciting, but it might make teams hate coming in here again.

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