Rich Hofmann: Flyers dug their own graves against Devils

Coach Peter Laviolette tried to instill an aggressive approach against Devils. Yong Kim / Staff Photographer
Coach Peter Laviolette tried to instill an aggressive approach against Devils. Yong Kim / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 11, 2012

IT IS HARD not to think back to Game 1 of the Flyers-Devils playoff series, which is the last time anything made sense. The Flyers came out lethargically in that game, which was entirely predictable after sitting around for a week following their first-round series against Pittsburgh. Then they came out for the second period and established their game, fast and physical and relentless — again, exactly what most people thought would happen.

It took until overtime to win it, because goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov let the Devils back into the game in the third period, but that was not entirely unexpected, either. The Flyers gave the Devils two chances to steal the game, early and late, and they could not do it, because of the force of the Flyers’ will in between.

It really did look as if it would be a walkover. And then, in the immortal words of former Temple basketball coach John Chaney, the Flyers started smelling themselves.

Claude Giroux said it after the game Tuesday night: “I think we were thinking we were going to walk over to New Jersey and they’ll fall a little bit. I guess we’ve got to learn from it.”

For a young team, it was death by hubris.

The Flyers are a force-of-will team, and Peter Laviolette is a force-of-will coach. They are about aggressive skating — and aggressiveness, period. Against a more structured defensive team such as the Devils (or a Rangers team they could not beat during the regular season), they could not afford to be anything but the clearly more physically aggressive team on the ice.

It is the coach’s style, and it is great to watch, and it is something people here have embraced. But it can only win at this time of year if the aggression is overwhelming — and, again, it is more the aggression of hard skating than hard hitting. To back off or to become tentative is to be ensnared in the thicket of opponents clogging the passing lanes — too passive, then too frustrated, then taking stupid chances, then, well, you know.

But it starts when they ease up on the accelerator, for whatever reason. In this series, it was because the Flyers became overconfident, because they were smelling themselves.

“I think we started to lose a little bit of the battles and kind of swinging sticks and stuff like that at one point,” forward Max Talbot said. “You never want to use excuses, so I’m not going to use any, but I feel like sometimes we were not as strong as we would like in the battles and stuff like that. The system has worked for us through the season. We won Game 1, and if we would have played with the effort like we played with [Tuesday night], for the most part of the game, we would have had a better chance for sure.”

But they didn’t, and the change after Game 1 came out of nowhere. The Flyers were dominated by the Devils in Game 2. They started slowly in Game 3 but evened things out, eventually losing in overtime when they could not cash either of their OT power-play opportunities. Then they were dominated again in Game 4. They played better in Game 5, but a bizarre New Jersey goal seemed to sap their early emotion.

And now come the questions. How could the Flyers just roll over after beating the Penguins in that wild first-round series? After being so dominant in the latter stages of Game 1 against the Devils?

“Our guys were ready to play,” Laviolette said. “Like I said, it was a different series, a different style. You go back, if you look at the series, I said there were a couple of games that we didn’t play well. We lost an overtime game in New Jersey, where the chances were about the same and the shots were about the same. We had chances to win in overtime, and we didn’t. It’s about opportunity. Playoffs games are about opportunity. We had an opportunity to win that game and maybe that changes things a little bit?…?I think I’ll look back and really want Games 2 and 4 back.”

It is always good to hesitate on the day after an NHL team gets knocked out of the playoffs, and so there will be some hesitation here. The reason is simple enough: We do not yet know how badly some people were hurt. The only time an NHL team really tells the truth about injuries is when it announces the list of players who will require offseason surgery (after playing 20 minutes a game throughout the postseason).

So, we will wait for a minute here as the Flyers move from dissembling about injuries to assembling their surgery list. One we know for sure is defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, who reportedly turned down a chance to play for Sweden at the ongoing World Championships because of some as-yet-unspecified surgery. But there will be more.

The injury report will shape how we think and how the Flyers should proceed, especially regarding a defense that had some mobility issues at the end. At the same time, we already kind of know the big answer:

They were too young and too full of themselves after beating the Penguins. They will be older next year, for sure. But wiser? Don’t know.

Contact Rich Hofmann at hofmanr@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheIdleRich. Read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann.

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