Flyers have little room for errors like Hartnell's

Flyers winger Tye McGinn tries to deflect a shot while battling Justin Faulk of the Hurricanes. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Flyers winger Tye McGinn tries to deflect a shot while battling Justin Faulk of the Hurricanes. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 15, 2014

It was a silly, impulsive mistake, one made all the sillier because Scott Hartnell committed it in a game that meant so little.

He'd gotten himself in a tussle with the Carolina Hurricanes' Brett Bellemore in the third period Sunday. The Flyers had clinched a playoff spot, knew that their first-round opponent would be the New York Rangers, and understood they had nothing to gain and much to lose in their regular-season finale. They were on their way to a 6-5 loss to the Hurricanes, and, well, at least there were 10 goals and a shootout to entertain everyone.

But Bellemore slashed Hartnell on the wrist with 6 minutes, 51 seconds left in regulation. To retaliate, Hartnell used his stick to spear Bellemore, earning a five-minute major penalty and a 10-minute misconduct.

And with Craig Berube's first postseason as an NHL head coach four days away, here was another consideration that would make his primary task - preparing the Flyers to play the Rangers - only more difficult. Here was the possibility, however faint, that one of his top-line forwards might earn a suspension, and Berube knew it and didn't sugarcoat the situation's severity.

"In my opinion, you have to keep your emotions in check," he said. "You can't become a loose cannon out there. You've got to play the right way. You've got to be intense. But you've got to be smart."

Now, let's keep this incident and its fallout in perspective: In the immediate aftermath, it appeared unlikely that the NHL would suspend Hartnell for spearing Bellemore. Less than a half hour after Hurricanes goaltender Anton Khudobin stopped Sean Couturier's shootout attempt to end the game, a league spokesman said in an e-mail that, while the NHL reviews all major penalties, he had not seen a hearing scheduled for Hartnell. Hartnell did not target Bellemore's head, and in spearing him, he did not draw blood. Put simply, he and the Flyers were fortunate.

"I'll say it wasn't the smartest thing to do, especially going into the playoffs," Hartnell said. "Definitely there was no trying to hurt the guy, and it definitely wasn't very hard anyway."

Ultimately, what Hartnell's lack of self-control ought to do, if it hasn't already, is force Berube to weigh carefully whom he suits up against the Rangers, both for Game 1 on Thursday and throughout the series. He has a few meaningful decisions he has to make, particularly for the Flyers' fourth line, and for a matchup that promises to be so close, the Flyers can't afford to hand the Rangers too many power-play opportunities.

Although the Flyers had the eighth-best penalty-killing rate in the league this season, no team was shorthanded more frequently than they were. The Rangers' power-play unit wasn't unstoppable - its 18.2% success rate was 14th in the NHL - but give even an awful power play enough chances and things will get dicey before long.

More, this year's Rangers, under Alain Vigneault, were not the same team stylistically that they'd been over their three previous seasons when John Tortorella was their coach. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist remains their most important player, but Tortorella demanded a jagged-edge manner of play - block shots, clog the middle of the ice, slap a team with wave after wave of bodychecks until it's sand. Vigneault has a freer, more creative system.

"Speed," Berube said. "They play a fast game. They're an attack team now. They've got three balanced lines that can score. They try to forecheck hard, and their [defensemen] are aggressive. It's a quick game out there with them."

How best to counter them, then? It wouldn't seem to make sense to see much of two of the Flyers' enforcers: Steve Downie (who has appeared in just two of the team's last 12 games as it is) and Jay Rosehill. Neither player would help the Flyers match the Rangers' collective speed, and putting either of them on the ice would present a sizable risk for the same kind of penalty that Hartnell committed Sunday.

Berube did float the idea that rookie forward Jason Akeson could crack the postseason roster. It would be an interesting and gutsy choice. Akeson scored 24 goals this season for the AHL's Adirondack Phantoms and played for the Flyers on Sunday, assisting on a goal by Matt Read. It was the second game of his NHL career.

"He's got skill and composure with the puck," Berube said, and so you wonder: Would Akeson's offensive talents be worth his inexperience? In theory, he could deliver a timely goal from an unlikely source, something the Flyers will need against Lundqvist and the Rangers. Hartnell already showed them Sunday what they don't need.

@Twitter: @MikeSielski

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