Flyers haunted by same problems
PHILADELPHIA -- And in the end, the song remains the same in Philadelphia.
Or make that the lament remains the same as the Philadelphia Flyers are humbled in the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season.
In spite of all of the changes, the overhaul of the roster, the introduction of top-end young talent, the signing of a "franchise" netminder, the Flyers went away without a whimper once again as the deeper, more committed New Jersey Devils won Game 5 by a 3-1 count.
The Devils now move on to their first Eastern Conference final since 2003, which happens to be the last time they won a Stanley Cup.
Regardless of whom they will face -- the New York Rangers or the Washington Capitals -- it's hard not to believe the Devils will be the favorites to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. That's how good this team is regardless of how far under the radar they've flown this postseason.
"I think you've got to give New Jersey credit for the way they played defense and the way they forechecked," Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said after the game.
"It kept it from being the game that we wanted and we could never seem to get down that road."
Laviolette's counterpart, Pete DeBoer, has fashioned an impressive system that allows and expects contributions from all four lines. It was something the Flyers had no answer for from the moment the series started.
"Yeah, I think the fact that we've had four lines, six defensemen, we've gotten winning goals from seven or eight different people through the playoffs," DeBoer said. "Our team game is what is making us successful, not any individuals. The guys are believing in what we're doing and we've got a lot of work left to do. That's a very good team we just beat, and [we're] happy to get through."
By the end of this series it was hard, really, to assess just what kind of team were the Flyers.
One has to wonder whether they are any further ahead than they were a year ago when owner Ed Snider demanded GM Paul Holmgren go out and get a goaltender after a carnival of goaltending misadventures against Buffalo and Boston.
In fact given the uncertainty over the mental toughness of Ilya Bryzgalov, he of the nine-year contract, it's easy to suggest the Flyers are actually worse off.
Let's be clear: Bryzgalov was not solely to blame for this disappointing series loss.
The team's best player Claude Giroux watched the finale in civilian clothes after losing his cool in Game 4 and earning a one-game suspension for a head shot to Dainius Zubrus. It will be a long summer for him remembering this night.
"I think we were thinking we were going to walk over to New Jersey and they'll fall a little bit," Giroux said. "I guess we've got to learn from it. They are a good hockey team. They are well balanced and they played a pretty good series."
Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Jaromir Jagr (who looked like he was laboring with some sort of injury all series) were nowhere to be found when the chips were down. James van Riemsdyk continued his halting evolution as a player, scoring just once this spring after coming back from a foot injury. And his mindless holding penalty early in the third period allowed the Devils to take a two-goal lead that sucked the life out of the Flyers.
But if there was a play that encapsulates the Flyers' experience this spring, it was just past the midpoint of the first period. The Flyers had struck first with a gritty Max Talbot goal, but the Devils tied it just 2:09 later when a Bryce Salvador shot deflected off Simmonds and over Bryzgalov's shoulder.
Just three minutes later defenseman Kimmo Timonen dropped a puck back toward Bryzgalov. Instead of smothering it, the netminder tried to play it. Martin Brodeur he isn't, and the puck ricocheted off the shaft of Clarkson's stick and back into the Flyers' net.
"I saw [him] coming and I want to put some puck in the corner for the Kimmo, you know to start the attack, and puck, I don't know, hit him in his stick and going in the net," Bryzgalov explained after the game.
"It's bad bounce, unfortunate because it could be go anywhere -- in the corner, higher, lower -- but it goes straight between the legs."
It's somehow fitting that turned out to be the winning goal, the goal that ended Stanley Cup hopes that looked so bright just two weeks ago as they rolled through Pittsburgh in six games.
That series saw the Flyers average five goals per game, so it didn't particularly matter that Bryzgalov was only ordinary.
Against the Devils, Bryzgalov was much better. Were it not for his play in Game 4, a 4-2 loss in Newark, the Flyers would have been routed. But at no point in this playoff run did the Flyers seem to rally behind their netminder. There were no games that reminded us of what we have seen Mike Smith do in Phoenix or Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles or Braden Holtby in Washington.
There was never a feeling that the Flyers were going to win a game simply because Bryzgalov would make it so. He was not that kind of goaltender the past two playoff seasons when he and his Phoenix Coyotes were ousted in the first round by Detroit. He is, it appears, not that kind of goaltender at all.
On a night when the Flyers needed someone to say, "No, we're not done yet," no one stepped up, including the man who was supposed to put an end to literally years of goaltending questions in Philadelphia.
"I know Bryz made big saves in there, I thought," Laviolette said. "The second goal is a tough bounce. We're in position and we try to move the puck and it ends up in the back of our net.
"That goal stung, it hurt. I thought our guys were playing really well. Playing hard at the beginning of the game it seemed like we were skating and physical play, that's more of an unfortunate bounce than anything else. That was a tough goal."
Timonen's response to what happened on that play: "Ask Bryz."
Asked to assess his performance this spring, Bryzgalov said he wasn't pleased because the team didn't have success.
"I'm not happy because we're not going further than the second round and you can't be happy with my performance," Bryzgalov said. "It's a team game we lose, it doesn't matter who play well, who play bad, it's losing, the whole team losing. Doesn't matter who played well, it's not enough."
And here's the thing: After watching him fight pucks or seem bewildered by shots throughout the postseason, it's hard to imagine this Flyers team ever enjoying a long playoff run with him in goal.
Given that he's under contract for eight more years with an annual cap hit of just slightly more than $5.66 million annually, that's a significant problem for GM Paul Holmgren. For all the good work Holmgren has done in restocking this team with high-end young talent, such as Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier, Holmgren appears at this juncture to have failed to solve the singular problem that has plagued this franchise since the days of Ron Hextall.
In a market that demands forward motion, it's hard to view this desultory end to the season as anything but a familiar step backward.