The Make-or-Break Games Ahead, Our Home-and-Home with the New Jersey Devils >

by Michael DeNicola

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 --

Philadelphia is currently 3 - 6 - 0 against Atlantic Division rivals thus far this season, and are about to enter into a home-and-home versus the New Jersey Devils tonight in The Rock. Sitting 3-points out of 8th seed, you could say the next two games are paramount to the rest of the schedule. No player has made that more blatantly clear than our $51 million netminder, Ilya Bryzgalov --

"You win both games, and you tied with (the Devils) and you have a good chance to continue to battle for the playoffs," he told Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "You lose both games, you done. You done. That's it. This is it. This is probably reality. You'd be eight points behind ...and not many games to catch up. It would be very, very difficult. It's not going to depend on you (if you lose two), it's going to depend more on other teams than you. That's the importance of these games."

The Flyers have yet to take a single point from their two meetings with New Jersey this year, but despite failing to keep themselves at .500 and above, Philadelphia is given another opportunity for redemption. And that starts tonight. 

Two points is two points, and the Flyers tallied two in the standings after their 3 - 2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in Sunday's tilt. It was another match that started off great, but, in tradition to the team's play all season long, the Flyers sat back on their heels in the latter half of the contest and watched the Sabres almost cook up a comeback. I don't think anyone felt comfortable after Sunday's win, and that was against one of the Eastern Conference's most broken squads. 

Though the Devils are missing Martin Brodeur in their cage due to a sore back, they are still an incredibly dangerous team. One who's totally capable of capitalizing on mistakes, which the Flyers tend to make a lot of. Like I wrote in an article not-so-long ago, in order to defeat a team like the Devils, the Flyers must BECOME the Devils. 

So, what does that mean?

I feel like a broken record, so I apologize, but New Jersey's puck-cycling game is relentless. It's fueled by their unyielding forecheck and capability of keeping the rubber deposited in our end. Philadelphia's not too strong at breaking the play out of our defensive zone to begin with. So, naturally, the Devils soon follow their forechecking and cycling by manufacturing goals or drawing penalties. 

The orange & black are the most penalized Club in the League, having gone shorthanded a total of 108 times on minor penalties through the course of 27-games played. Right now, New Jersey's power-play percentage is middle of the road, ranked 18th in the League at 16.5 per cent. Luckily our Flyers have built one of the League's top ten penalty kills, killing off 83.3 per cent of man-advantages they face. On any normal night that'd give me a warm & cozy feeling, however, knowing the Flyers' bitter luck versus Newark's Red Army, I don't really take those numbers at face-value at all. 

But getting back to Brodeur's absence, this undoubtedly leans in Philadelphia's favor. 

Marty may be a 40-year old veteran well past his Cup-dominating prime, but somehow, someway, the hockey senior citizen always manages to channel his greatest performances versus the Flyers. Filling in for #30 in Red is backstop vet Johan Hedberg who's been less than impressive taking the reigns in net.

"Moose" sports a 4 - 7 - 2 record this year, an .879 save percentage, and allows 2.97-goals per game on average. New Jersey's weakness between the pipes has absolutely been one of the main reasons for them going 3 - 6 - 1 in their last ten contests. You add this to the fact that these next two games are critical for Philadelphia, and you only highlight even more how the Flyers ought to take advantage of the opportunity.

Like Bryzgalov mentioned, if the Flyers exit this home-and-home with less than two points earned, then our Club more than likely becomes more and more dependent on other teams to win and/or lose. Control slips from our grip, and our Playoff hopes dim like a power-outage. Especially in a shortened season where every game is basically a 4-point punch, and every tilt is a Conference match-up. 

Puck drops at 7:30 this evening, and can be watched on TSN, NBC Sports Network. You can listen to tonight's tilt on 93.3 WMMR Philadelphia. 

Some sidenotes:

The Flyers and Columbus sparked a deal on Tuesday, sending Phantoms right-winger Matt Ford to the Blue Jackets for "future considerations." Since then, Philadelphia defenseman Erik Gustafsson has been demoted to our AHL affiliate, thank the hockey gods! I know this fanbase grew quite a hard-on for Gus last post-season, but the 24-year old blue liner has been a total bust in his 2013 campaign with the Big Club. His turnovers and mishandling at the points were insufferable, and the kid hesitated with the puck more than Lance Bass did coming out of the closet. 

Other than the injury bug plaguing our dressing room leaving us with very little options, my initial feeling was that Laviolette was giving Gustafsson so much ice time to promote his trade value. Since no outside Club was desperate enough to bite, hometown management finally came to their senses and kicked the chair out from under that experiment. 

However, seemingly dealing Matt Ford for nothing and clearing a roster spot by demoting Gustafsson, many of us Flyers Faithful are left wondering if there's a trade looming on the horizon. Then again, with the return of Andrej Meszaros from IR, there just wasn't enough room (or chance) for Gus to get the ice time he needs to develop. Also, this makes me question how close Marc-Andre Bourdon is to returning from his concussion symptoms. 

Until an answer is clearly given, blue liners Bruno Gervais and Kurtis Foster admirably round out the sixth d-man spot. With that said, this defense is still a sieve and easily the weakest link on our team. 

Someone had asked me, "What's the biggest problem with the Flyers, in your opinion?"

That's a very open-ended question, seeing as how the Flyers have more issues than a pregnant teenager. But everything funnels downward to their biggest problem -- defense. See, some of you recognize how the offense struggles to manufacture goals. Is Giroux missing Jagr? Yes. Are we missing a pure goal-scorer? Yes. Could this Club use a center with a career faceoff percentage greater than 55 per cent? Absolutely. 

But what do each of these problems have in common with each other? Possession. 

Possession is crucial to any team's success. Unless your roster employs the most elite netminder with Shaquille O'Neil size and Sonic the Hedgehog speed, possession is not only your best offensive weapon, but it's also your team's greatest defensive weapon. 

When the puck's in our zone, it's up to our defensive pairing to neutralize the threat and turn the puck back up ice. There's many variables to that equation; primarily gaining possession through effective defense and producing cogent stretch passes over our blue line and through the neutral zone. 

Have you noticed the Flyers haven't had many odd-man chances this season? There's a reason for that. Our defense struggles with surgical precision through mid-ice that lead our forwards on a chance. Most often than not, it's our forwards who are forced to penetrate the opposing blue line by either bringing the puck into the offensive zone (which is NOT a strength of ours), or dumping the puck deep into the corner boards. 

When the puck's dumped, we chase with our forecheck. Our forechecking is actually not too bad at all, but it requires a great deal of energy and, no doubt, has contributed to our late-game "laziness". The high-energy tempo we see the Flyers start off with is indirectly depleted by our defense's inability (or, should I say, "sub par" ability) to get the chance in motion from our zone. 

This is all just my observation. When fans say, "This defense sucks!" they're most likely pointing towards their performance just before a goal is scored on the Flyers. I say "This defense sucks!" because they barely contribute to the scoring chances out of our end. 

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