May 8, 2012
The way Claude Giroux is playing right now, it doesn't matter that he's suspended for Tuesday night's Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference semifinals.
Giroux has been a non-factor against the New Jersey Devils in the series, which continues 7:30 tonight at the Wells Fargo Center as the New Jersey Devils attempt to put the Philadelphia Flyers out of their misery.
The gaping 3-1 series lead by the Devils has the Flyers facing elimination for the first time in the 2012 postseason, and the way the Flyers are playing — or barely playing — lately, elimination is almost a given. They need a miracle to make it to a Game 6.
And they will have an even tougher time winning without Giroux, no matter how well or how poorly he's been playing. The check he threw with his back into the head of New Jersey's Dainius Zubrus at the end of the second period on Sunday night resulted in his suspension for Game 5, but it won't be the reason the Flyers lose the game, or the series.
In a series that began by people calling Devils goalie Martin Brodeur over-the-hill, the goalie celebrated his 40th birthday with a 4-2 win on Sunday.
The difference between the two teams has been staggering. Until the third period on Sunday night, the Devils had not allowed more than nine shots on Brodeur in any period in the three straight wins, and that was with a minimum number of blocked shots.
The Flyers aren't controlling the puck, they aren't passing effectively, they're turning it over and making decisions they haven't made since junior hockey.
"I don't know if it's the legs or how we're able to move the puck," Flyers center Danny Briere said after the Game 4 loss. "It seems everything is difficult. All year we've been a team that makes crisp passes to get out of the zone. We make smart plays, heads-up plays, and right now we're forcing things. We're getting rid of [the puck]. One guy will be in trouble and instead of making a good, hard play, he'll just give his struggle away to the next guy. It's all over the ice, and we're just not used to doing that."
Ouch. That's about as harsh a self-diagnosis in hockey as possible, and the problem for the Flyers is that Briere speaks the truth. When one Flyer gets in trouble, rather than fight for the puck or turn it over, he tries to give it to another teammate who's in just as precarious, if not worse, of a position.
"It looks like they want it more than us," Giroux said with the catch-phrase that has become all too cliché in this series that is competitive only in the sense of the final score of each game. "That's frustrating because the whole season, we've been outworking every team. Now it's the other way around. It's not acceptable. Right now, the way we're playing, we're not going to win any games."
The Devils are outplaying the Flyers, cutting off their usual escape paths, cutting off their clearing routes, intercepting passes, keeping the puck in the Flyers zone along the boards.
The Flyers are, in the words of winger Scott Hartnell, playing soft, afraid to take a hit to make a play.
"I made a couple of soft plays," he admitted. "You look around the room, everyone was doing it. That's losing hockey. It's almost embarrassing hockey. It's not Flyers hockey, that's for sure."
Hartnell spoke the truth on all but one account: it's not almost embarrassing hockey, it is embarrassing hockey.
The Devils have employed the same strategy during their three-game winning streak against the Flyers, and so far neither Flyers coach Peter Laviolette nor any of the players has found an answer for the wave after wave of New Jersey players bedeviling them.
"They move better, they were quicker. They came up with pucks," Laviolette pointed out, as if those factors needed pointing out, but never analyzed how to stop it, at least out loud, other than putting it squarely on the players: "The speed and quickness with which we do things, and the puck battles, have to be at a higher level."
The tide has turned dramatically since the Flyers' overtime win in Game 1, when Brodeur complained about possible goaltender interference on the game-winning overtime goal. Since then, the Devils have benefited from one goaltender's interference penalty a game.
Almost in desperation, Briere announced after the Game 4 loss that the only thing that surprised him about the Devils' play so far was that, "What I'm surprised with are the slashes to the hands and the tugs on the hands that they're getting away with."
That's about as desperate as any Flyer has gotten so far in this series, a series where they keep referring back to the opening round win over Pittsburgh, which Hartnell did again on Sunday night. Looking back is not the answer, but right now, it's all they have, and that's a bad sign.
The reality for the Flyers is that a 3-1 deficit is nearly impossible to overcome. The Flyers are 1-14 in all-time series in which they have been down 3-1, and the only time they overcame that was in the 2010 series against Boston, which they came back from down 3-0. That's the kind of series the Flyers need to remember, not one in which they dominated Pittsburgh, but one where they understood the work ethic and commitment to each other that was required for victory.
Laviolette has been silent with solutions for the Flyers so far. Even his vaunted use of the 30-second timeout has had no effect on games against the Devils. He's been pinning the losses on team effort so far.
Tonight will be the ultimate team effort. No Giroux in the lineup, and plenty of Devils on the ice. Will Laviolette and the Flyers be able to fix things in time to save their Stanley Cup dreams?
Miracles do happen, especially on ice. The Flyers need to understand that they're the ones who have to make the miracle happen, however. So far in this series, they've been waiting for someone else to do all the work.
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