In a week of major event announcements (the Winter Classic), controversial moments on ice (l’affair Avery-Simmonds), and crazy trade rumors (Scott Hartnell would like to be left alone, please), the most important development for the Philadelphia Flyers this week is that their power play unit has the chance to be something special this season.
In games against the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, the Flyers’ man advantage unit was clicking at a tremendous pace, going 5 for 11.
The catalysts for the development?
Try a 39 year old legendary right wing and a 24 year wunderkind center.
The evidence of Jaromir Jagr’s growing chemistry with the emerging Claude Giroux has the former speaking glowingly of his capabilities.
In speaking with the press after the Flyers 5-3 victory over the Rangers on Monday night, Jagr called Giroux a “little Mario Lemieux.”
As he banged home his fourth goal in three games, in which Giroux waited patiently for a seam and found the 6’3, 240lb winger with laser like precision at the right post at the 12:48 mark, the pairs’ anticipation of one another’s movements is impressive to say the least.
After Thursday night’s tilt, Jagr continued to praise his young linemate.
“It’s like I told you guys the other night. You got to keep your stick on the ice and be ready.”
It’s plainly evident that the Czech forward’s ulterior motive was to come to Philadelphia to play with a prolific playmaker like the Hearst, Ontario native.
“I know I’m not the easiest player to play with,” Jagr said, while laughing. “Teams couldn’t find guys to play with me.”
Giroux’s views on his elder teammate echoed the sentiment.
“The way he gets open is pretty unbelievable. He moves the puck so quick and the way he moves opens up a lot of plays.”
With the power play being so problematic last season, Jagr’s lack of context in comparing the units from last year to this year when asked by reporters is the definition of “ignorance is bliss.”
Unlike the Rangers game which had a breakneck pace, the Flyers found themselves in a grind it out sluggish game during the first period, in which the Devils outshot them 11-7. After a penalty free first period, the game opened up more in the second period.
After giving up a goal by Devils winger Stephane Veilleux on a goal mouth scramble only 14 seconds into the period, the Flyers earned a power play opportunity as center Brad Mills earned an extra two minutes for roughing following a fight with Philadelphia forward Zac Rinaldo.
The ensuing play saw the Flyers power play unit of Jagr, Giroux, and Wayne Simmonds came to life.
Giroux took a short pass from returning defenseman Chris Pronger and fired a quick shot at goaltender Martin Brodeur that rebounded to Simmonds. Using his superior reach, Simmonds corralled the puck and wrapped it past Brodeur to tie the game at 1-1.
Simmonds’ willingness to battle in front of the net gives that unit tremendous balance and cohesiveness. It was not only the top power play unit that had success in threatening the Devils. Danny Briere’s second unit with Jake Voracek and Scott Hartnell operated with the same level of efficiency and stretched New Jersey’s shorthanded unit with precise movement.
This is not to say that the team won’t struggle at times with the man advantage, but the variety of options that the current lineup offers gives head coach Peter Laviolette options in creating different looks.
And this was accomplished without having one of their primary weapons in James van Riemsdyk, who is out with a lower body injury.
“Both units, I think both units are going to really click,” Laviolette said. “Just really starting to get it together, we’ve got to get James [van Riemsdyk] in there when he gets back. But both units have had a lot of time, it’s been every day now for four or five days. I think the more time we spend on it, work on it, find some continuity with the groups, the more successful we’ll be. I definitely think there are a lot of options that are available. They’re both set up just a little bit different. A lot of things can happen.”
Chris Pronger’s return to the lineup on Thursday certainly added an extra element and as the game wore on; his initial tentativeness gave way to his usual style of truculent play.
“Well the game was a little bit different. The first period there wasn’t a lot of flow. It was pretty choppy but quick and as the game settled in a little bit more structure you feel a little bit more comfortable and able to do obviously more things. Get into a few scrums. Get into a few pushing matches and kind of see how you feel and go from there.”
His presence on the power play unit is also a critical component going forward and while he has been out, he has taken note of the differences in their “man-up” play.
“I don’t know it was just one game, but the other games that I have watched were doing a good job of moving, not staying stagnant. You know, we’ve got some interchangeable parts that can move around. We can set up on the left, the right, no matter who’s out there. That’s a nice luxury to have and it allows us a lot of good looks, and we had a number tonight.”
Again, while there will be times this season where the Flyers will face issues and adversity with their special teams, there is little question that the elements and raw material for a top flight power play unit are evident.
The key will be consistent execution.
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photo by del Tufo.
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