As the Flyers received more bad (but somewhat expected) news on Monday that Chris Pronger would miss 3-4 weeks with hand surgery, there were mixed reactions among the Flyers faithful. I received a lot of backlash from the Flyers faithful via e-mail and on Twitter for my tweet where I said it would be very difficult for the Flyers to hang on to the #1 seed in the conference without Pronger in the lineup. Most people I talked to, including some of the Flyers most respected beat writers, echoed my thoughts 100%. Some fans were another story.
There’s no denying how much Chris Pronger means to this Flyers squad. When it comes to bearing down and locking up a game in the third period, there probably isn’t a defenseman better in the NHL. Pronger also brings leadership. His well publicized story where he tore into teammate Claude Giroux in front of the media with the door open was a display of what needs to be done sometimes when the going gets tough. I want to borrow a quote coach Doug Collins made with the NBA’s Sixers earlier this year. And that is after a while players get “caught up in losing.” The Flyers are not as bad as they are playing now, even without Pronger. However, I think you can see the players are caught up in losing right now, and it’s mental. Every time an opposing team scores early, or in the 3rd period where the Flyers have struggled, it’s in their mind, “Here we go again.”
Earlier in the year from December into January when the Flyers were without Pronger for about a month, the Flyers went 9-4 with him out of the lineup. That’s the stat that many people keep throwing at me as their argument that the Flyers will be fine. What Flyers fans must realize now is that this isn’t earlier in the year. This isn’t January. If this were January, Sean O’Donnell would still be playing well on that solid 3rd pairing with Andrej Meszaros. Instead, it’s a different story. Sean O’Donnell has been a steady minus in the past month, posting a -6. And If it weren’t for one big game against the Islanders, it’d be a -9. You have a waiver wire pickup in Nick Boynton who was looked at to be a depth guy. He played 18 minutes the other night.
Additionally, O’Donnell’s minutes have been cut significantly lately and can be found in the low teens. Maybe it’s just age combined with the grind of a long season. Maybe he’s injured. Either way, it makes this injury harder to overcome. Let’s not forget what most fans and analysts agreed on after the Flyers lost in the Stanley Cup Finals last season. They needed to upgrade their final pairing on defense. Every time Bartulis or Krajicek’s pairing was on the ice with Ryan Parent it seemed like something bad would happen. That’s the feeling that might re-occur late in this regular season when Nick Boynton or Sean O’Donnell is on the ice. Hopefully O’Donnell can bounce back and play solid but he’s shown no signs of that during the past month.
Also, The Flyers will be playing teams that are fighting for their lives for the rest of the way, as Kimmo Timonen referenced the other night. The Flyers also have a game against Washington, and two against Pittsburgh coming up in addition to the hungry teams on the bubble that they will be playing. It’s a different time of year. Let’s not spin this, it hurts. It hurts a lot. Al Morganti said yesterday on Comcast Sportsnet in Philadelphia that there’s no way that you can spin this to make it sound positive. This is a huge loss. The Flyers are going to need multiple people to step up in multiple areas. Number one is defense. Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, and Andrej Meszaros will definitely see a big bump in minutes. Peter Laviolette has been saying recently that he’s going to slowly bump the minutes of the top guys up closer to what they will be come playoff time. This will be their chance to show everyone what they’re made of and how well they can handle adversity. That goes for the Flyers captain Mike Richards and other young leadership as well. It really could go either way.
While I’m referencing other people’s quotes tonight, let me borrow one to describe the folks who don’t think Pronger’s absence is going to impact the team over the next month. Let me go no further than Bill O’Reilly’s “Kool Aid Crew” slogan. Pronger’s absence will have a huge impact as the Flyers play hungry teams over the next month, whether the Kool Aid Crew thinks so or not. If the Flyers are going to hang on to win the division and compete for the top seed, it’ll be because their top 3 defensemen in Pronger’s absence have stepped up huge, and because they got leadership from their captain and other veterans. But my message to the Kool Aid Crew is this: Admit that this injury hurts, and hurts bad due to the reasons I’ve listed above. The journey of the home stretch has begun tonight. How do you think they’ll fare?
My Prediction on the Flyers Finish: #2 in the East
The Capitals are surging right now and I think their momentum will carry them to a miraculous run back to the top seed in the East. The injuries on the Penguins, however, are worse than the ones on the Flyers. I think when all is said and done, the Flyers will be able to hold on to the division lead and hold off the Bruins or Habs as well.