Monday, June 7, 2010

Line Changes Lead to Chicago's Huge Win over Philly in Game 5

By: Tim Brennan

Throughout the Stanley Cup Finals, the topic of matchups has come up in every conversation. The Flyers used the players they wanted to go up against Chicago's top skaters and were in control of that category, keeping the Blackhawks top three forwards to just five points in the first four games. It was only a matter of time before Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville got the idea to create different line combinations to gain an edge in the series. On Sunday night, Chicago's plan worked and pushed them ahead in the series 3 games to 2.

From the start of the game, the Flyers were on their heels defensively in panic mode. It was obvious that Chicago came into this game wanting to prove a point as they have been blasted for being outplayed by Philadelphia in the first four games. Chicago used their speed to their advantage, causing the Flyers defense to turnover the puck and instead of looking for an outlet pass, just throwing the puck up off the boards. Defense was a huge problem for Philadelphia on the night as they got lost in the shuffle, losing the player they were supposed to cover, running around in their own zone and allowing Chicago too much space to operate.

Chicago got on the board when Brent Seabrook scored a powerplay goal 12 minutes in. The shot, which deflected off of Chris Pronger, would spell bad news for the Flyers as this would be just the tip of the iceberg and was the first of many minuses on the night for Pronger. Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg added to Chicago's lead for a 3-0 advantage after one period. Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton looked shaky in between the pipes, allowing 3 goals on 13 shots and having difficulty controlling rebounds. Both goals were ones that Leighton would want back as Bolland scored from behind the net, banking it off of Leighton's leg pad and Versteeg's shot came from almost the blueline beating Leighton low to the blocker side. Although Leighton could be at fault for the goals by Bolland and Versteeg, it didn't help that the defense in front of him couldn't play man to man and limit chances by stepping up.

The Flyers offense was just as poor, with their inability to create scoring chances and no sustained pressure in the offensive zone. Another problem was the Flyers need to dump the puck in and not go after it. There were far too many times when a Flyers forward would dump the puck in and instead of going after it or pressuring the Chicago defenseman, they would fall back and allow Chicago to make the first move. This combined with Chicago's energy and physicality broke the Flyers spirits.

Whatever Peter Laviolette did in between periods to rally up his troops worked out well for the start of period number two. Scott Hartnell scored 32 seconds into the stanza when Danny Briere's keep gave Ville Leino an in close scoring chance, with a rebound laying in the crease for Hartnell to bury. From that point on, the Flyers started pouring on the scoring chances. They would take a step back however when Patrick Kane gave Chicago a 3 goal lead on a slam dunk. Andrew Ladd's initial shot was blocked by Pronger, only to come back to Ladd who found an open Kane breaking to the net to tap it in past Brian Boucher, who had replaced Leighton at the start of the period. But Philadelphia's resiliency kicked in as Kimmo Timonen answered back a minute later. A clear attempt near the cage came back to Timonen at the point, who fired it over a sprawled out Niemi with Hartnell creating a distraction in front.

Philadelphia got a few prime opportunities at changing the outcome but fell short. Both Mike Richards and Ville Leino whiffed on open net chances and Blair Betts missed a chance of his own. Richards was all alone out in front and when a pass came in from Simon Gagne, the captain one timed it but put the shot right back into the falling Antti Niemi. Leino received a crisp pass right on the blade but couldn't get a quality shot off. Betts rushed to the front of the net after a rebound from Darroll Powe's shot came flying out into the high slot but he was neutralized by a back checking Blackhawks forward before he could get a shot off.

The Flyers would fall behind again when Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien finally scored a goal in the series, this one coming on the powerplay late in the second. The man responsible for the penalty? Chris Pronger. Pronger's hook on Patrick Kane gave Byfuglien an opportunity of a lifetime as he was finally out there without Pronger covering him. Byfuglien cashed in, where else, from in front of the goaltender with Braydon Coburn missing an assignment leaving Byfuglien to tip it in without a problem. Byfuglien's urge to make a difference in this series came through in this game, as evidenced by his monstrous hit on Chris Pronger earlier in the period.

Philadelphia needed to overcome a 3 goal deficit to get back in and possibly win the game. Rookie James van Riemsdyk provided for the Flyers, scoring 6:36 into the third. The man who started the play ended up with the goal because van Riemsdyk's interception of a clear attempt from Patrick Kane set in motion his goal. "JVR" hasn't looked out of place in this series and it's confusing why Laviolette felt that Dan Carcillo was more valuable than the 21 year old New Jersey native. Chicago countered once again with a goal of their own as ex-Flyer Patrick Sharp victimized his former team for the 3rd time in this series. Chicago's 3 on 1 led by Patrick Kane entered the zone and when Chris Pronger had finally gotten back into position, Sharp let loose with a wrister that went top shelf past Boucher.

Simon Gagne tallied shortly after from a great pass by Ville Leino. Leino led the charge into the zone with Gagne rushing towards the net. Duncan Keith's stick broke so he went to body Leino and couldn't keep up while Brent Seabrook layed down to block off a passing lane. Leino sent a pass that barely went by Seabrook and right to Gagne sitting beside the goal for an easy score. And once again, Chicago would come back and counter Philly's attack with Dustin Byfuglien's second of the night and an empty netter. Byfuglien made a mockery of Pronger on the play, receiving the puck and releasing right before Pronger could stick check him. That would seal the Flyers fate in the contest with Chicago winning 7-4 and taking a 3 games to 2 series lead.

The big story coming out of Game 5 was most certainly the change of scenery for Patrick Kane and especially Dustin Byfuglien. The Flyers used Pronger to match up against Jonathan Toews, who played with new linemates Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky while Byfuglien played against mostly Braydon Coburn. The switch paid off as Byfuglien added 2 goals and 2 assists, including the game winner while nemesis Chris Pronger sat in the box. Byfuglien's linemates, Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg, contributed 5 points combined to propel their team to victory. Kane played alongside Patrick Sharp and Andrew Ladd, picking up a goal and an assist and generating more offense than when he was up against Pronger.

Chris Pronger was being hailed as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for this post season for all the great work he was doing shutting down opposing forwards while contributing offensively. That was not the case in Game 5 when was out on the ice for 6 of the Blackhawks 7 goals and was in the box for what ended up being the game winning goal. Pronger's -5 at game's end is one of the worst ratings he has ever had in a game during his career and there's no doubt about it that he helped out Chicago more than he did his own team. I'm not sure if he was getting comfortable to the matchups or getting in their heads by playing like a brute but he couldn't have been any worse. Byfuglien's hit on the veteran proved to be a turning point in the game and let him know that the Blackhawks aren't afraid of the towering defenseman. More than anything, a key to the Blackhawks success in this game was the targeting of Pronger and their ability to get him off of his game.

Let's recap what #20 did during each goal: Pronger screened goaltender Michael Leighton on the first goal of the game by Brent Seabrook and the puck was shot off of his stick and in. On Chicago's second goal, Pronger was wandering around aimlessly and didn't pick up anyone, allowing Bolland to bank a shot off Leighton's leg and in. The third goal happened because Pronger allowed Versteeg to enter the zone without stepping up and hitting him. A lack of taking the body led to Chicago's fourth goal in which Ladd was able to take a shot and then get the puck back to pass it to eventual goal scorer Patrick Kane. The fifth goal by Dustin Byfuglien was a result of a lazy hooking penalty taken by Chris Pronger. Pronger got caught in the offensive zone and had to rush back to stop a 3 on 1 chance, but that didn't matter because Patrick Sharp ripped a shot past Boucher anyway. Finally on the empty net goal, a studder step from Byfuglien threw Pronger off and he was able to sail it down the ice and in.

Not only was Pronger poor defensively but Braydon Coburn couldn't have made things easier for Chicago. Coburn continually set up the wrong team, turning over the puck 7 times and made poor decisions in the defensive zone. Coburn also couldn't control Byfuglien out in front of the net, allowing "Big Buff" plenty of space to create scoring chances. In a game where the Hawks put 7 past the Flyers, Kimmo Timonen and Ville Leino shined in this effort, combining for a plus 4. Timonen helped out a poor defense in this game and was one of the only defensemen that could do his part in his own zone and in the offensive zone. Unlike the other defenders, Timonen threw checks, cleared the puck when necessary, gave great breakout passes to help the forwards and was calm and collected when facing pressure from the opposing team. Leino has continued to be a force and collected 3 assists for his 2nd multi point game of the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Flyers seemed stunned by how Chicago came out in this game and took it to them. An energized crew dismantled Philadelphia and didn't give them a chance to even get anything going.

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