Friday, December 26, 2014

Flyers blueprint: wear out Sabres defense

In the end, physicality will matter.

Flyers blueprint: wear out Sabres defense

Claude Giroux and the Flyers will look to forecheck the Sabres´ defensemen aggressively. (David Duprey/AP)
Claude Giroux and the Flyers will look to forecheck the Sabres' defensemen aggressively. (David Duprey/AP)

The Flyers are at their best when they are in transiton. I think we've all seen that in the last couple of seasons. They have three balanced scoring lines, and they have elite players on each of those lines, and they can come at an opponent in waves. They are as good at turning a neutral zone turnover into an odd-man rush as they've been in their recent history.

But when it gets to April, and when the silver is in everybody's eye, you see less of that -- not none, but less. Because the style of play becomes tighter, attrition becomes the issue in virtually every competitive playoff series.

We all talk about goaltending, for good reason. We all tell stories about third-line players who make the difference in the playoffs because the stars are able to be coralled by all of the attention. But in my mind, more playoff series are decided by worn-out defensemen than anything else.

Which means, simply enough, that while the Flyers are great on the rush, they likely are going to have to win this series, beginning Thursday night, by punishing the Sabres' defense physically.

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It is a hard style to play, physically demanding, exhuasting even -- and that might explain why a Flyers team with a playoff spot locked up for weeks couldn't convince itself to expend the effort and didn't play very well down the stretch. But now is the time. It is a style that not only creates the turnovers off of which the Flyers feast, but which wears down a set of defensemen over the course of 10 days, creating even more turnovers.

Everybody knows the deal in the playoffs, about how the defensemen get put into two categories -- the guys you trust and the guys you don't trust -- and how the minutes are doled out in strict recognition of that fact. The best defensemen are played to exhaustion, and all of them are targeted by opposing forwards. Checks are finished ruthlessly. Even if the hit delivered is glancing, it is delivered -- mostly on the theory of accumulation, mostly with the idea that a body can accept only so much punishment in a short period of time, and that a fatigued defenseman who rushes a clearing attempt in order to avoid an oncoming freight train is a player who might just be ready to commit a game-changing turnover.

Both teams have big-minutes defenseman nursing broken hands -- Chris Pronger for the Flyers, Jordan Leopold for the Sabres. When they return, if they return, is anyone's guess. That leaves each team with four defensemen playing well north of 20 minutes per game, and all of them will be wearing bullseyes, and none of this is any big secret.

"We have to play it physically," is what Flyers forward Scott Hartnell was saying the other day. "It's going to be really important. Their most physical defenseman is probably (Tyler) Myers, and he's about 6-8, but we have to hit him, too. We have to hit him even though we know it's going to hurt."

The Flyers have the same issue in their end, by the way; watch how often Kimmo Timonen gets hit and use that as a barometer for the series, if you wish. When the thing is over, however it goes, and the forensics are completed, the amount of defensemen's DNA smeared on the glass will be the first clue.

Rich Hofmann Daily News Sports Columnist
About this blog
Rich Hofmann arrived at the Daily News in 1980 for a job whose status was officially designated as "full-time, temporary." A senior at Penn at the time, he was hired to fill in on the copy desk during a staff illness. The notion of him covering the Eagles or being a columnist did not exist in anyone's imagination. It was supposed to be six weeks and out, but he never left. It is only one of the reasons why so many people have concerns about him as a potential house guest. Rich has blogged the postseasons of the Flyers and Eagles. E-mail Rich at hofmanr@phillynews.com Reach Rich at hofmanr@phillynews.com.

Rich Hofmann Daily News Sports Columnist
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