Luca Sbisa made such a favorable impression in his NHL debut Saturday that the 18-year-old has been promoted to the Flyers’ second defensive pairing.
Sbisa, whom some are calling "Speed-sa" because of his quickness and length-of-the-ice rushes, can expect more minutes in tonight’s matchup against the visiting Montreal Canadiens.
“We really didn’t know what to expect from young Sbisa in a regular-season game…. but he can probably handle more minutes as we move along,” coach John Stevens said after yesterday’s practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees.
“We initially thought he’d get spot duty as a fifth, sixth defenseman, but he’s shown an ability to play a little more.”
In their season-opening 4-3 loss to the Rangers Saturday _ a game in which the Flyers nearly overcame a 4-0 first-period deficit _ Kimmo Timonen and Ossi Vaananen were together on defense, along with Braydon Coburn and Steve Eminger, and Sbisa and Lasse Kukkonen.
Stevens shuffled the defensive pairings at yesterday’s practice, moving Sbisa to the second duo, alongside Coburn. Eminger and Kukkonen, each of whom made mistakes that led to Rangers goals, were on the new third pairing, while Timonen and fellow Finn Vaananen remained the top pairing.
Sbisa played 16 minutes, 27 seconds and was on the ice during crucial late-game situations.
“As the game went on, he got better and better,” said Stevens, adding that changing defensive partners may be an ongoing thing.
“I played a couple preseason games, but I got the feeling that it’s way different here in the regular season,” Sbisa said. “It’s a lot faster, it’s more intense, but I’m just happy I’ve played my first NHL game. I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was a little kid, and my parents came down (from Switzerland), so all the important people to me were here to watch the game, so it was an unforgettable feeling for me.”
And an exhausting feeling for Timonen, who played a staggering 30:19 _ a stat that figures to be reduced by about five minutes in future games.
“I think the whole team was one or two steps behind, and as for the defense, I think we can do a better job of moving the puck quicker,” Timonen said. “Our assets are our forwards and hopefully we can get them the puck fast enough and they can create offense.”
Tonight, the Flyers _ who are wearing wear pink “Hockey Fights Cancer” decals on their helmets in October games _ will face a Montreal team they eliminated in the stunning five-game Eastern Conference semifinals last season.
The Canadiens are “confident and playing well and have four skilled lines,” Stevens said. “Obviously, we ended their season, so I’m sure there’s a lot of motivation” for them.
After tonight, the Flyers go on a difficult road trip to Pittsburgh, Colorado and San Jose. With the impending trip, someone asked Stevens if it was too early to call tonight’s matchup extremely important.
“Every game in Philadelphia is a ‘must’ win, you know that,” Stevens kidded. “For us, it’s all about how we’re playing….We certainly liked the way we came back and played the second and third periods (Saturday), but we need to start putting 60 minutes of hockey together.”
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Surprisingly, I've been getting lots of e-mails from folks suggesting that backup Antero Niittymaki should be in goal tonight because he had two-plus shutout periods in the opener.