Saturday, March 19, 2016

Behind the hockey scenes: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins



Today's behind-the-scenes report will be different than past efforts. Instead of providing total game details, I want to blend the past, present and future together.

Introductions

After the standard security check-in, similar to what paying fans experience at the gate, early press arrivals head to the Balcony Level, where the media's workspace exists. After setting up, lunch down at the Event Floor level with Philadelphia Flyers' staff takes place. The TV and radio announcers along with former National Hockey League faces, scouts, etc., can also be seen eating a nice lunch before game time. Then, back up the elevator shaft to finish preparations for the early-afternoon game.

Peering down at the Wells Fargo Center arena (as the lead photo to this feature shows), ghosts of the Spectrum are evoked prior to the start of an unexpectedly crucial mid-March game. Playoff implications were in play for both Eastern Conference teams today. Ron Hextall, the hero of 1987, was watching aside of the press level location where I was stationed. He, more than any current player, appears to be demonstrating the ability to create extended shots at Stanley Cup III. If Philadelphia had defeated the greatest offensive team of all-time, the Edmonton Oilers, in the spring of 1987, would Hextall be the Flyers' general manager today? An unknowable answer that will be revisited later.

Organizational loyalty, faulted by many for the team's inability to hoist Lord Stanley's prize, is never noted when Gene Hart's daughter, Lauren, looks to the skies. And, with the National Anthem sung to perfection once more, the players, the officials, and the fans became the focus this Saturday afternoon on the last day of winter 2016.

The big pre-game news involved Jake Voracek's return to action, as he'd been missing since last month due to injury. Steve Mason, who started in place of expected starter Michal Neuvirth, looked from one crease across the Philly pond at Marc-Andre Fleury as the opening face-off ensued.

First period

The Pens outshot the Flyers 11-4. Some penalty kills proved to be the only 'highlight's' of the frame.

The enduring passion of the fans has underscored the true success of this franchise. Seven appearances in the Cup Final since the last moment of glory in 1975, and yet sellouts, or mostly filled buildings, have been seen ever since. This blueprint (correction, orange print) shows how every business should honor its customers.

Second period

Radko Gudas scored his fourth goal of the season to break the double shutout at 1:58 into the period. Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds assisted. But, the lead only lasted slightly over a minute, as Trevor Daley scored his fifth goal of the year (at 2:59), as assisted by Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr.

Carl Hagelin scored his ninth goal of the season at 16:56, assisted by Bonino, to give the Pens a 2-1 lead. Then, with 1:35 remaining in the frame, Chris Kunitz scored his fifteenth, with assists credited to Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist. Pittsburgh was thoroughly dominating, posting 25 shots, to Philadelphia’s eight, at that point in the game.

The 25-9 shot split, which showed on the scoreboard, belied a tough challenge heading into the third. To this point, it seemed that the Flyers' recent playoff push had an energy zapping effect. More importantly, the Pens were up to today's task.

Third period

An apparent late Pens' goal took place with 1:38 remaining and a Masonless net. However, the play was reviewed. Kris Letang received credit for the tally (his fourteenth of the season), with assists to Kunitz and Crosby. And, the game ended in a 4-1 victory for the Flyers' cross-state rival.

Pittsburgh stymied Philadelphia's offensive attempts, as the Flyers had minimal opportunity in the center zone from the defensive blue line through to the opposing net. Philadelphia's solid shot totals in recent weeks allowed their goal differential to be cut to -4 (185 goals allowed, 181 goals scored) before today's game. That mark probably must be pushed to double-digits (on the positive side) if even the eighth playoff space is able to be colored orange by April 10, which is the last scheduled game of the regular season.

The Penguins now have 86 points (11 games remaining) and currently hold a Metropolitan Divisional spot. The Flyers stay at the 80 point mark (12 games remaining) and are one point behind the Detroit Red Wings, who play the Florida Panthers tonight. 

Takeaways


Down the media-packed freight elevator after the final horn. We meander our way toward the locker room and then to the post-game presser with Hakstol. His workman like demeanor, seen in full view after games, is what this developing group needs. Hextall's choice of the former North Dakota coach is proving to be sound. Hakstol appears to maintain a balanced view of present circumstances and future goals.

He advised that Voracek's first game back was what he expected. His 9:46 TOI reflected the first reconditioning segment. Future games will allow him to regain skating legs and endurance after suffering an ankle injury in February. Neuvirth's situation wasn't defined as being connected to a recent team flu bug, or to injury. His status will be further defined by Monday, at the latest.

The head coach began his presser by saying, “Well, I think they played a good hockey game. It was a day where we couldn’t find any energy and we just couldn’t get ourselves going in the right direction. Obviously, it comes at a bad time and against the wrong team, but that’s what it is. We looked like we had spent a lot of energy, maybe a lot of emotional energy, on the back to backs with Detroit and Chicago. We just couldn’t find that same energy tonight, so we got to put it behind us real quick and get back at it.”

Claude Giroux, speaking about the Flyers' effort said, "...maybe it looked like the effort wasn’t there, but it was there. The last month and a half I think we have been playing some really good hockey. You are going to have games like tonight where it is not going your way. A lot of frustration on our part. You are going to have games like that. Like I have said before, we aren’t going to win every game for the rest of the season. It is going to be how we are going to respond to this. This year, well the last two months, we have been doing a good job when we get a tough loss we always bounce back."

Voracek, commenting on his return, said, “No. I don’t want to say the percentage wise, but I was still favoring a little bit of the left leg. It didn’t eliminate me as much as my hands did today. I think  I coughed up a couple of pucks, which I expected it was going to happen and we have to find a way to help the team to win a game the next time.”

Mason, commenting on his unexpected call to start said, "That’s just the nature of the position sometimes. Sometimes you get called on short notice. That’s kind of why you prepare everyday as if you were going to play."

The Flyers travel to play the New York Islanders on Monday. Like the Pens, the Isles are also ahead of the Flyers in the standings and are in playoff position as of this weekend. Philadelphia's strong push from February through St. Patrick's Day week merely made a post-season spot possible. This team's work will remain hard through its last 12 games.

My own experience as a modest freelancer is always ready to be offered as proof of how generous this NHL organization is. It doesn't have to allow me, and my fellow freelance colleagues, access. Yet, it does. An initial interview I conducted with Bernie Parent opened the doors for me. That connection developed through a friend (Dan Morroni) and then, as he told me, I took it from there. Chances do present themselves in life. When they arise, taking them doesn't always result in lasting success. However, not making the effort back then would almost certainly have led nowhere.

A final glance from the inside

Up the elevator once again with various scribes. Passed Dave Brown, Flyers' Director of Player Personnel, after arriving at Press Level. Brown's hockey player presence disappeared with the mild-mannered well-wish he offered me as we passed. A fitting send-off to today's experience, as nearly five seasons behind-the-hockey scenes have allowed me to increasingly learn what the hockey world is all about. From the beginning, through today, I've enjoyed sharing these experiences with readers who live in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and elsewhere across the globe.

And, as I prepare to leave, the arena isn't empty. A final glance over my packed bag shows two local teams cutting the ice below.

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