A trendy preseason pick, the Philadelphia Flyers now seem to be little more than somebody's botched chemistry experiment - a coach-killing group rife with gossipy rumours of high, off-ice lifestyle matched only by low, on-ice performance.
Yet even given the train-wreck quality of the Flyers and their proximity to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL standings, they are still better - a point driven home with an exclamation mark in last night's 6-2 win at Wachovia Center.
Okay, the Leafs were playing their second game in as many nights, part of a four-game-in-five-night run. And they have injuries. (That's a rubbish excuse at this point in the season. Everybody has injuries.)
Perhaps the most-disappointing aspect of last night's loss was the performance of rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, testing the waters of consecutive starts in as many nights. It's true his teammates were abject for 40 minutes and not even Flyers enforcer Daniel Carcillo (a truly miserable piece of nastiness) could wake them up when he celebrated his goal by tapping gloves with his teammates on their bench and then continuing on down past the Leafs bench, taking a wide circle back to his own.
("I'm not going to comment on that," Leafs counterpart Colton Orr said, tersely, when asked about Carcillo's Sean Avery Lite routine. "There's no need for it.")
Gustavsson looked uncomfortable, although Leafs head coach Ron Wilson rose to his defence saying he could "sue for lack of support."
Gustavsson scrambled around his crease, was beaten by clear, long-ish shots (Daniel Brière's second of two goals), and made a panicky save by appearing to head the puck away (it almost deflected off a Leafs defenceman into the goal) and stopped another shot in the third period, when he swatted at the puck with the back of his glove hand.
"Maybe I could have had one or two of the goals … on the breakaways. But I couldn't see the puck a lot," Gustavsson said. The header being a case in point?
"Yeah," he said with a shrug. "I didn't know what else to do."
Danny Syvret, Mike Richards and James van Riemsdyk also scored for the Flyers, while Nikolai Kulemin and Alexei Ponikarovsky countered for the Leafs in the third period.
The Leafs showed some life in the third - life, that is, in the form of trying to settle matters with the likes of Carcillo (somebody needs to tell him the devil's horns thing he does after a fight makes him look like even more of a punk) and Scott Hartnell.
And this is the thing about some of the Leafs more truculent players: Their antics seem juvenile when they try to pull it off long after the fact, such as Garnet Exelby's cheap shot in the third period, when he plastered an off-balance Hartnell into the corner boards after he had released a shot. Both players were given 10-minute misconducts for the resulting scrum and Exelby was given a boarding minor.
Few NHL teams can match the Leafs for pointless truculence - yet there was Wilson, saying his squad needs to do more "message-sending," like Orr's roughing penalty with four seconds left in the second after Richards had been penalized for boarding Kulemin. Richards scored early in third on the ensuing power play, practically teeing up his shot for the second of three Flyers power-play goals.
This is still a team of third-line forwards on anybody else's club with one truly gifted young forward in Phil Kessel, who will not single-handedly deliver victory. Not yet. And so Wilson can't, to borrow a postgame phrase from last night, "sit on my ass."
So Wilson mixes and matches his lines, with the painful end result still being the same: However you shake and stir it, there is just not enough talent up front.
Nor is there enough desperation. With a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers in hand, last night was a chance for the Leafs to make ground against another team between them and eighth place.
"I've got guys who haven't put a point up in 10 games - who are minus-8 and minus-9 - and not competing at near the level you need," Wilson said. "That's what you want: Compete, compete, compete."
And not, he might have added, after the fact.
NOTES Including their game last night against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been behind 1-0 in 31 games this season and 2-0 on 22 occasions. … Flyers defenceman Chris Pronger somehow thinks the Canadian juniors' loss to the United States at the world championship last Tuesday has ramped up pressure on the 2010 Canadian men's Olympic team. Luckily for Canadian hockey fans, it's a sentiment not shared by Mike Richards, who will be Pronger's teammate on Team Canada. "I just don't see how it would affect us," Richards said with a puzzled look on his face. … The Leafs went into last night's game with the NHL's highest average of shots on goal, with 33.5 a game. They registered 32 against the Flyers yesterday.
NEXT Friday, at Buffalo Sabres, 7:30 p.m. (EST)
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