by Kevin Franklin:
And so it begins…again. It’s that marvelous time of year when the confluence of the four main team sports meet, criss-cross and over-talk each other like characters in a Robert Altman film. It’s the triple biorhythm peak, the harmonic convergence and hitting all the green lights on the way home from work all rolled into one. For the pro sports junkie, baseball, football, hockey – and soon basketball – will all be in session at the same time. It’s a time of year when the mettle of relationships with a non-sports fan partner is tested and stretched. Apologies, make-up “romance” and promises of dinner at a nice restaurant are offered as olive branches. It is the best of times and the worst of times in this tale of one city we call home.
For the Philadelphia Flyers, this year is loaded with great expectations. You already know the prologue: struggling team ekes into the playoffs, suffers injuries, has historic comeback, Ville Leino, more injuries, Chris Pronger, goalies, heart-wrenching finale, summer. In fact, it feels like last season just ended a few weeks ago; so when I flipped on the tube for the dropping of the puck on the first game of the season tonight, it felt more like we experienced an extended Olympic break than an offseason.
And what better way to kick off the 2010-11 season than to go visor-to-visor with what has become the Snidely Whiplash to the Flyers’ Dudley Do-Right – the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was pretty big news for the Penguins to christen their new home rink, the Don’t-Bother-Remembering-The-Name-Because-It-Will-Just-Change-In-A-Few-Years-Anyway Center. The magnificent Mario Lemieux was there to pour some of the melted ice from their previous home rink, The Igloo, at center ice to honor his homeys and symbolize the transition to their new digs. I half expected old #66 to thump his chest with the side of his index finger, flash a faux gang sign and yell “one love!” to the crowd. And then, the captains of the two teams, Mike Richards of the Flyers and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, drifted towards the center dot for the first drop of the puck.
Crosby won the face off cleanly and almost without effort and the game was on. The action was quick and up-tempo and the minutes were flying by. However, this Flyers team had a bit of a different sheen to it. Gone was Simon Gagne for the first time since the last millennium. Missing in action was the Whomping Willow who usually pulls on Chris Pronger’s sweater every game. Ian Laperriere and his bulls-eye face was haunting weak-stomached kids from the side of milk cartons across the Delaware Valley.
James van Riemsdyk, toughened from the long playoff experience, looked nothing like the tentative, spotty kid from the beginning of last season. Claude Giroux just might be the most exciting player this team has had since Eric Lindros – not quite Big E’s equal, but a magician nonetheless. And how about Ville Leino, Jayson Werth’s separated-at-birth twin? Flyers fans from around the globe must be asking themselves how this diamond in the rough escaped the famous mines of Detroit. In goal, there was Michael Leighton…no, wait, Brian Boucher…no, not him, either. Who is this guy? The man’s name is Bobrovsky. Sergei Bobrovsky, and if I were you, I’d get to know his name.
Bobrovsky was lured over from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with a carrot that put his salary above the two incumbent net minders. He had an awful win/loss record but an eye-bulging save percentage – the product of playing for a lousy team with the only chance of winning being if the opposition defected between the first and second period (yeah, I know the Cold War is over. Sue me). So, Bobrovsky came across a massive body of water, threw on the flying “P” sweater and promptly only gave up six goals in five games. Well, that was enough for coach Peter Laviolette to name him the starter for the first game of the season. Besides, it’s just fun to say “Bobrovsky” anyway. Picture former SNL cast member Rob Schneider at the copy machine:
All the kid did tonight was turn in one of the surest, most confident, most positionally sound games I have seen a Flyers goalie play in a long time. Taking nothing away from the strides Boucher and Leighton made under the tutelage of goaltender coach Jeff Reese, but it felt like this guy could face 100 shots and not let any through. Of course, the Penguins did score two in the third period, but neither could be said to be Bobrovsky’s fault. He did have a bit of a challenge with pucks at his feet, but he was epic on squaring up initial shots and rebounds. Crosby, his first lieutenant Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins were firing lasers and buzzing the slot like Africanized bees. The Flyers defense, which must be noted played a terrific overall game, effectively cleared the puck during some dicey moments, and the offense took advantage of some key chances to ensure the opening night of the new arena didn’t have a chance to drop the party balloons from the ceiling.
Danny Briere opened the scoring with a nice down-low redirection and Blair Betts staked the Flyers to a 2-0 lead on a fat rebound gift-wrapped by van Riemsdyk’s charge through the zone. After Tyler Kennedy halved the Flyers’ lead, Claude Giroux picked Kris Letang’s pocket and undressed Paul Martin before de-jocking goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a shorthanded goal. Alex Goligoski, whose name is almost as fun to say as Sergei Bobrovsky’s, scored a power play goal on the same man-advantage to ratchet up the tension. A Blair Betts hooking call with 1:13 left in the third period did nothing to calm the stomach. Pittsburgh pulled Fleury to give them a two-skater advantage, but after a couple close calls and a couple of missed opportunities to bury one into the open net, the clock ran down and the first win of the season was in the books.
It was a total team effort but tonight belonged to Sergei Bobrovsky. The Penguins hit their share of posts, but no more than the Flyers themselves hit. Fleury was terrific and made a soul-stealing robbery of a Jeff Carter point-blank shot that left many a Flyers fan standing with their arms raised and then suddenly feeling very stupid. The more creative of these fans finished off the “M-C-A” and sat down as if nothing unusual happened.
Back in the Versus studio, Aaron Ward and Brian Engblom were practically making out over who loved the Penguins more than the other, mirroring former Penguin, Eddie Olczyk, who was doing the color commentary for the network. It came as no small surprise that both Ward and Engblom picked the New Jersey Devils to win the Atlantic Division while former Flyer, Keith Jones, picked his former team to sit atop the standings at the end of the regular season. I am not one to feel if the commentator is not praising my team then he hates my team. Many of my fellow fans carry a vendetta with an assortment of national broadcasters in every sport because when you’re a Philadelphia fan, there are two types of people in this world: Us and Them. Fair and balanced just never enters the equation. Unfortunately, tonight’s broadcast reeked of something very pro-Pittsburgh, and that’s fine…if it is a local Pittsburgh feed, but it came off as unprofessional from a supposedly objective telecast.
All in all, however, it was a very well-played game from both teams. The Flyers won, Pittsburgh lost, there were no injuries to report and we have a Bobrovsky in net.
It’s a name even your partner could love.
Kevin Franklin writes for PSC. Read his past articles here…
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