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POSTED ON Friday, 11.09.2012 / 7:18 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

PHILADELPHIA – He weaved his way through the crowd of well-wishers and gawkers with the same smoothness and finesse that always belied his size.

Eric Lindros was a one-of-a-kind hockey talent who combined physicality and grace in a way rarely seen in the sport.

For a span of eight seasons, who was one of the most dominating figures in the game – much like Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball for a shorter span than most legendary players, but was still Hall-of-Fame worthy, Lindros compiled statistics that were only matched historically by the game’s greatest.

However, concussions cut Lindros’ career short – especially at a time when very little was known about the long-term effects of head injuries. Had he better been able to manage those during his playing days, Lindros, now 39, might still be playing the sport, rather than being feted for his accomplishments.

Circumstances being what they are though, Lindros is instead on the banquet circuit now.

And on Thursday evening, he was inducted into the ninth class of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame at the annual induction ceremony held at the Society Hill Sheraton.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” he said. “I got word of this a few months ago and have been looking forward to it ever since. The lineup of inductees, it’s a group that has accomplished a lot of good things.”

The group of 16 inductees included Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins, 76ers point guard Wali Jones, Eagles greats Tommy Thompson and Maxi Baughan, Phillies public address announcer Dan Baker, and local athletes who made their bones elsewhere like Joe Klecko (New York Jets) and Mike Piazza (Los Angeles Dodgers/New York Mets).

But the highlight was Lindros, who was escorted to the event by his fiancée Kina – the two are planning a 2013 wedding – as the two-hour pre banquet meet and greet had all the attention brought his way.

Lindros was able to steal a nice chunk of time to chat with Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren, whom invited Lindros to take part in the Winter Classic Alumni game last December, offering an olive branch to the former Flyer after his departure from the franchise more than a decade ago was a bit rocky.

Lindros later thanked Holmgren during his speech for that invitation, which has allowed for a lot of healing to take place between the team and one of its greatest players.

“I don’t know,” Lindros said if he thought a decade ago that days like Thursday would happen in Philadelphia. “We’re here now. And I’m honored. I really am. I look back on my years playing here and for the most part, it was fantastic. It really was. I’m happy to be back and honored to be part of this group.”

Part of the reconnection between Lindros and the Flyers has been the ever-growing understanding of concussions and head injuries.

The Flyers have certainly lost their share of players to such injuries – Keith Primeau and Ian Laperriere most famously, and currently Chris Pronger is shelved with the after-effects of an eye/head injury. All have dealt with post-concussion syndrome, something that Lindros battled daily in the latter part of his career.

“Things evolve,” Lindros said. “The word concussion was never used [when I played]. The game has made some changes. Taking out the red line, I’m not so sure that if I were commissioner I wouldn’t oppose it.

“The speed of the players is so quick. If you’re not holding and not impeding people’s progress, any other way to skate in front of him, guys are coming with a huge amount of speed. Defenseman and forwards alike are susceptible to [concussions].

“They are being handled better. People are coming out and saying, ‘This is how I feel. What can I do to get better?’ They are being more up front about it. Teams are taking it far more seriously.”

Regardless of how it all ended for Lindros, when he played, he was a joy to watch – and as exciting as it was for fans to see him play, it was equally thrilling for Lindros to play in Philadelphia.

“I’ve always said they are the best fans in any sport anywhere,” said Lindros, who also had the opportunity to play in such hockey hot beds as Toronto and New York. “

“The fans are passionate here. “You really can’t describe it unless you’re part of it. Wherever you are, people want the Flyers to win. You always had great support.”

Lindros’ career with the Flyers began in the Spectrum, and his play and excitement about his ability led to the buiding of what is now the Wells Fargo Center, which opened at the peak of Lindros’ career in Philadelphia in 1996.

“I’m kind of dating myself here but the old Spectrum, I’ll never forget my first playoff game there [against the Rangers],” Lindros said. “It was so loud for 3½ hours, you could not talk to anybody [on the bench].

“It was that intense. It was a terrific advantage for us and a bit of a jungle for the opposing team. Those were some great times.”

Lindros was also wistful about his time playing with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg on the famous Legion of Doom line that terrorized the NHL for several years in the mid-90s.

“That feeling we had, you know you had something going,” Lindros said. “You could just tell in practice that things were clicking.

“We were having way more fun than we ever did. Things would translate into productivity on the ice. Those were great moments.”

Lindros thanked those players as well as several other teammates. He even had fond memories of a couple of coaches, namely Bill Dineen, and of course the late Roger Nielsen.

Lindros noted a favorite memory of Nielson using a video clip of a flock of geese to explain the importance of team.

“He showed all these geese flying across the screen and it was, ‘Where are you going with this, Rog?’” Lindros recalled. “Well, if one geese fails and falls behind, another one of the flock comes and stays with it and the flock keeps going. But you have to be with your teammates. He tried explaining these with geese.”

Lindros thanked a lot of people from the Flyers organization, joining Holmgren at the Flyers table were assistant general manager John Paddock and Barry Hanrahan as well as former public relations director/traveling secretary Joe Kadlec and public address announcer Lou Nolan.

At the end of the speech, Lindros looked at the table, situated 30 feet in front of the podium, raised his right fist into the air and finished with two words:

“Go Flyers,” he said.

Yes, Lindros was happy to be home.

To contact Anthony SanFilippo email asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com or fllow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37

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POSTED ON Monday, 11.05.2012 / 7:15 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – At one point in his career with the Flyers organization, Rob Bordson was considered a throw away. Now, he’s starting to make the organization think differently.

When the Flyers traded Mike Richards to Los Angeles in the summer of 2011 and brought back two contracts – Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn – they needed to add another contract to the deal so they could stay within the 50-contract limit for NHL teams.

Bordson was a guy that was lost in the shuffle with the Adirondack Phantoms, so he was added to the deal.

It didn’t matter to the Kings, who had no intention of signing Bordson anyway, and a few weeks later Bordson became an unrestricted free agent.

The native of Duluth, Minnesota was at a crossroads of his young career and needed to figure out what to do. With no NHL team interested and no AHL team even willing to offer a tryout contract, Bordson had little choice but try to start over in the ECHL.

“It felt like I was starting the sport all over again,” he said.

So Bordson latched on with the Trenton Titans. At the start of last season, and had a renewed focus to committing himself to a better focus on the sport.

While at Trenton, a few scouts got to see him play, including those from the Flyers.

“We were keeping tabs on him,” said Flyers Director of Hockey Operations Chris Pryor. “There was always something about him that we liked, so we wanted to see if that would come together for him.”

Did they ever.

While at Trenton last season, Bordson posted the best offensive numbers of his career including his time in the AHL, collegiately at the University of Minnesota-Dultuth and even his one season in the USHL – the top junior hockey league in the United States.

Bordson, 24, played just 38 games for the Titans but in that time amassed 51 points (17 goals, 34 assists). It was enough to earn him an amateur tryout contract with the Rochester Americans.

He only played eight games with Rochester, before that tryout contract expired and it wasn’t renewed. But that’s when the Flyers came calling again and said they’d like to give Bordson another chance.

So they signed him to a new deal and he finished out the season playing 24 games with the Phantoms.

But now he was going to be used differently. The Phantoms wanted to see how he would look as a shut down forward, playing against the top players on the opposing team.

He did a decent enough job to finish the 11-12 season that he was brought back for training camp in September.

However, with the trickle down effect of NHL talent in the AHL, many believed Bordson’s ticket was going to once again be punched for Trenton.

Except he stuck with the Phantoms.

And through the first nine games he’s really impressed coach Terry Murray.

“He’s a player that really thinks the game,” said Murray, who certainly has an appreciation for players with a strong background in the mental part of the sport. “He plays really well within the system and he knows his role and plays it well. He’s a guy that you can trust to do his job the right way. And he is always willing to learn. He asks a lot of good questions in practice. You can see that he really embraces his role.”

And it’s a role that’s difficult for some players to undertake because when you’re a forward and your good enough to make it to the AHL, your background is usually one rooted in skill.

So, to suddenly accept a role where you have to unselfishly put aside that skill to provide the team with the kind of hard work and energy that is often overlooked by fans because it’s not easily measured statistically takes a real understanding and commitment that often is lost on young players at this level.

Not Bordson.

“There are three zones on the ice and you have to be responsible in all three,” Bordson said. “Everyone at this level has played power play or top line minutes at some point previously and they still want to do that. I’m not really worried about that. I like playing a defensive role. I just want to play hard and be a team-oriented guy.

“It’s been a lifelong goal to get to the NHL. I’m one league away. I’m playing in the best league in North America at the moment and with all the talent that’s down here, it’s awesome. If that’s my ticket to the NHL – to be a defensive forward, a shut down guy and a penalty killer, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

The notion of Bordson being an NHL caliber player was definitely a long shot a year ago, and while he’s still not considered an elite prospect, he’s at least on the radar as a guy who might be able to develop into a fourth line type/penalty kill specialist in the future.

“He’s a guy that grows on you,” Pryor said. “He does a lot of little things really well. When you don’t see how he is day in and day out, you maybe don’t see it, but as a coach you get to see it every day and a guy like that grows on you and they know they can rely on them. A player like him is very valuable.

“You have to find an identity and sometimes that takes awhile. He’s been through a lot with different organizations, but he’s figured it out and will do whatever it takes to play. He’s a versatile guy.”

But will that translate to getting a chance in the NHL?

“There’s an opportunity here for sure,” Pryor said. “It ultimately depends on what he does himself but people in the organization do like him because of what he does. You never really know, but I agree with Terry. What Sean (Couturier) did really well for the Flyers last year, Rob is doing at this level for the Phantoms this year.

“Down the road, whether that would be this year, next year, or whenever the time might come, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that he be able to do that [reach the NHL].”

And that’s all Bordson wants is a chance.

“I just want to keep learning from Terry Murray,” Bordson said. “He’s got a lot of experience and knows what it takes to make it to the NHL. I just want to listen to what he says, learn from him and get better.

“I take pride in playing in both ends of the rink. There’s something that makes you feel good about shutting down the other team’s top line, or killing off a penalty. I’ll do that any day.”

And who knows, “any day” may turn into “today” some day soon for Bordson when it comes to fulfilling that dream if he maintains his selflessness and work ethic.

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email him at asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37

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POSTED ON Saturday, 11.03.2012 / 7:14 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – When the Phantoms reconvene for practice Monday, Terry Murray will have an easy day.

He’ll gather his team in the locker room, pull down the video board, hit play on the DVD player and simply let the video of Saturday’s 4-0 win against Albany roll.

It was that good of a performance. It was that solid a team effort. They won every level of the game. 5-on-5. Power Play. Penalty kill.

Phantoms. Phantoms. Phantoms.

They scored the first goal of the game for the first time this year. They took a lead into a period for the first time as well, then repeated it a second time, because, well, it felt good to play with the lead.

Who knew, right?

All kidding aside, it was probably the Phantoms (4-5-0, eight points) most complete effort of the season.

“We got to play our game tonight,” said Ben Holmstrom, who scored one of the two Phantoms power play goals and was a demon on the penalty kill. “And we got that first goal of the game that helped us settle in and stick with it for the whole 60 minutes. Obviously there are still ups and downs within the game but that was a big performance for us.”

It was big from the opening shifts to the final horn that sounded the 19th shutout of goalie Scott Munroe’s career.

Murray made a couple changes, bringing Garrett Roe and Tyler Brown back in the lineup and they paid immediate dividends with their forechecking game, pressuring the Albany defense on every shift.

“I was very pleased with how they got on the hunt with the forecheck and were pivotal to the game,” Murray said.

And although they didn’t get on the score sheet – despite several high percentage chances, they did something that was really more critical for the Phantoms than anything else – they set a tempo for a team that was definitely out of sync in recent games.

Because after they went off the ice, it was Harry Zolneirczyk skating hard, Zac Rinaldo forcing turnovers, Rob Bordson winning puck battles, Cullen Eddy getting into fights… it was contagious.

Then the penalty kill, which has been a strong suit of the team, even while they were struggling, blew the doors open.

Brayden Schenn sprang Sean Couturier on a breakaway and Couturier made a brilliant deke to force Keith Kinkaid to flop to the ice before sliding the puck past him for a 1-0 lead.

And with that, you could feel the sigh of relief emanated from the Phantoms bench fill the Glens Falls Civic Center.

“Guys were committed to doing things right,” Murray said. “We want to really go after pucks… Tonight there were several clips that I’m going to reshow our players (from the penalty kill) that will reinforce the positive side of it.”

Holmstrom made it 2-0 when he lunged to poke a loose puck past Kinkaid on the power play, following up a Matt Ford shot, then Erik Gustafsson scored on a 5-on-3 advantage, taking a pass from Couturier and snapping it into the short side.

Couturier finished the game with three points, and was once again the most noticeable player on the ice.

“It makes a big difference scoring that first goal,” Couturier said. “You can tell because we stuck to the game plan after that and we played a pretty good game overall. It starts with the little details and executing them. Today we did a good job of creating turnovers on the forecheck and not turning the puck over.”

Shane Harper added the final goal, going hard to the net and taking a great pass from Couturier, who gain possession of the puck off his own faceoff win, and slipping it past Kinkaid.

Meanwhile, all Munroe did was make 26 saves to record his 19th career AHL shutout.

“It never gets old,” he said. “It’s always the same in those last couple minutes of the game when you’re sitting on the shutout and it’s sure nice to get them.”

Click here to find out more!

For the Phantoms it’s nice to get a lead. It’s nice to protect the lead. It’s nice to play the way Terry Murray wants them to play.

Now, they need to see if they can carry that momentum into a five-game road trip.

“This win is a huge step for us,” Holmstrom said. “Now we have to follow it up. We haven’t had back-to-back victories yet though. That’s the next thing we have to do and start stringing these together.”

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POSTED ON Friday, 11.02.2012 / 7:12 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – At this point, some would call it epidemic.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just hockey. After a 4-1 loss to the defending Calder Cup champions, who now play as the Syracuse Crunch, it’s easier to be fickle in such an assessment. Maybe giving up the first goal of the game in eight straight contests is just a bad run.

Maybe going into 16 consecutive intermissions without a lead is a quirk of the statistics. Maybe getting behind and having to chase the game turns good effort and hard work into misguided energy.

Well, the last maybe is a definite with these Phantoms, who continue to be inconsistent in the first tenth of their season. Whether the rest is true or not remains to be seen, but unless the Phantoms can figure out a way to change those trends, those perceptions could very well become realities.

“We don’t stop working but we don’t work very efficiently,” said Danny Syvret. “The work is coming but the production isn’t there. When you are behind it’s a given that you are going to try harder to score and that usually isn’t the best way to play the game. “Supporting the puck in a close area and then going for long bomb plays don’t usually work and you can easily lose a game playing that way.”

And that’s what the Phantoms have found themselves doing when they get behind – pressing too hard, getting away from their structure and trying low percentage plays in hopes they will work.

“We start to get away from everything we want to see with the structure and the setup,” coach Terry Murray said. “We were freelancing out there and as soon as that happens it snowballs… We got away from everything and our spacing got to be too big. It got further away every shift. I addressed the team about it after the game, we were looking for passes from our goal line to the red line.“We’re on the other side of their defensemen. It’s impossible to make those plays.”

The Crunch scored on their first shot of the game as AHL scoring leader Cory Conacher surprised Marc-Andre Bourdon with his speed, blew past him on the left wing and lifted a backhander past Cal Heeter to make it 1-0 midway through the first period. It was a disappointing incidence for the Phantoms, who had dominated play through the game’s first 10 minutes. However, they didn’t respond poorly.

The continued to have good energy in what was a chippy period and were able to draw even before the end of the frame. Sean Couturier won faceoff cleanly back to Cullen Eddy at the point. He snapped a shot on goal that Harry Zolnierczyk tipped past Syracuse goalie Dustin Tokarski, knotting the score.

It was Zolnierczyk’s third goal of the season, having scored one in each home game. But once the second period began, Syracuse starting dictating their style of game, scored two quick goals 100 seconds apart, and left the Phantoms in chase mode.

“We start the games well but then we slowly fade away from what’s working and that’s hurting us right now,” Zolnierczyk said. “Getting down in every game is frustrating. We talk about scoring that first goal to set ourselves up. But then we get behind and we don’t fade away right off the bat but slowly but surely we start tightening up and deviating away from the gameplan.”

The Phantoms had their chances, but went 0-for-7 on the power play, and really only had sustained pressure in one of those opportunities. “Special teams are critical obviously in the game today,” Murray said. “We relied on it in the game against them last week and today it didn’t come through for us… You have to keep going with it and keep getting the chances. Tonight we had pucks end up on the sticks of players that you want to have it, but some nights they don’t go in for you.”

Murray was specifically referring to a chance Couturier had on the power play early in the third period where he couldn’t lift the puck off the ice and over a sprawling Tokarski. Tye McGinn had a couple of chances around the net, but couldn’t finish and Matt Ford had a snipe effort from in close that Tokarski gloved.

The Phantoms were given another power play chance late in the game, and Murray pulled Heeter for the extra attacker, but the Phantoms couldn’t get set up in the 6-on-4 and Matt Taormina iced the puck into the empty net to round out the scoring for Syracuse.

The goal for the Phantoms (3-5-0, six points) now will be to turn things around against an Albany Devils team who dominated them last week in a game in Albany. “[Tonight was] part of the learning process,” Murray said. “As players they have to take a look at it. We have to talk about it as coaches and we have to bring it back together quickly.”

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37

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POSTED ON Thursday, 11.01.2012 / 7:10 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

After leading the Adirondack Phantoms in scoring in 2011-12, getting sent down to the Trenton Titans of the ECHL this season was a bit of a shock to Jason Akeson.

It was the kind of thing that in the past may have bothered him considerably.

But not this year. Not now. Not after talking to his mom.

See, Patricia Wheatley is Jason’s inspiration. Not just because she’s a mother to two top tier hockey talents – Jason’s brother Tyler, a defenseman, plays Junior A in Smiths Falls, Ontario for the Bears – but because she is a living, breathing example of how to overcome adversity.

Wheatley was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that attacked the muscles and bones in her arm.

She would have to endure a lengthy battle, one that was filled with hurdles and setbacks. There were days of intense chemotherapy and an uncertainty about her health on a day-to-day basis.

But the one thing that kept her going was hockey.

She always wanted to know what was going on with Jason and Tyler. She wanted to hear their stories about life in junior hockey, or for Jason last season, life in the American Hockey League.

“She loves the game as much as we do,” Akeson said. “She didn’t want to talk about it. She was more concerned about us. Hockey kept the cancer off my mom’s mind.”

So, when Akeson was surprisingly sent to Trenton rather than Glens Falls, NY, home of the Phantoms, it was Wheatley who got him to accept and understand his situation.

“The last few years have been hard for me emotionally,” Akeson said. “Moving away from home knowing my mother had cancer was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. But she’s one of the most strong people I know and the way she carried herself on a daily basis inspired my whole family – including me to keep working hard when your down in the dumps. At then end of the day, I was just playing hockey and I have to realize what a privilege that is. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Trenton or wherever because there’s a lot more important things going on in life if I just pay attention.”

Like his mom beating cancer and going into remission.

That was the news that came shortly after he was told he was starting the season in Trenton.

“Getting that phone call that she was cancer-free was a great day,” Akeson said. “I was pretty upset. I trained hard all summer to be a top player in the AHL this season, and then being sent to Trenton was a shock to my system. But, then I talked to mom and realized that if you just keep fighting and stay positive, you can overcome anything. Anything is possible. She was very strong and we’re very proud of her. Now I have to be the same way.”

It’s not like Akeson took a step back over the summer. You don’t just go from leading a team in scoring (14 goals, 41 assists for 55 points in 76 games with the Phantoms) to being demoted.

Instead, Akeson was caught up in a numbers game. With NHL talent playing in the AHL during the labor unrest, it was inevitable that Akeson’s name would slip a little down the depth chart.

And once it got down below the top six forwards, it didn’t seem to make sense for the Flyers to keep him in Adirondack, because he wasn’t going to fill the role that are usually reserved for third and fourth line players.

“A guy like Garret Roe is a similar-sized guy who can play on the third or fourth line because he’s a hard worker and he’s gritty and plays with a more grind-it-out mentality,” said Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube, who has been working with the Titans. “Akeson is a different player. He’s small, but he is purely a skill guy and a playmaker, so with the top six being filled on the Phantoms by guys like (Sean) Couturier and (Brayden) Schenn, it’s hard to imagine Akeson getting the kind of ice time he needs to be successful with that group.

“That’s why he’s in Trenton, but that said, he’s a very skilled guy… probably the most skilled guy in Trenton. He’s got great hands and vision, and makes plays. He’s a smart player. Not a lot of speed, but he knows how to play the game.”

Which has been the story of Akeson’s career. He’s too small (5-foot-10) and not fast enough for his size to play.

He’s heard the same thing since he was little, and yet has continued to prove everyone wrong.

He was an elite scorer in two seasons with the Cumberland Grads in Junior A. When he made it to major junior, he was a second team All-Rookie selection for the Kitchener Rangers with 64 points in his first full season.

In his second season with the Rangers, that total climbed to 80 points, playing with NHL-talent Jeff Skinner and Jeremy Morin.

It was the belief by many scouts that Akeson was a product of playing with guys who were first and second round picks in the NHL, and couldn’t thrive without them.

Then Akeson proved everyone wrong again.

In his final junior season, Akeson finished with 108 points, tied for the most in the OHL. The Flyers liked what they saw and decided to take a chance on him, offering him a three-year entry-level deal as an undrafted free agent prior to last season.

Still just 22-years-old, Akeson still has a lot to work on… and a lot to prove.

“Every day, everything I do is an attempt to get faster,” Akeson said. “That’s what the sport of hockey is now. The game is all about speed. There’s no gray area. I know that’s what I have to work on the most. I thought I was doing it and doing well, but to get sent down was a blow to my pride at first.

“However, I now know that life goes on. I can’t pout and whine. It’s the way the sport goes. I’m playing with a great group of guys who all want to take that next step and get to the AHL. I know what it’s like. I’ve been there. I’ve been successful there and I just want to get back. That’s my focus.”

And so far so good for Akeson, who is third on the Titans in scoring with two goals, four assists and six points in the Titans first seven games.

“He’s gone there and played and I thought he’s played really well,” Berube said. “He ran the power play well. You can see he has the ability to slow the game down and use his vision to create plays. But That’s also the reality. It’s good to be able to slow the game down, but you can’t always do things slower. You have to make quicker decisions and do things at a more intense rate of speed. He knows he has to play that way, and he knows he’ll be back to the AHL as soon as the lockout ends.

“To be a small player in the NHL, you have to be exceptional, but I never count a guy out. He’s intelligent and has great skill. There are a lot of guys that don’t have that. If he becomes a harder player to play against… then he can make it. I’ve seen it before. It’s not impossible.”

With his mom in his corner, chatting hockey and offering advice and inspiration, Akeson too knows now that nothing is impossible.

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email him at asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com or you can follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37

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POSTED ON Wednesday, 10.31.2012 / 7:08 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

When looking back at the history of the Philadelphia Flyers, it’s not a surprise to learn that the franchise has come oh-so-close to ending a Stanley Cup championship drought that dates back to 1975.

Over a four-year career with the Flyers, goaltender Robert Esche posted a 60-40-16 record to go along with seven shutouts and a 2.45 goals-against average in 128 regular season games.

Six times in the last 37 years the Flyers have reached the Cup Final only to fall just short in reclaiming the silver chalice as their own.

And yet, despite getting to within a win or two of doing just that on a few occasions, some would argue that the team that had the best chance to eradicate the drought was one that never made it to the Final.

That would be the 2003-04 Flyers, who dropped an emotional, seven-game series to the eventual Cup champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in the Eastern Conference Finals.

It was a team loaded with big name talent. There was Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte and Keith Primeau. There was John LeClair, Mark Recchi and Sami Kapanen. There was Eric Desjardins, Simon Gagne and Michal Handzus.

It was a who’s who of hockey coached by a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Ken Hitchcock.

Yet, as good as they were up front, if they were going to make a run to the Cup, they were going to need somebody to be outstanding in goal.

The year started with Jeff Hackett as the No. 1 guy, but he was diagnosed with vertigo in early January and never played again.

The Flyers traded for veteran Sean Burke about a month later and although it looked like he was going to be the guy for the first several weeks he was in Philly, in mid-March Hitchcock made a surprise decision.

Robert Esche, his 26-year-old backup goalie had played well all season filling in for both Hackett and Burke. Hitchcock decided Esche was going to be the guy the Flyers would go with for the playoffs and have Burke as a veteran to step in, in case Esche cracked under pressure.

The thing was, Esche never did crack. He finished the regular season with the best numbers of his career going 21-11-7 with a 2.04 goals against average and a .915 save percentage.

In the playoffs Esche, who refused to speak to the media that postseason, earning the nickname, “Silent Bob,” was just as good with a 2.32 GAA and an even better .918 save percentage.

He helped carry a Flyers team depleted with injuries on defense (so much so that Kapanen, a forward, had to play regularly on the Flyers defense), to Game 7 of that Conference Final.

Esche was never the same after that season. A lockout that cancelled the following season hurt Esche from a physical standpoint, as he never seemed to get back to his playing shape the next season, and was being pressured by rookie goalie Antero Niittymaki, who had guided the Philadelphia Phantoms to the Calder Cup championship in the AHL during the locked out season.

Esche still held on to the No. 1 job in the 2005-06 playoffs, but barely. Not that it mattered as the Flyers were eliminated by a good Buffalo Sabres team in six games.

The following year proved to be the worst in Flyers history, and by the end of the season Esche was ready to move on from Philadelphia.

Last month, Esche returned to Philly for the first time since leaving the Flyers. He was working out with some NHL players at Flyers Skate Zone.

We caught up with him to see what he was up to since leaving the organization in the Spring of 2007.

In 2003, Esche won the William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it.

Q: What have you been doing since leaving the Flyers?

A: “When I first left the NHL back in 2007 I was looking for a job here and nothing really sunk in with an NHL team. It was mostly two-way contract offers and I wanted to play a lot of games so Russia was a good fit for me.

I went to Ak Bars Kazan in my first year - which is the gateway to Siberia - and we had a great team that went far in the playoffs [He had a 1.86 GAA in 18 games]. That was exciting as I got my first taste of Russia.

“The next year I went to St. Petersburg and Barry Smith was the coach there. It was a very North American team and most of the Russians had played in the NHL so there was a lot more English being spoken and it was more of an international city where we could send our kids to school rather than do the home schooling. I stayed there for two years and had two extremely successful seasons. [He had nine shutouts and a 1.87 GAA in 2008-09 and six shutouts and a 2.07 GAA in 2009-10].

“Then I went to Belarus. At that point the family stayed home. I played in Minsk. That was different. I’ll leave it at that [3.30 GAA in 24 games].

“Then last year I played in Switzerland [for SCL Tigers Langnau with a 3.05 GAA in 40 games]. That was my favorite year from a family standpoint but from a hockey standpoint it was just different hockey.

“I’ve been all over the map and kept my restaurant going and doing a lot farming to supplement the restaurant, so it has been good.”

Q: Can you tell us about the restaurant and your farm?

A: “I actually set up the business plan several years ago because I always wanted to go into farming. So, I went to school, took some classes on it and really studied it while I was in Russia – because there is a lot of down time there. We have the beef, the chicken broilers, the egg layers and the produce as well. We supplement roughly 55 percent of the restaurant [called Esche’s Aqua Vino, located on the Marina in downtown Utica, N.Y.] in the summer and fall months. Now we’re moving into aquaponics at the farm to try to create year-round sustainability for the restaurant.

“Oddly enough restaurants and farming are two of the most difficult industries to go into, but together they go well and are a hand-in-glove fit. Getting everybody on board is a little trying at times – like getting the chefs on board because the food is 100 percent different then food you buy from distributors. It’s not portion controlled so that’s an issue, especially when somebody comes out with a bigger steak than the next person. The restaurant is in Utica. The farm is my home property. I have 80 acres just outside of Utica.”

Q: What about your future in hockey? You’re 34 years old and haven’t been in the NHL in five years. What’s next?

A: “I’d like to keep on playing as long as I can. I really want to stay over here [in North America]. The last five years from a family standpoint and personally have been tough. But I learned a lot and the weaknesses in my game got better. I never really read plays that much until I went over to Russia because that’s what you have to do there. I want to stay on this side of the ocean. Maybe I can latch on somewhere on a tryout or on a two-way contract so I can try to work my way back up back to where I think I can get to.”

Esche participated in the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy for Team USA.

Q: So, how did you end up working out here? There had to be somewhere closer to home for you to skate and workout, no?

A: “I always loved the Flyers organization and everyone in the organization. I’ve always thought of myself as a Flyer. When I left, I left on good terms. It was a very frustrating year -for everyone from the bottom up to the top down. I don’t think it was easy on any one person. I wasn’t even playing at the end when we had three goalies.

“But [general manager Paul Holmgren] treated me great through that whole thing and really made a tough situation as easy as possible. So, for me, I’ve always felt that kinship with the Flyers organization, especially with guys like [head athletic trainer Jim] McCrossin and [assistant athletic trainer] Sal [Raffa] and [Head Equipment Manager] Derek [Settlemyre], [equipment manager] Harry [Bricker] and [assistant equipment trainer Mike Craytor]. Everybody in here had always helped me out the five years I was here, so I called Holmgren up to see if I would be getting in the way, and he said, no, come on down.

“I was able to work with goalie coach Jeff Reese and that was my first goalie session in five years. They don’t have goalie coaches [in Switzerland] and in Russia we had a guy, but he never worked with me. He worked with the other goalies, but never with me. I don’t know if I scared him or what.”

Q: What’s the next step in the process? Do you start contacting teams to let them know you are trying to get back?

A: “I got John LeClair as my new agent. He works for Lewis Gross [LeClair’s agent when he was a player]. There was a team that was interested in me and then two months ago it fell through and I got ultra depressed. I really wanted to stay over here, but it was tough because I never really had an agent and always handled things myself. Then McCrossin told me that Johnny was starting to get into it at some level – so I called him up.

“First I talked to one of my best friends – Sean Burke and he told me he didn’t think my prospects were that good, but then I talked to Lewis and John and they said they didn’t think it would be that hard to find me something, so I called Holmgren immediately to see if I can get on the ice because we don’t have much up in Utica. Realistically, for being out of the league for five years, I think I’m probably going to have to go on a tryout somewhere to see where I fit in. If I was to be offered a contract, it’d be awesome, but realistically, an AHL contract where I remain a free agent or a tryout would be the best thing.”

Q: You have the farm, you have the restaurant, you’re a very successful businessman. So, what still drives you to play hockey in the NHL after being out of the league for so long?

A: “What still drives me is I do like the game. Oddly enough I’m a pretty smart guy, so I’m an absentee owner of the restaurant. That place pretty much runs itself. And the farm is really a summer thing. I don’t have a cow/calf operation where you have to go through the birthing and everything. I get feeder cattle and I get the chickens in the spring time and when you are done with them you go to have them slaughtered. So, I don’t really have anything going on in the winter. The thing I can say about my five years overseas is I really missed it over here.

“Look, I was paid well over there and that made me have a blind eye a little bit to the fact that I wasn’t in the NHL anymore, but I missed it.

“There were too many late nights talking to ex-NHLers who were on my team – whether it was [Darius] Kasparaitis or [Sergei] Zubov or [Petr] Cajanek or [Sergei] Brylin. We all said the same thing – ‘I would do anything to come back and play.’

“In those five years, I had contract offers from the NHL but the money kept keeping me over there or I wasn’t allowed out of my contract sometimes, so the timing has always been kind of screwed up with me because you have to sign a contract so early over there and I wasn’t willing to roll the dice and [not sign] and say, ‘I can come back.’

“But now my kids are older and I want to come back here and I want to play. I really enjoy the sport. I don’t think I enjoyed it over there. It’s different. You go out on the ice over there you’re just trying to get by, where as here, it’s such a competitive, passionate thing.”

Q: You left the KHL for Switzerland last season despite being pretty successful as a goaltender there. Were you thinking about signing somewhere in the KHL only to change your mind after the plane crash that killed the entire Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team last September?

A: “It was horrible. I was friends with Karel Rachunek and [Pavol] Demitra and I knew [Brad] McCrimmon when I was young because he was on the Phoenix Coyotes when I was a prospect there.

“The scary thing for me personally is that summer, I was leaving Belarus and I didn’t want to go back there. I had played against Yaroslavl and had a good playoff against them. So they were talking to me and they were debating between me and Stefan Liv. They ended up signing him, but my name was thrown about as being the goalie there.

“I sit back and look at it now and it’s so weird. My idol growing up was Waylon Jennings and he’s the one who gave up his seat on a charter plane to the Big Bopper because the Big Bopper had a cold. That was the plane that crashed [also killing Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens].

“That summer I was so upset because I wanted to go to Yaroslavl, but looking back on it, sometimes things just happen and whether you believe in pre-destiny or manifest destiny, there’s no way of explaining this. It was a horrible feeling.

Esche posted a 13-11 record with one shutout and a 2.73 goals-against average in 25 Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Flyers.

“I have so many friends in the KHL who wanted to quit after that crash – or just take a bus – but that’s unrealistic. Those planes are all those old Soviet era planes. I guess it’s better now, I don’t know, but at the time it was horrible. I wasn’t particularly a good flyer to begin with, but the flying in Russia was not good.”

Q: What is your favorite memory of playing in Philadelphia?

A: “I was extremely lucky to play with so many great guys in such a great organization so for me to put my finger on any one thing would be impossible to do. Some of the best friends I have came from this team.

“It was the golden age of hockey pre-lockout where every guy on the team was a household name and that was really cool. I know we didn’t win anything but we were really close and had some unfortunate injuries at the end there with defensemen that was pretty tough.

“Tampa Bay was awesome but we were right there. It was great, I didn’t have to talk to the media – I loved it. I wasn’t even really upset. When I got the green light I was thrilled that I didn’t have to talk to the media.

“I played with two of my best friends in Burke and Recchi but we had so many great guys – [Roenick], Johnny, Desjardins, Amonte – the whole team was filled with great, great guys and it was really unfortunate that we didn’t win it. But the Flyers always find a way to bounce back and get right back where they belong at or near the top of the league. The way they do things here is just outstanding.”

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POSTED ON Saturday, 10.27.2012 / 7:06 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – Terry Murray tried switching up the lineup. He tried conveying a message of communication, trust, and belief in a system.

As a veteran coach, whose seen highs and lows with a hockey team, he has a pretty good idea of which buttons to push when.

And while he still is keeping the panic button under 24-hour armed guard, a few other pushes still brought no positive results.

A day after getting completely dominated by Albany, the Phantoms played a better brand of hockey for 20 minutes, before losing their cool – and their discipline – allowing the highest scoring power play nine chances with the man advantage.

The end result wasn’t pretty – a 6-2 loss to the Rochester Americans, the Phantoms fourth loss in their last five games.

“We’ve just got to settle down,” Murray said. “There’s got to be more composure from our young players and we have to trust each other. Trust our linemates. Trust other people to do their own job. If we can just grab onto that, we can become a pretty good team. We’ve shown it already by playing some very good games and good responsibility without the puck, but the last two games it’s slipped away.”

And the Phantoms have done so in new ways each time.

Against the Devils, there was a failure to communicate, an inability to win puck battles, and a one-night turnover affliction.

Against the Amerks, a good opening 20 minutes spilled over into a second period based in hesitation and uncertainty, which led to penalties, which mounted frustration, which cost them a game.

“Some of the penalties that we took weren’t disciplined at all and that’s going to cost you, especially against that team,” said goalie Scott Munroe, who had to make 45 saves in the loss. “We were a little leery of their power play, and if you give them that many chances they’re going to put a couple in.”

Which the Americans did, going 2-for-9 with the man advantage.

However, Murray wanted to caution that the spike in penalties, (the Phantoms were the least penalized team in the AHL entering the game) was not the primary reason for the Phantoms loss.

“There’s more to it than that,” Murray said. “We end up chasing the puck too much. Two men going to the puck carrier in our defensive zone opens up the back door – and the first goal we gave up is an example of that.”

It left Rick Schofield wide-open for a goal that gave Rochester an early 1-0 lead.

It also marked the sixth consecutive game to start the season that the Phantoms allowed the first goal.

But Munroe was strong in the period, making 14 saves, keeping the game a one-goal deficit after one period.

It looked like the Phantoms were going to continue to play a solid game when Harry Zolnierczyk out-hustled both T.J. Brennan and Rochester goalie David Leggio to a loose puck in the opening minute of the second period for an easy goal, tying the score 1-1.

But Rochester answered 90 seconds later with a power play goal by captain Kevin Porter, and just like that the Phantoms were back in a hole, and this time, they weren’t climbing out.

“We got out of our rhythm in the second period and that hurt us the rest of the game,” said Phantoms captain Ben Holmstrom. “A lot of the stick penalties are on us because we weren’t moving our feet. If it’s a hard penalty because of a hard hit, you don’t mind killing those off, but the trips and slashes and stuff, that’s just us not digging in.”

By the end of the period, Rochester added a second goal by Schofield and a power play redirection goal by Evan Rankin, to make the second period deficit 4-1.

It was the 12th consecutive intermission that the Phantoms went into their locker room without a lead, which adds a level of unwanted pressure.

It’s strange that this is happening to a team with 10 players with NHL experience playing at the AHL level, and even more so because of how well they played as a team a week ago during a hard-fought split with St. John in Newfoundland.

“I was really encouraged after that trip,” Munroe said. “We played two really good games and we were skating well. We were looking like a team. Then we come back from the trip, we got spanked in Albany and we come out [Saturday] with another one.”

Murray benched five players who played in Albany Friday – Matt Mangene, Garrett Roe, Eric Wellwood, Oliver Lauridsen and Jeff Dimmen – and replaced them with five players who were in business suits Friday – Tyler Brown, Mike Testwuide, Matt Ford, Zack Fitzgerald and Cullen Eddy.

Testwuide, playing his first game of the season, drew the Phantoms within 4-2 with an effort goal when he fought for position in front of the net and slid a loose puck past Leggio for 4-2.

With a power play in the closing minutes, Murray pulled Munroe to try to gain a greater offensive advantage, but a zone clear by Nick Crawford went right into the empty net to seal the victory for Rochester.

“We had a 20 minute effort only,” Murray said. “That’s where the game was at. We came out in the second and looked rattled at times… we paid a price for it.”

……………………………

NOTES: Tye McGinn won a heavyweight fight with Nick Tarnasky after Tarnasky drilled Danny Syvret from behind into the boards. McGinn cut Tarnasky over the left eye with one of his punches that landed… Sean Couturier picked up an assist, and was probably the Phantoms best skater in the game, however Murray didn’t want to heap any praise on him after a bad loss. “It’s not a night to talk about any one player. That was a team that put up 51 shots on us tonight and everyone is responsible for what is going on… Zac Rinaldo, who had been a bastion of disciplined hockey in the first five games, took three penalties Saturday, including a charging major.

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email him at asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37

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POSTED ON Friday, 10.26.2012 / 7:03 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

ALBANY, N.Y. – Cal Heeter said he is a perfectionist.

If that’s the case, then the only way the Phantoms would have won Friday is if Heeter was, in fact, perfect.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t. The score or his statistics won’t show it, but Heeter was the best player on the ice for the Phantoms in their disappointing 5-1 loss to the Albany Devils.

It is the third loss in four games for the Phantoms (2-3-0), who return to the ice Saturday at home in Glens Falls to face the high scoring Rochester Americans, top affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres.

The Amerks boast the highest scoring offense in the AHL so far, and if the Phantoms are going to defeat them, they’re going to have to do a complete 180 degree turn from the way they played Friday.

“I felt bad for Heeter because that was his second start (as a pro) and we came up with an unacceptable performance,” said Phantoms coach Terry Murray. “It’s too bad because he did battle and compete and make some big saves for us.”

That he did, but goalies, unless they’re named Ron Hextall, can’t score goals for you, and you can’t score goals if you don’t shoot the puck.

The Phantoms didn’t really register a shot until the 14:42 mark of the first period (they were credited with one a couple minutes earlier that never reached the goalie) and by that point they were already behind 2-0.

It marked the fifth straight game to start the season that the Phantoms allowed the first goal of the game.

“That was a team that played the game they wanted to play,” Murray said of the Devils. “They beat us to pucks and did the things they wanted to do along the boards. The board game was an easy game for them. That’s a team that taught us a lesson here tonight.”

The Devils were also opportunistic, taking advantage of Phantoms mistakes to account for four of their goals.

Erik Gustafsson couldn’t corral a loose puck in front of Heeter in the first period, allowing Jacob Josefson to slam dunk the puck into an open net to make it 1-0.

Danny Syvret then turned the puck over in front of his own net, leading to a 2-on-0 situation to which Heeter had no chance to thwart as Matt Anderson scored to make it 2-0.

After Zac Rinaldo scored on a penalty shot (you read that correctly) the Devils got a penalty shot of their own.

Marc-Andre Bourdon, who was back in the lineup after missing the last two games with an injury, hooked Adam Henrique’s stick.

Referee Chris Brown awarded Henrique with a penalty shot, even though he wasn’t free and clear on Heeter – and got off a good shot too.

Henrique didn’t fail, and after two periods it was 3-1.

“It was a tough call because he still got his shot off and had a pretty good scoring chance,” said Heeter, who made a nice save on Henrique on the play. “There’s not really much you can do about that though. It’s my job to make saves and I tried to step up on the penalty shot there and I came away a little short.”

Syvret got beat again in the third period when Phil DeSimone weaved around him and slid a shot through Heeter’s five-hole to make it 4-1, and all but eliminate any chance the Phantoms had of getting back in the game.

Darcy Zajac re-directed an Adam Larsson shot past Heeter a few minutes later to round out the scoring.

“I’m not really happy when I have a goal scored on me, no matter what kind of shot it is,” said Heeter, who made 25 saves. “It doesn’t matter if it was a penalty shot, or a screened tip-in like the fifth goal. The fourth one I’d like to have back because it squeezed in through the five-hole. You can take positives from every game, but you have to be realistic too and realize that you still need to get better.”

The Phantoms couldn’t have been much worse. With the exception of Heeter, Rinaldo, Harry Zolnierczyk and a line that was put together in the third period consisting of Andrew Johnston, Matt Mangene and Garrett Roe, there weren’t too many Phantoms who could feel good about how they played.

“We have to come out tomorrow with a whole different attitude,” said Rinaldo, who had several bug hits in the game, including a clean, open-ice check on Adam Larsson that left the big-bodied Devils defenseman shaken. “We have to come out with guns firing. We have to get pucks to the net, pucks deep. We’ll bounce back though.”

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POSTED ON Thursday, 10.25.2012 / 7:02 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

TRENTON, N.J. – Marcel Noebels had just finished a lengthy practice with the Trenton Titans. It went a little longer than usual, but the players didn’t mind as they were getting some special attention from Flyers assistant coaches Kevin McCarthy, Craig Berube and goalie coach Jeff Reese.

Noebels seemed to be in a good mood. He had just scored his first professional hockey goal and had just finished a chat with some local reporters who had caught wind of the prospect’s progression through the early part of the 2012-13 campaign.

So you could excuse Noebels if he was basking in the attention for a day.

Maybe it was this giddiness that propelled him to say what he said next. Perhaps it was confidence. Either way, Noebels sounded like a guy who wasn’t long for the ECHL.

“I want to move up (to Adirondack of the AHL),” he said. “But I want to do it before all the NHL guys go back to the NHL.”

If Noebels keeps playing as he has so far for the Titans, his shot in the AHL may come sooner rather than later.

Noebels, a left wing, is second on the Titans in scoring so far this season. He has six points (two goals, four assists) through the Titans first five games and one of his goals came on the power play – as he’s getting a chance to play in all situations for the 4-1-0-0 Titans.

“I think it’s been a pretty good start for me,” Noebels said. “I’m in my first pro season, I’m the youngest guy on the team (20-years-old), and I’m doing pretty good.

“I’m taking a lot of responsibility, and trying not to be last in line to step up and be a leader. Stats are not everything but I want to be the best player out there every game.”

It’s the right attitude for Noebels, a native of Toenisvorst, Germany, who the Flyers see as a real NHL-caliber prospect.

They were thrilled to get him in the fourth round (118th overall) of the 2011 draft, because they felt he was talented enough to be drafted higher but just slipped through the cracks.

“He’s a good skater,” said Berube, who is spending time watching the Titans and working with Noebels and the other Flyers prospects on the Titans. “He’s a big guy (6-foot-2, 204 lbs.) and he’s got good hands. In the game I saw I thought he looked good. I didn’t think he looked out of place. He’s got to get to the net more and do some damage around there. His net presence could have been better, but that’s something you learn the more you play pro hockey. He needs to be patient, but he’s got the aptitude and the right attitude that’s he’ll get it. He’s going to have potential to score some goals.”

That he showed in junior hockey.

In his first season in the Western Hockey League as an 18-year-old with the Seattle Thunderbirds, Noebels potted 28 goals and added 26 assists for 54 points in 64 games.

In his second junior season, Noebels split time between Seattle and the Portland Winterhawks and combined for 20 goals and 38 assists for 58 points in 62 games.

However, Noebels was never really known as a defensive-minded player, nor is he a physical guy. And while you can get away with deficiencies in those areas in junior hockey, they stick out sorely in the professional ranks – even in a league like the ECHL.

“He’s been really good so far, and we really like him as a prospect,” said Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. “But he needs to break a few junior habits first. We think he will , and we think he’ll do it rather quickly.”

Noebels admitted that he’s spoken to Berube a bit about those holes in his game, and feels that he is addressing them daily while practicing with the Titans.

"There are two things I want to improve in my game,” Noebels said. “I try to look too many times for linemates. That doesn’t mean I want to be selfish, but I should drive the net more and not always look for the pretty play.

“Then In front of the net I need to be strong and be tough. I need to win stick battles and puck battles. I’m a good one-on-one player in the corners, because I use my body in the corners to shield the puck, but I have to hit more frequently to get to the puck. At the junior level it’s different, here there’s a lot more structure and more hockey smarts. You have to look at the game and be smarter on the ice. Everyone is older, more experienced. You need to step up your game higher.”

As far as Berube’s concerned, it shows that Noebels is listening and grasping what it is the Flyers want from him. That simply makes it a matter of putting those words and thoughts to practice.

“He has the ability to propel himself up the ladder quickly,” Berube said. “He can really skate for a big guy. When you have that already, you tend to have an edge on guys who don’t move as well. He wants to play. He really seems interested in doing what is necessary to get to the next level. He has confidence and he has a great attitude. To me, that’s a very good sign.”

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email him at asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com or you can follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37

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POSTED ON Tuesday, 10.16.2012 / 7:00 AM
By Anthony SanFilippo - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter / Flyers Inside Out

UPDATED AS OF OCT. 18

Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren gave a brief injury update to goaltender Niko Hovinen late afternoon.

"Niko is day-to-day with a neck/whiplash injury. He will be re-evaluated over the weekend."

Hovinen is currently assigned to the Flyers ECHL affiliate, the Trenton Titans.

He stopped 11 of 12 shots he faced before leaving early in the second period during the Trenton-Reading game on Wednesday, October 17. The Titans went on to defeat the Royals, who are the ECHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals, 3-1.

TRENTON, N.J. – Asked to describe the difference between Niko Hovinen’s goaltending two weeks ago in an AHL preseason game and where he was after his first official start in North American professional hockey, Flyers’ goaltending coach Jeff Reese was all smiles.

“Night and Day,” he said after he and Flyers assistant coach Kevin McCarthy helped the Trenton Titans at their practice Tuesday. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement already.”

It probably helped a ton that Hovinen had a strong first outing for the Titans in their ECHL opener last week.

Hovinen had 31 saves in a 3-1 victory over Greeneville at the Sun National Bank Center.

“He played really well and got some confidence and a little of his swagger back,” Reese said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable with what we’re trying to do. He just got his family to move here from Finland [Hovinen has a wife and an infant daughter] and that makes him feel a lot more comfortable not just on the ice, but off it as well.”

Hovinen admitted that playing goal in North America, on smaller rinks and at a higher rate of speed, is something he has to get used to before he can really start to flourish.

At first he thought the adjustment wouldn’t be too hard – after all, he was told by many that the Finnish Elite League was the closest in terms of style to the North American Leagues.

But his indoctrination was anything but similar.

Hovinen was beaten repeatedly by shots to the short side because his angles in net were out of whack, thanks to the smaller ice.

As a result he struggled mightily in that exhibition game against Albany, and the Flyers brass knew immediately that the answer for Hovinen was to let him get his feet wet in the North American game in the ECHL, rather than struggle to find it in the AHL, which would start the season with more talent than usual with NHL caliber players participating during a work stoppage.

“It wasn’t the greatest day when they sent me down,” Hovinen said. “But when I look at it now, it was a good thing that I was sent down here. Obviously I wasn’t ready and I needed to work on a few things. There’s no better place to do that but here.”

The Flyers expected Hovinen to be their top goaltending prospect at the AHL level, but after seeing him during workouts in the summer, the Flyers hedged their bets and signed AHL veteran Scott Munroe.

Munroe was likely going to be on the Phantoms roster as an experienced voice, but that meant the other spot would belong to either Hovinen or Cal Heeter, whom the Flyers signed as a free agent after his career at the Ohio State University came to a close.

Heeter won the team over with his competitive style, which coupled with Hovinen’s subpar performance, was enough to have their chips each fall in the opposite place than expected.

That does not mean Hovinen’s star has fallen. The Flyers still have high expectations for the big Finn (Hovinen is 6-foot-7, which is the tallest goalie in the history of the ECHL).

“It takes a little bit of time to adjust sometimes,” Reese said. “The game is different over here. The rinks, the angles… it takes time. I know this is not where he really wants to be, but you know what? [Los Angeles Kings goalie] Jonathan Quick was in this league five years ago.”

And now he has a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his mantle.

“I feel better every day and I can’t wait to see what happens,” Hovinen said. “I want to go back up (to the AHL) as quickly as possible, so I’m going to work as hard as I can every day and improve on the things I need to improve on.”

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NOTES: Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and assistant general manager John Paddock took in the Titans practice from the stands… Flyers prospect Marcel Noebels, who has three assists in two games, said he too is looking to get back to the Phantoms as quickly as possible, “I want to get back there before the NHL guys leave,” he said… The Titans next home game is tomorrow against Reading. Tickets are still available and range in price from $15-$30 per seat.

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email him at asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37

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SCHEDULE

HOME
AWAY
PROMOTIONAL

STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 PIT 32 22 6 4 102 72 48
2 NYI 33 23 10 0 104 91 46
3 MTL 34 21 11 2 92 83 44
4 TBL 35 20 11 4 113 93 44
5 DET 33 17 8 8 93 82 42
6 TOR 33 19 11 3 114 98 41
7 WSH 32 16 10 6 95 85 38
8 NYR 30 16 10 4 92 81 36
9 FLA 31 14 9 8 69 79 36
10 BOS 33 16 14 3 82 85 35
11 OTT 33 14 13 6 89 92 34
12 CBJ 32 14 15 3 79 102 31
13 PHI 32 12 14 6 88 96 30
14 NJD 35 12 17 6 77 102 30
15 BUF 33 13 18 2 63 105 28
16 CAR 32 9 19 4 68 91 22

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
J. Voracek 32 12 30 13 42
C. Giroux 32 10 29 9 39
W. Simmonds 32 14 9 3 23
B. Schenn 32 9 13 6 22
M. Streit 32 4 16 4 20
S. Couturier 32 8 9 0 17
M. Read 32 3 10 -5 13
M. Raffl 24 9 2 3 11
N. Grossmann 32 3 5 6 8
M. Del Zotto 24 2 6 -6 8
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
S. Mason 6 10 5 .921 2.49
R. Emery 6 4 1 .894 3.13
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