Poor defense, injuries hurting Flyers

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

SAN JOSE, Calif. – It took less than two minutes Saturday night for the Philadelphia Flyers to see exactly what they're up against these days.

Eighteen-year-old defenseman Luca Sbisa, Philadelphia's first-round selection with the 19th pick in the June draft, went into the corner to start a sequence of a routine clear. A split second after Sbisa let go of the puck he got smashed by Patrick Marleau. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound forechecking forward, a veteran of 801 games and in the prime of his career at age 29, unloaded on Sbisa, who was appearing in his fifth NHL game.

The Sharks got an early scoring chance, and the Flyers iced the puck out of panic a couple times. It took a good five to six minutes for Philly to recover.

There's no reason to diss the Italian-born Sbisa. What can you expect when he very well could be playing junior hockey again in a week or so? He's here because he's had a strong camp and, well, the Flyers just don't have anywhere else to turn.

Philadelphia's difficult start can be traced to the rash of injuries on the blue line, and no one feels a whole lot better in orange and black after a 3-1 mid-game lead turned into a 5-4 overtime loss.

"There are good teams, but we're a good team, too," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "And we need to start finding ways to win these games. I don't see any weak teams in the league now. We knew our schedule was going to be tough to start out, other teams were going to be ready, especially with us going out on the road."

Philadelphia hasn't cracked the win column this season after five games – three losses in regulation, two in sudden death. And on Saturday the Flyers were outshot 45-17 by a team that lost the night before in another city.

"We need more from everybody to win hockey games," Stevens said.

Stevens and new captain Mike Richards talked long and loud – well, Richards did so in more hushed tones – late in the week about needing to work harder and show up at the rink more prepared.

That's what coaches and leaders say when the team is losing. It's always about not working hard enough. The last thing anyone is going to admit is the fact that injuries have decimated the Flyers' defense, and it's in your own end where everything starts in hockey.

The Flyers' run to the Eastern Conference finals last season have raised expectations again to the point in which anything but another deep run into the postseason will be considered a disappointment, especially with the successful return of top offensive threat Simon Gagne (goals in each of his first four games).

But look at the carnage on the back and forget about a Flyers return to dominance.

Randy Jones had surgery on his injured right hip on Wednesday. He's expected to be out seven to nine weeks, which is better than the original prognosis of 12-16. Jones logged an average of 19:23 of ice time during 71 appearances last season.

Ryan Parent had surgery late in the week for a torn labrum, a shoulder injury that will keep him out roughly another 10 weeks. Parent was two seconds short of skating for an average of 15 minutes a game last season.

And then there's Derian Hatcher, the grizzled veteran of 1,045 games. The sad news is he's probably played his last game. His knees are probably at the end of the road. He hasn't even attempted to skate this season. He logged 21:05 during a half-season worth of 44 games last year.

Jason Smith? Gone. Jaroslav Modry? Gone. Mike Rathje? Don't even bring him up.

It's no coincidence Kimmo Timonen is averaging nearly 28 minutes a night.

"We turned a couple pucks over and that led to penalties in our own end," Steven said.

Translated, that means there were defensive breakdowns.

Through it all, the Flyers still led 4-3 with less than five minutes to play thanks to Daniel Briere's first two goals of the season, back-up goalie Antero Niittymaki's (mostly) inspired play and Scottie Upshall's tireless energy.

But the defense let them down in the end. Braydon Coburn had pinching Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle sufficiently tied up in the slot, but no one was available on the weak side where Devin Setoguchi swept in to take a Jeremy Roenick feed and beat goalie Antero Niittymaki in close at 15:16 for a 4-4 tie.

And absolutely no one had Boyle on the same side of the ice 1:25 into overtime when the defenseman snuck in to basically fill an empty net in close. Game over. Long flight home.

"I certainly like the way we competed tonight and the fire we had, but we get the lead and we should be able to lock it up there," Stevens said.

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