Image c/o Amy Irvin (38 Photography)
Andrew MacDonald committed no less than three cardinal sins of defensive play, which led to Jason Zucker’s game-winning goal on Thursday night. MacDonald stopped moving his feet, turned into a forechecker rather than away from him, and attempted to make a move–in his own zone mind you– while virtually standing still.
The Wild corralled the puck and it eventually found its way to the back of the net off a slick passing play between Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, and Zucker. Most looked MacDonald’s way following the goal, and with good reason, but his d-partner Luke Schenn didn’t cover himself with glory either. In fact, he didn’t cover anything. Schenn got caught puck-watching at the front of the net as Zucker sneaked behind him for a tap-in.
The sequence highlighted the Flyers’ defensive struggles over a rough 7-9-2 start to the year. Chief among Thursday’s follies was the man on the bench. Why, in a tie game, did Craig Berube have the MacDonald-Schenn pairing on the ice in the final minutes? Regardless of Berube’s opinion of the two, neither of them played at all leading into the tilt with the Wild. Throwing the pair into the most crucial part of the game was a big ask from the head coach.
Of course, injuries have ravaged the Flyers’ blue line. MacDonald, Schenn, Michael Del Zotto all missed, or in Del Zotto’s case, will miss significant time, while the harrowing absence of Kimmo Timonen continues to haunt the Orange and Black. Few defensive core, let alone one as thin on talent as the Flyers’, can sustain such fluctuation.
But that’s little more than an excuse and it hides the greater problem that ails Schenn, MacDonald, and co. Of the nine d-men the Flyers have dressed this season only two, assistant captain Mark Streit and the now-injured Shayne Gostisbehere, skate well. Braydon Coburn and MacDonald are fast in a straight line but neither turn effectively when defending one-on-ones. Any lack of skating ability must be made up with by superior positioning.
This leaves a slim margin for error for any team slow-of-foot, including the Flyers. Break outs suffer. Plodding defensemen generate fewer odd-man rushes. In the defensive zone, they don’t need to be perfect but they do need to be near-perfect to succeed in the long run. MacDonald’s gaffe was a small mistake that led to a big one. Schenn’s obliviousness in a critical spot cost his team at least one point against a very good Wild squad.
You can point at injuries or poor coaching to dismiss the blue line errors. General manager Ron Hextall, as he did in so many terms after Wednesday’s 2-0, listless performance in New York, might call it a lack of heart. I’d call it a lack of mobility. Unless Hextall tinkers with the roster, it likely won’t improve. It’s much easier to take a strong skater and teach him defense than it is to take a slow one and make him fast.