Archive for December, 2011

New Team, New Genes and New Chemistry, But Have They Changed?

December 26, 2011 1 comment

After the New York Jets did their best Eagles impersonation on Saturday, the Philly sports fever epidemic completed its gradual spread to the Flyers season. Approaching the midpoint of the NHL season, with an avalanche of extra attention heaped on the team via the HBO 24/7 production and the Winter Classic they will host next week, the city’s soul is now officially infected yet again with the hopes and promising play of its hockey club.

The team itself has been beset by the injury bug. This ruthless strain has gone after the team’s best, knocking newly appointed team captain Chris Pronger out for the year and attempting to derail Claude Giroux’s MVP-like clip. It’s been fun to watch this team so far, not just because of the way they keep putting W’s up in the standings, but to see how the genetic makeup of this revamped team fits into the natural selection of the 2011-12 NHL season. So far they have not been surviving, they’ve been setting the pace.

It appears as if the offseason experiment has worked. The Mike Richards departure made sense, as he didn’t seem comfortable as the team’s leader, he underperformed in key spots, and he was seemingly at odds with Head Coach Peter Laviolette. But was it excessive to cut ties with Jeff Carter, a rare NHL player who was nearly a shoe-in for 35-45 goals each year?

The Flyers' offseason moves dared Giroux to become a superstar this year. He has responded by leading the league in scoring.

Apparently not. The team opted to spend big on a goaltending upgrade, the likes of which the team’s front office hasn’t produced over this decade-plus of playoff-bound teams, in favor of an offensive focus. But nearly halfway through the year, the Flyers are ranked No. 2 in the NHL in goals per game. Giroux has smoothly taken over as team (and league) superstar. Rookies like Matt Read and Jakub Voracek have responded with pleasantly surprising point totals. Most importantly, tough guys like Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds and Max Talbot have answered the call for their names on the scoresheet while Danny Briere and James van Riemsdyk have not yet been in the dominant form they’ve shown before.

The team has gotten faster and younger this season, but the impact of the three tough guys mentioned above has helped the team maintain a toughness that is helpful toward their success and likeable by the fans. Everybody loves a team that plays well on the road, and the Flyers have been the best at sending opposing home crowds grumbling toward the exits. Their road success is a sign of a team in a good mental place, a sign of positive team cohesion, a sign that they may have something that has been missing the last couple seasons.

It is clear from their play that they did not stop to feel sorry for themselves when Pronger and Giroux went down, and the behind-the-scenes access of HBO’s 24/7 shows the coaching staff’s key role in establishing that attitude. It has led to some victories in the face of adversity while those two guys were gone.

On further examination of those injuries, it was the four-and-a-half games the team played without Jaromir Jagr when they looked like a discombobulated unit. The realization that the 39-year-old star may be the team’s most important piece is both a blessing and a reason to be alarmed.

The Jagr experiment has been all smiles so far. But are the Flyers too reliant on him?

It shows that Jagr has exceeded his expected impact. The acquisition of the Czech veteran, in the midst of losing Richards and Carter and gaining Bryzgalov, may have been the best result of GM Paul Holmgren’s tinkering. He has helped the power play gain some consistency it has lacked. He has elevated the play of his top line cohorts. He has been more physical than expected, not throwing hits here and there, but still using his big frame to his advantage and not shying away from contact. He is scoring. And he looks like he’s having a load of fun doing all this, giving smiley interviews with Coatsey after the game and clearly contributing to the positive locker room atmosphere.

So why be alarmed? He’s 39, that’s why. No matter how incredible he has been, it’s still a petrifying realization that the success of this team may very well rely on him. Without Jagr the power play likely drops back to the realm of mediocrity. Without Jagr, Giroux and Hartnell have to work that much harder to put pucks in the net at this pace. Without Jagr, the absence of Pronger on the ice will sting that much more. As much as Jagr has shown he’s in shape, as much as he has already responded well in recovering from a groin injury, will he be able to last the season and be this effective in the playoffs? It remains a ginormous question to be answered.

With so many positive things to be said about this team right now, it is still hard to fight the thought that its fate may be no different than that of its predecessors. They are still plagued by inconsistent defense. First and second tier guys like Matt Carle,  Andrej Meszaros, and Kimmo Timonen continue to do enough for approval. They  play solidly for a stretch, get occasional game winners and they certainly never seem like they are dogging it out there. But they also look completely lost too often on coverage by the net, not giving the goaltender a chance on many goals that are being given up.

The omission of Bryzgalov from the positive portion of this midseason analysis is discouraging. Has he been giving up goals on shots from indescribable angles the way Brian Boucher miraculously found a way to do? No. But let’s be honest, he hasn’t been very good. If you look at the league leaders in goaltender save percentage, you will surely do a double take. You’ll squint at the screen harder, and likely even hit refresh before you realize that his name doesn’t appear on the first page. He ranks No. 41 with a .895 percentage, and he is giving up almost three goals per game, good for 34th place in that category. Sergei Bobrovsky ranks higher (albeit not very high) in both. Although Bryzgalov’s existential musings on his humble role in the vast universe are quite charming on camera, he better wake up and realize that his 9-year $51 million significance in the world of Philadelphia sports is a pretty big friggin’ deal, and it’s only going to get bigger come playoff time.

Bryzgalov's play hasn't helped to increase his significance in the "humungous big" universe

The Flyers are a team that’s using scoring across its lines to overcome defensive and goaltending deficiency. This despite the offseason recognition that it will be goaltending that this team needs, and has consistently lacked, in crunch time. It’s a team rolling the right way now but, from a standings perspective, resembles the team that held the No. 1 spot in the conference last year for a while during the throes of season’s midst. At this time last year, the Flyers looked tough to stop. But then they lost their mojo late and got swept by Boston in round one of the playoffs. So has this team changed much? Some struggles at home and recent losses to the cream of the Eastern crop, are elevating concern.

The Eagles flew smack into a glass window this season, completing a depressing 2011 for Philly sports. The Flyers have a chance to swoop in and grab the championship the Phillies and Eagles could have nabbed. More than the usual are paying attention to the Flyers and their sport this time around. It would be a great year to end their 36-year Stanley-Cup-hoisting drought. But then again, every year has seemed like a good year for that.


December 3, 2011 3 comments

Dining at Cochon began what would become a pig-themed evening, with a nightcap later on at the Blind Pig back in No Libs. It was a coincidence, I assure you. While I admit to intentions of pigging out, I by no means designed the evening to  be so porky. I swear I don’t have a pig fetish (though the Cochon owners may), and I don’t even like bacon much. But some good pig once in a while goes a long way.

The meal could have turned out quite nicely at the pleasant BYO bistro in Queens Village, as the pork tenderloin, pork belly, pork ribs, and pork-inspired wall were all well-received. But the pig-headed waiter regrettably took the theme too far, sucking most of the tenderness out of the meal. You might be inclined to call the assholishness authentic to the French culinary experience, but I was in Paris last May, and all the waiters I had there were quite friendly and even accommodating to our language-challenged group. This guy was much more of a dick.

I got on his bad side with the mere request of a different table than the one he’d selected. He opted for the table right in front of the door, prone to chilling drafts from outside, and adjacent to the electronic kiosk where the staff hovers and punches in the order. Considering there were only two other parties eating in the venue, I didn’t think it a big deal to ask for the two-person setup a few tables back. After I realized that table was the only one not set, I explained any of the other pre-set tables were fine, just not the one by the entrance. With attitude he insisted on the original one I wanted, and slowly went about preparing it as we stood awkwardly, almost to stubbornly demonstrate why he was disgusted in the first place. Pretty ridiculous, but ok, I thought it to be over.

Just SOME of the other tables the waiter could have chosen for us.

From my handpicked table I could now peer out onto one of Philly’s funky Passyunk Avenue “corners” if you can actually call them that. It could be perfect for people watching in the summer, but on a brisk autumn night it proved better for watching cars as they rolled from every which way through the jumbled intersection.

I finally got settled and delved in the menu and eventually the meat. The plates are robust, almost bullying you into testing your pig-eating meddle. It’s not the kind of fare for the faint of heart, and most dishes are wont to induce the undoing of buttons. My dining partner couldn’t help but lose her belt tableside, and I doubt she was the first to do so in that chair.

Would not be surprised if the ceramic dish was actually made of pig parts

The restaurant, named with the French word for pig, knows how to cook that animal. The pork, in each of its forms, was rich with flavor, straightforward and satisfying. Ironically, the delicate gnocchi appetizer stood out above all the animal fat, with its warm melted cheese countered nicely by the cool peas embedded within.

I was interested in some  more details of the restaurant’s concept and culinary influences, but not surprisingly, the waiter deflected my questions with a dismissive tone. Though unwilling to be chatty with me, he would then chat gregariously  with the staff in the open kitchen, audibly enough for me to become super informed of his plan to fix his bike. His distracting chatter basically said “I’m only a curt bastard when I talk to customers at my table.”

I laughed it off and enjoyed the rest of my food in the casual atmosphere which had something of a cinematic aura. The warm-colored walls are decorated with humorous throwback depictions of the pig, and the mosaic floor, left from the butcher shop that once occupied the space, recalled images from some of my favorite French films like Delicatessen and Amélie.

Don't leave without the belt which you will likely be forced to take off during a meal at Cochon

When I asked for an espresso to cap the meal, I was denied. So much for the European feel.  “I don’t have espresso,” the waiter uttered under his brown hipster ‘stache, as I stared at a gorgeous espresso machine across the room. I’d normally accept this, chalk it up to a legit reason like the machine being broken, but this guy had lost all his rights to the benefit of the doubt. Despite all of the inviting flavors of the food and decor, I felt such a desire to get out of there, and I left with a more bitter taste in my mouth than any espresso could have given me.

Naturally my comments on the food seem restrained by those on the staff, but that is indicative of the way the powerful dishes were overshadowed by the service. At least when I shared this experience with the person who recommended the place–a Cochon regular–he knew exactly which waiter I was talking about. It made me feel good that I wasn’t hallucinating his poor attitude. Apparently the entire staff is not comparable, according to my friend and to plenty of online reviews. With interest in new rotating menu items to try (the menu in person was not as it appears on the web site), I think I have a return trip in me. But others, who may get stuck with the French stereotype for a waiter may not be so forgiving.

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