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Flyers' assistant coach Mullen puts the power in power play

JOE MULLEN shrugged. Mullen, the Flyers' assistant coach who is the brains behind the power play that has dominated the Eastern Conference finals, didn't have an answer for his unit's success.

Mike Richards reacts after Simon Gagne's power-play goal in Game 2 vs. Canadiens.
Mike Richards reacts after Simon Gagne's power-play goal in Game 2 vs. Canadiens.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff photographer

JOE MULLEN shrugged.

Mullen, the Flyers' assistant coach who is the brains behind the power play that has dominated the Eastern Conference finals, didn't have an answer for his unit's success.

Hockey players always talk about "getting the bounces" of the frozen, vulcanized rubber disk, bounces that can be the difference between winning and losing games and playing in May and June vs. whacking balls on a golf course.

Mullen, now 53, and one of the NHL's all-time American-born leading scorers with 502 career goals, is no different.

"Pucks are going in," Mullen chuckled after Tuesday night's Game 2, 3-0 win at the Wachovia Center. "Sometimes you have spurts where it won't go in. Right now, it just seems like it's going in for us."

Yes, life is good for the Flyers right now. They will invade the hostile Bell Centre tonight in Montreal with a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals, just two wins from their first Stanley Cup finals since 1997.

But with the Flyers' power play, it isn't all luck and it isn't all about the bounces.

Tonight is Game No. 97 of the season, which means the Flyers' top players will gather in a small meeting room around 5:15 somewhere in the bowels of the Bell Centre for at least the 97th time this year to strategize and collaborate on the power play.

For some players, the monotony of the pregame special-teams meetings would be agonizing. For the Flyers, it's a routine.

"I think that Joe Mullen does an excellent job trying to prepare the players," coach Peter Laviolette said. "I think we've got good personnel for the power play. We've got the right people on the back end. We've got some skilled forwards up front."

"The concentration level has been really good for us," Mullen said. "We know the importance of what special teams will do out there, especially at this time of year."

The impact it has had on this series is undeniable. A six-goal performance in Game 1 will skew the stats, but of the Flyers' nine goals in this series, four have come with the man advantage.

It would have been five if Danny Briere's top-shelf slap shot hit the twine a second earlier in Game 1. And Ville Leino's fluke goal that beat Jaroslav Halak in the third period of Game 2 came just 30 seconds after a Flyers' power play had expired.

They are 31 seconds away from being 6-for-10 on the power play. Teams dream about operating at a 25 percent success rate in the regular season, let alone 60 percent.

Still, the Flyers' power play struggled for a long stretch during their second-round series against Boston. In Games 2-5, the Flyers were a combined 1-for-19 with the man advantage.

Mullen swears the Flyers did not make any radical adjustments to their power-play front. Undoubtedly, it helped having Simon Gagne slide back onto the top unit. Even without Gagne and the various injuries the Flyers sustained this year, the power play finished third in the NHL in the regular season - second only to Pittsburgh and Montreal.

"I don't think we really changed too much," Mullen said. "We're doing a good job in front of the net. I think we had some good opportunities against Boston but it wasn't going in. Their goalie [Tuukka Rask] played really well, too."

"I think it has been off-and-on throughout the playoffs," defenseman Matt Carle said. "Joey Mullen does a good job with us, trying to see what may work for us. It's been successful early on, but we know that can change."

Mullen has a different view of the game than most assistant coaches. He watches every game from the press box, sitting alongside Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese, and goes to the locker room at each intermission.

Mullen is a three-time Stanley Cup champion, a Hall of Famer and a three-time All-Star, but the view from the perch provides a unique perspective. He can see plays develop and be executed, from start to finish. And he can notice the opposition's tendencies, hints or hesitations.

The big key for the Flyers this series has been winning the puck battles deep in Montreal's zone. The Flyers struggled getting past Boston's penalty-killing wall that was set up at the blue line, which broke up the zone play before it could start. Against Montreal, the Flyers have pounded the Canadiens underneath the circles and along the boards.

"All those puck recoveries and battles along the boards, that means a lot," Mullen said. "The more we can keep control of it down there, the better for our power play. We need to get the puck off the wall as quick as we can and move it around. If you keep the puck on the wall, you play right into their hands."

"That's something we tried to emphasize," Carle said. "We didn't do that well of a job with that against Boston. Penalty killers are a man short, so they are going to work extra hard. You need to match that intensity and that work ethic, even when you have an extra guy out there. Some teams forget that."

Traffic in front of the net has enabled the Flyers' defensemen to pick apart opposing goaltenders.

"The easiest thing is to keep it simple," said defenseman Chris Pronger, who has four goals this postseason. "When we've kept it simple and got traffic in front and got pucks to the net, we've been fortunate enough to hit our spots and have them go in."

No team, though, can survive a round in the playoffs on the power play alone. The Flyers' play at even-strength was uninspiring for at least a large chunk of Game 2. That will need to change. For now, the Flyers are enjoying the ride - and those pregame meetings with Mullen.

"We don't feel like we have played our best so far," Briere said. "So to win the special teams, especially when you're not at your best, it feels good to be up 2-0. To win the special teams, it goes a long way. And puts us in a good spot." *

For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers.

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