Early in the season, people were quick to jump on the play of Nikolay Zherdev and young James van Riemsdyk, calling them out for various reasons but those days seem to be long gone for good reason.
Zherdev, finally put with a line that lets him play his game, has been a man on a mission, scoring in each of the last 3 games and on a goal a game pace over the last five. And in case you all forgot, those games were against the Penguins, Canadiens, and Rangers, three of the Eastern Conferences best. Against the Pens, he made Brooks Orpik look like a child amongst men as he undressed him coming out of the corner and got him to go down well before he thought about shooting, only to go back across goalie Marc-Andre Fluery and roof it over the blocker. As if that weren't enough, Zherdev came to play in the Habs game, not only scoring on a beautiful bank play but also playing a large part in setting up the game winning goal scored by none other than linemate James Van Riemsdyk. He followed up that performance with two great goals against the New York Rangers to help the Flyers to a 4-1 victory over their division rival.
People have been quick to point out his lack of numbers, particularly in the assist column, but I ask you what more do you want from a sniper of his quality. Remember, up until the game against the Penguins he was seeing limited time on ice every night and the majority of his minutes were played with Jody Shelley and Blair Betts (nothing against those two, but not exactly the best goal scorers on the team). Not to mention all you have to do is watch the games to see that he is making very good plays he either gets jipped out of an assist (like on JVR's game winner in Montreal), or he makes a great play only to have the shooter (cough Jeff Carter, although it's not just him) not put the puck in the net. As far as goal production goes, he is tied with Carter for third on the team in goals with 13. I don't hear anyone complaining about Carter's goal production either this year. He is also tied in 8th on the team in points with Chris Pronger with 15. Many were also complaining heavily about his defense (or lack thereof) but the kid is a plus-5, one of his best +/- ratings of his NHL career. Zherdev is proving to be all we could ask for and more in the first 34 games this season.
James Van Riemsdyk has also been on a tear of late, shutting up his early season haters. JVR has been the hottest Flyer of late, scoring 7 goals in his last twelve games after going goalless in the first 21 and even being up in the pressbox for a few games earlier in the season. He seems to be more confident in his ability to use his body like he did when he dominated at UNH. Being a power forward is one of the most difficult roles in the NHL, especially for young kids. This is often the first time they are playing against grown men and it takes a few years to get the strength up in order to perform at the highest level. Even superstars Rick Nash and Bobby Ryan took three to four years to develop, and JVR seems to be following the same trend. He is already halfway to his offensive production from last year and should improve on his numbers slightly. Look for him to have a breakout year next year as he finally seems comfortable using his body to protect the puck and has developed very good speed and a dangerous shot.
Both players responded well to early-season benchings, when both spent a few games watching their team from the pressbox. Now united on a line with Jeff Carter, all three players have started to really find their stride and get things going and have been carrying much of the offense over the past few games. When Laviolette made the line changes for the Penguins game he may have stumbled upon the most lethal top 9 line combinations in the NHL. If all three lines can get the offense clicking the Flyers will be a force in this league for the remainder of the season. JVR and Zherdev only needed their opportunity to produce to show fans what they had and neither are disappointing at this point in the season. So all the naysayers out there, give guys a chance before you make a rash judgement, remember, it's an 82 game season, there's plenty of time for players to get it going.