Painful defence

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 1:25 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- If you listened to the pre-season prognosticators, you had to wonder how the defence corps of the Philadelphia Flyers was going to avoid embarrassment under the NHL's new rules.

Characterized as too slow, the heavy-handed and supposedly lead-footed threesome of Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje and Chris Therien was supposed to make like pylons after being stripped of the ability to clutch, hack and otherwise impede the progress of more mobile opposition.

Hatcher, Rathje and Therien, all of whom are listed at six-foot-five and 235 pounds, have adapted to the new NHL rulebook with barely a blush.

The question these days, given coach Ken Hitchcock's injury woes on the blueline - mainstays Joni Pitkanen and Eric Desjardins were on the shelf when the Edmonton Oilers came calling last night - is what would the Flyers do without them?Hitch grimaces at the thought.

"I really think mobility is overrated," says Hitchcock. "I think it's all about hockey sense. You don't have to be a fleet-of-foot guy.

"I know defencemen who can skate like heck who struggle with this game. It's hockey sense and the ability to make plays that is the most important part of the game back there."

Like many big, physical and none-too-swift defencemen around the NHL, Hatcher, Rathje and Therien were expected to languish when they couldnit tug on a jersey here or lay on the lumber there.

Hatcher was no gazelle before he tore up his knee in Detroit. He relied on softening up opposing forwards with the tactics kiboshed by the NHL.

Rathje and Therien were supposed to be likewise handicapped. Few pundits gave these guys much credit for smarts, for the ability to adapt to the new rules.

"Derian, Mike and Chris, they can all get the puck out of trouble. They all know how to read the rush," Hitchcock said. "They know how to observe people behind them. They see the ice."

Hatcher faced the Oilers at plus-7, logging 24 minutes of ice time a night. Rathje was a team-leading plus-15 and has averaged 20:24. When the puck dropped against the Oilers, the Flyers had allowed 86 goals in 26 games, 12th in the league, despite all their injuries.

"Those guys can defend," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said. "Hatcher has a lot of experience. He's one of the smartest guys in the league positionally.

"He's going to win a lot of battles. Rathje is very similar in that regard. It's not a surprise to me that they know how to defend.

"You know they're going to be in the right spots on the ice."

Instead of being an Achilles heel, the threesome has been the backbone of a blueline now decimated by injuries. With Pitkanen out for six weeks after abdominal surgery, Desjardins for at least two months with a damaged shoulder and Dennis Seidenberg just coming off a broken wrist, the Flyers would be in the soup without them.

"This is now a game about hockey sense," Hitchcock insists. "If you don't have it, you're really going to struggle.

"It's different than before, but defencemen are smarter about where they can get their licks in. You can't get them in front of the net, but you can get them in other areas, the corners of the rink and stuff like that.

"Derian's timing is getting better and better. Rathje is more of a positional player. We use our size to angle people and knock them off the puck. We receive the rush, we don't go and attack it all the time."


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