Eighteen games. Seven wins. 33 goals. Suddenly, the Flyers’ playoff picture looks distinctly less bleak.
Of course, some of that comes with the territory of a three-game win streak. Modest though it may be, it’s hard to debate the rush of winning multiple games in a row, particularly when the Flyers have managed to do so in such a dominating fashion. As we watch, we begin to forget the humiliating start to the season, and though there may not be sudden calls to retain GM Paul Holmgren, it seems as though all the pieces have fallen into place. The offense is awake. The defense is stifling. The goaltending has remained undeniably spectacular.
The Flyers could be one embarrassing loss away from trading all of this fan adulation in for another wake, but this time, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.
Take the 5-0 demolition of the Senators as an example. Yes, Ottawa started a goaltender returning from injury, but nothing, and I mean nothing, went right for Ottawa in this game. Why? Because the Flyers took it all away. The Senators defense looked foolish. Their forwards looked impotent. Their transition game looked sluggish. Their coaching looked ineffectual. Sometimes looks can be deceiving, but not in this case. The Flyers’ defense won battles and cleared the puck, often to their own advancing forwards. The offense made crisp, confident passes that seemed to stun the opposition. The goaltending… well, it was good, but Steve Mason spent much of the game having an in-depth conversation with his goal posts because there was simply nothing left to do.
And in the third period, the Flyers lined up three men across the blueline on the backcheck and made simple, assertive plays to snuff out offensive momentum while scoring two goals and allowing none.
That alone would have been an impressive feat. With the Penguins looming on the following day, however, plenty of questions remained. Would the Flyers be too gassed, coming up on a well-rested team at home? Could they keep their wits about them with the Pens’ startling offense? Could they refrain from taking stupid penalties? Could they… gasp… hold on in the third period?
Well, they didn’t hold on in the third period. During the second intermission, they designed and built a massive pillow for the sole purpose of suffocating the Penguins. The Flyers knew the Penguins would fight back; all they had to do was be stronger and tougher while holding that pillow in place. Lo and behold, the Flyers made the Penguins looks like virtually any team playing the Soviet Olympic squad between the ’60s and the ’80s. Minus a few tense closing minutes, they exposed the Penguins as a gutless, depressed, sad excuse for a hockey team, when just a few games prior, the Flyers looked willing to roll over and accept their grim fate.
The similarities between the Penguins game and the Senators game are deliciously prevalent; in both games, the Flyers didn’t just look like a better team, they were a better team. Their net presence on both ends of the rink was assured; plays from behind their own net were snuffed out by aggressive, intelligent defensive schemes that limited backdoor options, and their net-front presence amounted to at least three goals by exploiting a defense that seemed to give up too early.
In short, they played offense and defense hard and clean. A goaltending interference penalty, in this light, is easily forgiven; what better way to get in the porcelain-egg head of Marc-Andre Fleury, who now looks more like a panicked child than an all-star goaltender when pressured?
Yes, the season is still young, and there are still too many unknowns to start planning a parade like the delusional fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But the Flyers have just played their best game since defeating the Penguins in game six of that legendary 11-12 playoff series just two years ago, and after beating the Penguins decisively, they are no longer operating on the belief that they can turn things around.
For once, they look confident.
Flyers’ Quarter-Season Standouts
Though the Flyers still have two more games before they can definitively pass the first quarter of the season, their three-game win streak marks as decisive a barometer as any statistical measuring stick.
There can be little doubt that Steve Mason is the Flyers’ all-star through the first eighteen games; he’s been dialed in since the first puck drop and his 2.15 GAA and .930 save percentage bear that out remarkably. He has benefited from the team playing tighter, more aggressive defense as well, and with Ray Emery seemingly settled in, any concern that Berube would overwork him like Laviolette overworked Bryzgalov last season has faded away.
Though there always seem to be trade rumors hovering around the defense, there can be little doubt that Nicklas Grossmann is here to stay. Despite all the negativity surrounding the team early, he has emerged with only a -1 plus/minus rating, and his five assists have him on pace to double his previous career high in points. Oh, and did I mention he has a jaw-dropping (crushing?) 53 hits and 48 blocked shots in only eighteen games, leaving him destined to eclipse a hit mark not reached since the 10-11 season?
And despite the fact that he hasn’t been much to write home about in the last few seasons, Braydon Coburn seems to have quietly put it all together. The offense of his first full season with the Flyers in 06-07 may never return, but he’s back to making confident outlet passes and doing exceptional boardwork. Plus, as is the hallmark of all great defensive defensemen, he goes unnoticed most nights.
If Peter Laviolette had stayed on board, would the Flyers have been out of this scoring drought sooner? He was supposedly given a vote of confidence and didn’t have a chance to implement his new defensive system last year, so maybe the devastating start was inevitable? I have no beef with Berube as coach, but the replacement three games in essentially hit the reset button and practically guaranteed the team would be losers for at least another few weeks.
The defense has been a rotating cavalcade of almost a dozen players, but if you look at the connective tissue between the Flyers superior defensive efforts in the last two games, you’ll notice that Andrej Meszaros was scratched. It must be part of Berube’s accountability, especially since he was on the ice for every Devils’ goal in that embarrassing 0-3 loss and has one minor penalty for every game. It seemed fair to give him a chance this year, but he hasn’t been the same since the Flyers let Sean O’Donnell go in the 09-10 offseason. Yikes.
While fans appropriately bemoan the Max Talbot trade, it is the perspective of nearly the rest of the league that Holmgren fleeced Sakic for Steve Downie. Downie was a nut on the Flyers, though I did love it when he used to hit the wall, but he then put together a solid season on Tampa Bay and has fit nicely into his role of an agitator who can put up points. Historically, such players succeed well on the Flyers, and given his established chemistry with Lecavalier, he may be one of the things that helps turn the season around.