Despite a rocky start to the season which included a 10-game losing streak, the Philadelphia Flyers have set themselves up great for the second half.
Currently sitting tied for the final wild-card spot, they have a one-point lead over the New York Rangers and New York Islanders with one game in hand over both, and are only seven points behind the Washington Capitals for first in their division. The Metropolitan Division has been a very tight race throughout the season with positions shuffling nearly every game. It’s going to be a free-for-all right to the end.
The chips are all on the table, now they have to continue to play this way if they want to stamp their ticket to the 2017-18 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Brian Elliott Effect
The Flyers have been looking for a number-one backstop since the Ron Hextall days. We’ve all sat patiently through Roman Čechmánek, Brian Boucher, Sergei Bobrovsky (a.k.a. the one that got away), and the notorious Ilya Bryzgalov experiment, just hoping that something was going to stick. Neither did, and this past offseason, Hextall went out to pick up Brian Elliott on a two-year contract which was meant to bridge the gap to the gold mine of goaltending prospects in the Flyers system (Carter Hart, Felix Sandström and Anthony Stolarz). He’s proven to be much more than that.
At 32 years old, Elliott has had a solid career, sharing the honour of the William M. Jennings trophy for goaltender(s) with the fewest goals against in a season with Jaroslav Halak (2011-12) as well as being a two-time All-Star (2012 and 2015). This season, he has shared the net with Michal Neuvirth and he has been the more consistent of the two, playing 16 games in a row at one point in the season. While he hasn’t been unbeatable, Elliott has been left out to dry on numerous occasions this season by a young defence corps that is learning the ropes. Despite this, he’s been bailing the team out with key saves at key times.
As of this writing, Elliott is sporting a 19-11-7 record, which is good enough for 11th-most wins for goalies in the NHL. Even though the Flyers will need both goaltenders to be strong in the second half, in order to continue this success the one they call the “Moose” will have to be at the top of his game. He will hopefully be back between the pipes on Jan. 31 in Washington looking to pick up where he left off prior to the All-Star break.
Win Together, Lose Together, and Find Greatness Together
Despite being the seventh-youngest team in the league with an average age of 26 years, seven months, and eight days, the Flyers are competing like a seasoned team. Just like any young team, there is a degree of inexperience and immaturity that can factor in, especially when the confidence is low (i.e. 10-game losing streaks), but the leadership on this team is showing through in the way they’ve turned things around.
The captain of the ship, Claude Giroux, is leading by example with his comeback season and the way he is handling adversity has been nothing short of greatness. In past seasons, he was breaking sticks, taking bad penalties and slamming bench doors which were sending the wrong message to the team. This new level of maturity can be attributed in part to his surrounding cast alternate captains, Wayne Simmonds and Andrew MacDonald, as well as the leadership behind the bench and upstairs.
We’ve all also heard the unwarranted “Fire Hakstol” chants when the team was down, but, arguably, Dave Hakstol’s coaching is what has helped steer this team in the right direction. At one point, the Flyers were a one-line team with the other three going through the motions. He made a bold move by switching Voracek out of the first line, and, after some musical chairs, he has found a nice balance that has sparked all four lines.
The call-up of gritty forward Tyrell Goulbourne has also worked out opening some space for Scott Laughton to quietly get some fourth line magic going. Then there is the unpopular decision to send Travis Sanheim down – although it is difficult to see a promising prospect like Sanheim sent down, it’s good to see that Hakstol is not using tunnel vision and is still considering the future development of players.
This team has come together for some solid stretches of hockey. The path to the playoffs is not paved in gold so they’re going to need to stick together and get through adversity because considering everything, the seventh youngest team is not supposed to be where they are right now.
Continue Lighting the Lamp
Score goals – it’s easier said than done. For any team that wants to be successful, it comes down to whether or not you can put the puck in the net consistently. You can have the best goalie and a solid defence, but if you’re not finding the twine, the wins are not going to come. Fortunately, the Flyers haven’t been having trouble with that lately, which can be seen through their eight wins in the last 10 games. Through those games, they have scored 34 goals and they have been balanced throughout the lineup.
This season, Sean Couturier has been lighting the lamp at a career-high pace, Travis Konecny has been on fire lately and Wayne Simmonds is over half way to his fifth straight 28-plus goal season. However, a winning team scores by committee – they don’t get by with two or three guys doing all of the scoring. The Flyers have five players with 10 or more goals and another four that are on the cusp of 10 with nine goals. The production will have to continue from all four lines and defencemen.
As the old adage goes “you must score more than you let in.” The team has to put all of the adversity behind them and win the corner battles, net-front-battles and score some hardworking goals.
Turning Draws into Wins
One thing that has been consistent since the beginning of the season is the Flyers ability to win faceoffs, especially in crucial situations. They seem like a simple situation that wouldn’t mean much, but the difference between a faceoff win or loss can result in a goal for or goal against. Two of their most notable faceoff men, Giroux and Couturier, are winning faceoffs at a rate of 57.97% and 54.29% respectively, good enough for third and 17th in the league (minimum 500 faceoffs). Their other centreman are also quietly having a good year in the circle.
Faceoffs may not seem important when they’re taken at centre or just outside the blue lines, but each one is an opportunity for your team to control the puck to set up a play. The most important faceoffs are in your defensive zone, particularly in the winding moments of the game. The Flyers have been able to hold onto quite a few one-goal leads off of key faceoff wins and currently hold the top faceoff winning percentage in the league, 52.8%.
When you consider that their top line is the offensive threat and often used as the shutdown line at the end of games, it is significant that they have two top centreman: Giroux and Couturier. With Giroux being a righty and Couturier being a lefty, they have an advantage as they can each take their strong side faceoffs. The Flyers are going to need some big faceoff wins in the second half if they’re going to be successful.
Overload on the Power Play
Ask anyone in the league and they’ll tell you don’t put the Flyers on the power play. The Flyers feature a very unique approach on the power play, and can beat you with all five players on the ice. All things run through Giroux, who hangs out on the half wall looking to exploit the box. Couturier lurks in the high slot looking for the high tip or one-timer. Simmonds drives the net and is a thorn in the goalie’s side. Voracek plays the opposite wall always looking for the shot and Gostisbehere has a knack for getting pucks on net. Who does the defending team cover? You play too close to one and the other will burn you.
Their power play percentage is sitting at 20.7%, which is good enough for ninth in the league. The Flyers are a tough team to play against when the power play is working, but when it begins to fade, their wins tend to follow. They need a big second half from both power play units so opposing teams can’t hone in and shut down the first line.