The Philadelphia Flyers’ season can probably best be described metaphorically with a playing of the classic television game show, “To Tell the Truth.”
(Brief aside: as it turns out, Jean Beliveau once found himself as one of the “real” contestants on the show in 1957)
If you took the time to see the clip, you will understand the concept illustrated here regarding the Flyers. It seems Philadelphia faces an identity crisis. The on-ice product has such radical shifts in performance on almost a daily basis that it becomes uneasy to identify what kind of team they are.
What this piece will not be is a prediction on whether the Flyers can or cannot make the postseason. That would negate this whole “To Tell the Truth” premise.
Flyers Go From Close to Worst to Near-Playoff Position
It has been noted on more than one occasion just how sluggish the Flyers stumbled out of the starting blocks in the month of October. It took Claude Giroux until his 16th game to get his first goal. Head coach Peter Laviolette lost his job after three games. The team ultimately ended the month at 3-8, good for dead last in the Metropolitan division and just one measly point ahead of lowly Buffalo for the worst record in the East.
However, when the October dust settled, and new coach Craig Berube was able to implement his more defense-first system, the Flyers used a very winnable and home-laden November schedule to win nine of 15 games and gain points in eleven of 15. More importantly, the team leapfrogged from the basement of the poor Metropolitan to within two points of the third place playoff position within the division.
While this certainly is not the first time the Flyers have turned a season around following a rough start, the way this one has happened is nothing short of mind boggling.
The Flyers Have Fantastic Goaltending?
And cue the broken record of the 2013-2014 Philadelphia Flyers season: stellar goaltending from Steve Mason.
If anybody thought this would be the saving grace of the Flyers season when Philadelphia acquired Mason back in the spring from Columbus in exchange for Michael Leighton, go cash in your bet.
As noted in a prior piece, Mason is single-handedly the reason why the Flyers are even able to sniff playoff positioning. With about 25 other NHL teams’ offensive production, Mason would be a top-five goaltender in the win column and maybe, just maybe, would be getting at least hints of praise from Hockey Canada as the Olympics near.
It certainly remains a stretch to lock into the thought that Mason has completely revived his career following trying times with the Blue Jackets. However, Mason’s now 26-game streak of allowing three or fewer goals since joining the Flyers is reaching elite levels of stardom. Only one time in those 26 games was he removed from a game early.
That streak got severely tested on Wednesday in Detroit. Through no fault of his own (another theme of the Flyers’ season), Mason helplessly watched the Red Wings cash in on three separate Flyer mistakes to run the score to 3-1 in the middle frame.
However, unlike the Flyers team that rolled over and cowered in the third period in Minnesota on Monday, Philadelphia responded with five unanswered goals and Mason made it stand up despite facing a plethora of Detroit power play chances.
While Mason has stolen almost all Flyers’ praise at the season’s quarter pole, backup Ray Emery has quietly written himself a nice resume as well. Since his much-noted brawl with Braden Holtby on November 1, Emery has gone 3-3 while only giving up three goals in one start. He also, in essence, stole a Flyers’ victory in Pittsburgh, turning aside 30 Penguin offerings in a 2-1 win on November 13.
The Flyers Can’t Score… How Exactly?
Prior to the Flyers’ long-awaited offensive eruption in the third period in Detroit on Wednesday, the trying times of the Philadelphia offense have been on full display even despite much improved play in November.
It took Philadelphia until October 26 (game #10) to pot more than two goals in a game, a feat they have still only turned in eight times through 28 contests.
To put this into a different context, the Flyers have squandered ten separate goaltender performances of three goals against or fewer.
The Flyers’ offensive anemia has many different causes, from the early season frustrations of Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Scott Hartnell, to a power play that has been in the bottom-third of the league for a greater portion of the season, to a defense that has contributed just six total goals and eleven power play assists.
The fact is it took a perfect 3-for-3 power play performance for the Flyers to complete their road comeback in Detroit and win for just the second time at Joe Louis Arena since 1989. For the Flyers to be considered a serious playoff threat, that power play percentage certainly does not have to click at 100%, but it can ill-afford to be in the bottom third of the NHL with the wide array of skill players at Philadelphia’s disposal.
The Flyers Supposed “Checking Line” is Playing Like a First Line
Full disclosure: I was not sure how I felt about the Flyers’ acquisition of Steve Downie from Colorado on Halloween afternoon in exchange for Max Talbot. For a Flyers’ team focused on defensive fundamentals, losing a heady player like Talbot seemed risky.
However, what Downie has shown since his arrival is a complete renaissance from the hotheaded lunatic who once truck-sticked Dean McAmmond and walked away with a 20-game suspension.
After honing his craft in Tampa Bay and Colorado, Downie has found a wonderful home playing on Sean Couturier’s right wing and opposite Matt Read. His grittiness along the boards and seemingly constant pick-pocketing ability on the glass has freed up space for the quickness of Read and has completely transformed Couturier.
Couturier has been, bar none, the Flyers’ best player since Downie arrived. The numbers this “third” line has put up in that time frame rivals the best “top” lines in the sport.
In the last 10 games, Couturier's line has 25 pts. (14 goals, 11 assists), while Giroux's line has 22 pts. (8 goals, 14 assists). #Flyers
— Sam Carchidi (@BroadStBull) December 5, 2013
It took Couturier 16 games to garner his first four points of the season. Wednesday night in Detroit, he matched that, notching his first game of more than two points with two goals and two helpers.
And, oh yeah, the 20-year-old is still being asked to shut down the opposition’s best players. Time will tell if this flourishing is a flash or a real glimpse into a cornerstone piece to the Flyers’ Stanley Cup puzzle, but Couturier’s development certainly comes as a relief and a feel-good story to Flyers’ faithful.
So would the real Philadelphia Flyers, please step forward? How long that takes is anyone’s best guess.
Ryan Smith is a proud graduate of Penn State University, having attained a degree in broadcast journalism. His experience in hockey is extensive, having covered PSU Men’s ice hockey for USCHO.com as an Arena Reporter for its first NCAA season in 2012-2013 while also serving as Penn State Athletics’ voice of women’s ice hockey home games. He was also the sports director for Penn State’s ComRadio, a student based radio station endorsed by the College of Communications. In that position, he broadcasted Penn State hockey since for four years. He can be followed on Twitter @RyanSmithHockey.