WATCH: Highlights of practice in Florida and Dave Hakstol's comments afterwards...
Even though R.J. Umberger already had two assists after two periods in Tampa on Thursday night, his defining play didn’t happen until five minutes into the third period.
The Flyers were on the attack in the Tampa Bay zone when the puck popped free. Jonathan Drouin took a short outlet pass from a teammate and embarked on a 2-on-1 with Ryan Callahan. Umberger put his head down, made up a good five feet on Drouin, and caught him with a poke check that prevented the defenseman from finding Callahan or from getting off a clean shot.
If you didn’t see the play, you wouldn’t know it happened – it generated no statistics, and didn’t make the highlights. But it prevented a scoring opportunity, which is the main way you beat a team like the Lightning, by allowing as few of those as possible.
However, this wasn’t just a good hockey play – it was symbolic. This time last year, Umberger couldn’t make that play. He wouldn’t have had the speed, and maybe Tampa Bay would have scored and won in regulation, depriving the Flyers of some of the good feelings they had about their debut and depriving fans of their first look at 3-on-3 overtime, which appears to be hockey’s version of a fire in a fireworks factory.
But the current Umberger, the one with a body that is generally functioning properly again, was able to make that play. He has the pop back in his game that wasn’t there last year, when accumulating injuries over a long period of time left him a shell of his former self.
They included a herniated disc in his back and cam lesions in his hip, which in layman’s terms means his hip bones were rubbing together rather than rotating smoothly. Those problems led to groin and abdominal tears. Umberger tried to be a good soldier and play through it, but eventually called it a year in mid-March. Surgery and 10 weeks of rehab fixed everything, and Umberger feels like a different person.
“Without a doubt, I didn’t have that speed and power to get up the ice [last year,] Umberger said. “The quickness, the first two or three strides wouldn’t have allowed me to move like that.”
Umberger’s injuries didn’t just affect him on the ice. He’d go home and lay on the floor to be more comfortable, unable to play with his kids or help his wife much around the house. So it’s been a definite weight off his shoulders to be healthy again, and of course it’s translated to his play.
“It’s fun to be on the ice, be able to move, and do some of the things you’ve done for years in the league,” Umberger said. “It’s encouraging, feeling that way and knowing that you can get your game to the level it needs to be to be successful.”
Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol has Umberger on the third line with Matt Read and Scott Laughton, which is a new and interesting combination. In addition to Umberger’s recovery, Read is also healthy after spending most of last season fighting his way through a high ankle sprain.
“They scored a big goal for us, but they also, I thought, gave a lot of real good 5-on-5 shifts,” said Hakstol. “A good shift doesn’t necessarily mean a shift that ends up in a Grade-A opportunity, but they ground it out well in the offensive zone. They did a good job of taking care of pucks with a real mentality coming through the neutral zone. I think that gave them a good chance to spend a lot of time in the offensive zone."
Meanwhile, Laughton appears to be ready for full-time NHL duty after making obvious improvements during a 2014-15 season split between the NHL and AHL. He is breathing some new life into the roster after making the team out of training camp for the first time in his career.
“I think he’s determined. I’d use that more than any other word,” said Hakstol on Laughton. “I think he’s been very determined all the way through camp. As a teammate, as a coach you always like to see the extra effort and we’ve seen that out of him.”
The line is an example of why the Flyers may be a different team this year than last, regardless of the minimal changes to the roster. Jake Voracek said as much this past week when noting the players are all one year older and have 82 more games of experience. Add that to some offseason recuperation and a new coach using those players in new ways, and it might end up showing why the Flyers have such a high degree of confidence heading into the season.
“I thought it was a good first step for our line,” Umberger said. “We played one exhibition game together and we had some instant chemistry there. I think the key for our line is obviously we’re a two-way hockey kind of line. We need to be good in all the zones, keep it simple, get pucks in. I thought we did that last night – we chipped a lot of pucks in and kept it moving north. [Laughton] in the center of the ice provides a lot of speed and quickness, and he did a good job moving up the ice and putting a lot of pressure on.”