Sean Couturier didn’t look, yet still knew Matt Read was where he was supposed to be - in front of Jimmy Howard to get the Flyers back within a goal Wednesday night in Detroit.
Now that’s chemistry, blessed chemistry, for a team 27th in the NHL in goals scored. For too long this season, no-look meant mostly can’t bear to watch the Flyers missing the net. But the way Couturier and Read have been helped since the acquisition of Steve Downie, it came as no shock when Downie found Couturier at the side of the goal for a re-direction that extended the Philadelphia lead to two.
A line than can make plays like these is not just a checking line. In fact, Couturier, Read and Downie have been the Flyers’ carrying line, keeping them from slipping backwards again after that 6-0-1 burst of relief got them back to respectability from a 4-10-1 start.
It is encouraging to see Couturier’s creativity re-emerging after a stagnant sophomore year; to witness the addition of a winger, Downie, who can make a play off the wall or in traffic; to watch Read providing consistent finish for a team that has suffered for it.
But on Wednesday night, it was even better to watch Claude Giroux roofing a slapper from the edge of the circle to tie a game in the third period and the Scott Hartnell-of-yore one-timing a Giroux set-up to put the Flyers ahead.
Those goals came on a power play that in 28 games has scored only at a 17.3 per cent rate, 18th in the NHL. In today’s game, where you need a two-man breakdown to score at even strength, the Flyers have to become more efficient on the man-advantage, but we always have looked at power plays as not the engine of a team’s success but an extension of its offensive capabilities.
So, best of all from the Flyers’ best win of the season was seeing their goal scorers score goal-scorers goals again.
There is too much time left on Hartnell’s contract – five seasons after this one at $4.75 million per -- for the Flyers to be able to overcome a cap-clogging salary for a thirty-something player who is a shadow of his old self. While inherent in the $8.25 million cap average with which the Flyers have tied themselves to Giroux as their marquee player until 2022 is the responsibility to carry a team, the captain cannot star in a vacuum.
Giroux has not been an irrepressible force since Jaromir Jagr’s play started to wind down at about Game 50 two seasons ago. So Giroux needs Hartnell doing a lot more than giving the puck away and taking careless penalties.
Hartnell’s best season -- 37 goals two seasons ago – rose out of a similar slow start, and now the Flyers need him to get hot and stay hot, helping Jakub Voracek to score at the near point-a-game pace he did a year ago. Then and only then will the Flyers rise out of a pack of too many similar teams and join Boston and Pittsburgh as a club you could expect to see in an Eastern Conference final.
They will be just another club struggling to make the playoffs without a first line that plays like a first line.
The Flyers have come a long way since that “pathetic” (Ed Snider’s word) 3-0 home loss to the Devils that dropped them to 4-10-1. The fragility that would doom them at any downturn in a game has been replaced by a confidence that can bring them back from a 3-1 deficit against the Red Wings.
It is not as much fun to play this system of defensive end support as the more freewheeling one that was used by Peter Laviolette. But the Flyers clearly are buying into what Craig Berube wants, getting that much tighter in their own zone by the day and that much smarter in the neutral zone by the game.
Nick Grossman, who was good even when the Flyers were bad, is playing a shutdown defense. Vincent Lecavalier has shown he still has it, as long as he has his health. And after all those years of breathholding on practically every shot, hallelujah, Steve Mason looks not just hot but for real.
Now, the Flyers have to cut down on their penalties, stay relatively healthy, and score.
Being in a great, grey mass of offensively-challenged teams in this era of the cap – all the more reason not to expect a savior at the trading-deadline -- they must get more out of what they have. They did that in Detroit and it looked good on them.