The Flyers made the playoffs last season because they had three lines, sometime four lines, that kept coming and coming during a 16-7-4 stretch drive through a killer schedule.
They didn’t have a cornerstone defenseman, didn’t have a 30-goal scorer, didn’t have a statistically good chance to recover from a 4-10-1 start, but they did it regardless by playing with structure, belief and a next line up that didn’t give the opposition a breather.
They led the league in the number of 20-goal scorers – seven – and even had 10 different players score the 16 goals that got them to Game 7 against the eventual Eastern Conference champion Rangers. So it’s not logic-defying that despite just three goals by Claude Giroux and two by Jake Voracek in the last 14 games that the Flyers have made up nine of the 13 points by which they trailed Boston on January 16.
They have done it because Wayne Simmonds, too long without a playmaking center on the second line, has become productive again at even strength; because Matt Read is moving again; because Ryan White, who has points in four of his last five games, has added smarts and energy to a third line and because Chris Vandevelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare continue to give the Flyers a fourth.
They are winning because Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto continued to play so competently in the absence of Braydon Coburn and Nick Grossman that two bargain summer pickups by Ron Hextall have earned permanent places in the lineup -- Schultz for his ability to read the play, Del Zotto for his added dimension of being able to jump up into it.
“Not playing it safe but playing it smart,” Claude Giroux called it after the Flyers let a two-goal lead get away Sunday before shaking off Washington, 3-2. Unlike in that 1-8-2 stretch of November, or late December when that promising holiday trip fizzled, the Flyers didn’t let the bad stuff get to them. They had more guys going and they supported each other almost flawlessly in all three zones, playing with confidence all the way through a final minute delay of game penalty by Schultz.
The Flyers have survived three absences of Steve Mason by Rob Zepp winning five of six starts. They have bounced back from two losing streaks of four games and a winless streak of five. Three times during this 9-2-4 surge the Flyers have given away third-period leads into overtime or shootout losses, but you wouldn’t know it by their next game.
Knock ‘em down or just plain knock them period, they get back up.
“Leadership,” explains Craig Berube, not crediting his own of course, but a team probably two good players away from being elite nevertheless has a self image that has enabled it to bounce back repeatedly.
Inconsistent? Too many bad starts and a few bad finishes? You can blame it on preparation if you wish, but the more players you have playing well, the more consistent you will be, and besides, the difference between winning and losing in today’s NHL is even smaller than the window of opportunity the Flyers are trying to squeeze through.
How is it that they lose to crippled, sub-500, Columbus and the 17-38-4 Sabres, then bounce back immediately to completely control a game against overall points leader Nashville, then beat 33-18-10 Washington?
On most nights, there is a goal’s difference between most NHL teams – that same one goal that in Game Seven last spring sent the Flyers home after one round.
They got the extra point Saturday when Zepp stunningly and soundly bested Pekka Rinne in the shootout, then earned two Sunday when Del Zotto saw an opportunity and went back over Braden Holtby’s shoulder with 4:13 to go.
“They are all going to be one–goal games the rest of the season,” reminded Voracek. The Flyers might win the one Tuesday night in Carolina or might not, but by now we know they’ll show up in Toronto Thursday night regardless.