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by Anthony SanFilippo / Philadelphia Flyers

VOORHEES, N.J. – When the Flyers named Craig Berube the 18th coach in franchise history, there was a segment of the Vox Populi that decried the choice. After all, how could a former enforcer now be smart enough to run a team?

If he was dumb enough to play hockey with his fists, he certainly couldn’t have the wherewithal to teach the sport the right way to a star-crossed team.

But what should we expect from a team that apparently does the same thing all the time and is so stubborn that it refuses a fresh perspective?

Oh, ye of little faith.

Look, 16 games does not make a coaching career. And it’s not like Berube was like Secretariat exploding out of the gates. A record of 7-7-2 in the first 16 games usually falls under the categories of mediocre or fair and middling.

But look a bit closer and what do you see?

How about a team that is 6-3-2 in its last 11. That in those 11 games has actually only allowed three goals or more three times (we don’t count shootouts, because well, in this author’s opinion they shouldn’t exist).

It’s a team with a new system, one that is designed to succeed with the personnel in place, not one that is squeezing a square peg into a round hole.

And, it’s a team that knows how to play a very good road game, registering points in each of their last six contests away from Wells Fargo Center (4-0-2).

But throwing stats at you is a cheap parlor trick. Anyone can massage them to make them fit their agenda, and if the agenda here is to point out that the Flyers hired a guy who can coach, no matter what opinion scriptuals equating him to the bygone era of punch-first-ask-questions-later want to infer, then there needs to be more. There need to be a better understanding of what actually goes into Berube’s gameplan.

Again, it’s easy to regurgitate the “play smarter” mantra. Or describe that the team is now more defensively responsible because their forecheck is far more conservative and a third forward is staying high rather than pinching in trying aggressively to force a turnover.

But what if it was pointed out that Berube actually has a gameplan that allows him to outwit his opposing counterpart – even when he’s on the road?

Let’s look at the recent three-game road trip for example. It was a successful jetset to Canada and back and back again (schedule-maker brain cramp no doubt). The team went 2-0-1 and allowed just three goals (not counting the imaginary score courtesy of the result of the shootout).

Hot goaltending and good team defense aside, there is a legitimate reason for this success, and it’s not just the players on the ice.

You see, Berube believes in playing a game of matchup. He wants certain players on the ice against certain players of the opposition, figuring that he can both take advantage of good matchups with his offensive players and at the same time, shut down imposing opposition threats with his best defensive players.

Craig Berube has changed a lot about the way things are done with the FLyers, and done son in short order.

“I believe in that,” he said. “I really do. We sit down as a coaching staff before each game and figure out who we want on the ice against who and we try to make that happen as much as possible.”

So, in Ottawa, he made sure that Sean Couturier’s line was on the ice against Jason Spezza’s line as often as possible. So Couturier was on the ice against Spezza on 21 of his 22 shifts.

That’s an impressive number, especially since the Sens had the final line change. Berube was able to have them start on the ice at the same time on 10 occasions, an on the other 11, he quickly got his other line off and was able to get Couturier, Matt Read and Steve Downie onto the ice.

It works the same way with defensemen as Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen tend to draw the most ice time against the top players on the opposing squad.

It wasn’t just one night that this happened either.

Berube was able to have Couturier on the ice for 22 of 23 shifts taken by Sidney Crosby. Nine times they started on ice together, but 13 times, Berube had to get Couturier onto the ice.

In those games the Flyers shutout Ottawa and allowed just one goal against Pittsburgh – on a power play.

Fast forward a couple nights to Winnipeg. The Jets coach, Claude Noel, is a chess player himself, and was willing to try and throw Berube’s effort’s off by calling for shorter shifts, taking his best players off the ice and then throwing them right back on. Berube was only able to get Couturier’s unit against the Jets top line with Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd and Devin Setoguchi 15 times out of 31 shifts (the total number of shifts indicate just how quickly Noel was changing).

However, Berube’s second choice was matching top line with top line getting Claude Giroux’s line out there against them 12 times.

And it meant shorter shifts for his own forwards at times, something that took a while to get used to.

“That’s how he wants us to play, so we have no choice but to buy in,” said Brayden Schenn. “Sometimes you come right back off to get the matchup he wants but even though you want to be out there as much as possible, you do it because you want to help the team win and it seems to be working.”

The Final score was a 3-2 shootout loss to the Jets, but both goals before the shootout came on the power play.

All that means that Berube has devised a gameplan that gets him the matchups he wants 76 percent of the time… on the road.

And he did that against Paul MacLean, who won the Jack Adams award as coach of the year in the NHL last season, Dan Bylsma, who won a Stanley Cup four years ago and who is entrusted to coach the U.S. Olympic team, and Noel, who is a noted tactician.

And those three coaches, and their teams, were unable to score one goal at even strength against the Flyers – on their own home ice.

That’s nine periods on the road without allowing an even strength marker. Go back a little farther.

The last road game before that was in Carolina, a 2-1 loss in overtime.

The two goals by the ‘Canes came very late in that game. The tying goal came with a man advantage and the winning goal was a breakaway off of a Flyers turnover.

So that’s one true even strength goal, although it had nothing to do with the matchups, and rather was the result of a bad turnover.

The road game before that was a shutout in New Jersey.

By now, you should get the point.

Berube consults with the rest of his staff including Ian Laperriere (right) and John Paddock to concoct the matchups he wants for each game.

“We pay attention to that,” said Mark Streit. “We think it’s important (to match up). I think it’s right. Some other coaches might not think that, but obviously if you go out there and play like this… by being aware, having good communication and being smart. We’ve been good and solid. I have confidence in everyone and we can play against anyone in this league.

“If we want to be one of the top teams in the league then this is the way we should approach it.”

In short, the players are executing well – really well. And yes, the Flyers are getting excellent goaltending from Steve Mason and Ray Emery, but, the fact still remains that this all has to do with a system implemented by Berube. A system different than any other the Flyers have employed in many seasons. A system that has him outcoaching several other coaches and has the Flyers giving up just one legitimate even strength goal on the road in the month of November.

In other words, it’s something different. It’s a change of style and culture. It’s fresh approach.

But you wouldn’t know that if you only looked at things through certain glasses smudged with stale perspective.


To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers

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