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OFF AND RUNNING

by Brian Smith | PhiladelphiaFlyers.com / Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers started a crucial stretch of their season Tuesday night and did so the right way, picking up a 4-2 win over Montreal. The first game of 15 over just 28 days in the month of February moved them ahead of the Canadiens on tiebreaker merit in the jam-packed Eastern Conference standings, and allowed them to keep pace with New Jersey and Pittsburgh while drawing closer to Carolina, Boston and the Rangers. It was also a game where both teams were immediately pulled out of their All-Star break back into a physical, highly-charged race that is going to last the rest of the season.

“There was some emotion to it right away, right from the outset,” said Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol. “It wasn’t the cleanest game in terms of systematic play. There were a lot of opportunities at both ends for a reason. I guess at the end of the game I felt it was a game where we battled hard for the two points, and that’s a good way to start after the break.”

Now they’ll head to Nashville to face a Predators team looking for a bounce-back opportunity. After the city hosted the All-Star game last weekend and had four players participate, the Preds lost 1-0 on home ice to St. Louis on a goal the Blues scored in the final minutes of the third period. Nashville is in its own battle of trying to hold off several teams for a wild-card spot, and they’re no doubt mindful of their overtime loss here in Philadelphia back on Black Friday. The Flyers will be looking to duplicate their effort that night of dealing with Nashville’s dynamic defense, which is as good at supporting the offense as it is defending its own end.

“Those guys are good at getting up with the play,” Hakstol said. “They’re not high-risk guys, but they’re there all the time providing that added layer of offensive attack. When you add that to a skilled group of forwards, it presents challenges.”

Stolarz chats with Radko Gudas at today's optional practice at Skatezone before departing for Nashville.
    

STOLIE’S NEXT STEP
So far this season, the Flyers have been enjoying the depth at their goaltending position, which is perhaps more than they’ve had than at any point in recent memory. Both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth have been outstanding, and both have been unable to play at times. When that’s happened, the other has stepped in with either seasoned veteran Jason LaBarbera or acclaimed prospect Anthony Stolarz available. Due to the Flyers’ friendly schedule in the first half of the season and some good luck, neither has needed to play.

But now the Flyers head into their busiest run of the season, and that’s part of the circumstances that might create the perfect conditions for Stolarz to make his NHL debut. He’s been up four previous times with the Flyers – three last year and once this season – but hasn’t been needed for duty. This time, with Neuvirth out possibly until the middle of next week and with four games in six days between now and then, it could be a tall order to ask Steve Mason to take all those minutes.

“I’m just taking it day-by-day. It is what it is, and that’s going to be up to the coaching staff,” Stolarz said. “For me, I haven’t been up here for any real practice time in the last year. I had a road trip, but it was kind of just pregame skates. Having a couple days of practice to work with Dilly, I’m going to look to use that time and take advantage of it, and whatever happens, happens.”

The main difference this year is the level of improvement in Stolarz’s game since just about this exact time last year, when the Flyers had to call up Stolarz due to injuries to Steve Mason and Rob Zepp, even though Ron Hextall said the young goalie was “probably not” ready to play in the NHL at that time. Had Stolarz been called upon to do so, he would have become the second-youngest goalie to appear in a game in Flyers history – younger than Antero Niittymaki, Brian Boucher and even Hextall himself, who were the three most-recent home-grown goaltenders to have lengthy stretches of service in Philadelphia.

However, this year, Stolarz has made great strides. He has a 2.45 GAA (down from 3.28 last year) and a .915 save percentage (up from .905 last season), and has already played in 29 games, which is just two fewer than he played in all of last season. It earned him a nod as an AHL All-Star at this past weekend’s festivities in Syracuse, which is where he was on Monday when he found out the Flyers needed him to change his return-travel plans.

“Playing in that environment down there, playing against Hershey, Wilkes-Barre… those teams are very skilled,” Stolarz said. “Going to the AHL All-Star game and playing against the AHL’s best players, I think that’s prepared me too. And I think just having an extra year of experience has helped me grow as a goalie.”

CRUISING RIGHT ALONG
For perhaps the first time this season, the Flyers have been getting steady, consistent scoring from multiple players over the past four games. That’s how long the current point streaks are for Jake Voracek (3-5-8), Wayne Simmonds (4-2-6), and Brayden Schenn (3-3-6). Shayne Gostisbehere is one better, with a goal and six assists for seven points in five games. The five-game streak is the longest for a Flyers rookie since Sean Couturier had a six-game streak in 2012.

Couturier is in on this group too even though he doesn’t have an actual streak – he has six goals and nine assists for 15 points in the last 15 games he’s played in. Also right there contributing as usual is Claude Giroux, who has two goals and nine assists for 11 points in his last 10.

Perhaps the most impressive has been Voracek, who’s turned his season around after not scoring any goals in his first 16 games. In the 32 games that started with that Nov. 14 OTW vs. Carolina, Voracek has eight goals and 26 assists for 34 points – a better pace than his career year of last season, when he had 81 points in 82 games.

Unlike last year, Voracek has been able to accomplish that while moving up and down throughout the lineup. He started the season playing with Giroux and Michael Raffl, then moved around on the right of various lines before jumping over to the left wing on December 15. That arrangement is 18 games old now, first playing with Couturier as his center and now Giroux, and it has been even more fruitful - Voracek has seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points since the switch.

“He’s not a good player, he’s a great player,” Hakstol said. “He’s highly competitive and he’s a great teammate. He’s been in a couple different positions, and his reaction has been to go out and play as well as he can. That’s the character of the man. He just goes out and tries to play as well and as hard as he can.”

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