The play on which the Flyers tied Tuesday's game vs. Ottawa started out innocently enough, as a routine dump-in. Senators goaltender Craig Anderson went to the end boards to get the puck. And then, he hesitated. That's when Jordan Weal jumped into action and began to close on the goaltender like a lion hunting an antelope.
What happened next looked like a fluke, but it was no accident. Weal intentionally, and successfully, fooled Anderson into thinking that Weal was headed towards a Senators defenseman in the corner. Then when Anderson tried his other escape route, Weal quickly pounced on the pass and was able to tie the game.
"I knew there were two options for him," Weal said Wednesday. "He's a goalie that likes to play the puck and try to make plays. I tried to take that D-man option away, and then when he went to make the play to the middle I tried to anticipate it."
Looking deeper, it's a thinking player's play. Rather than just instinctively shut off one path or the other, Weal recognized that he could force Anderson into some indecision. As a speedy forward who routinely forechecks, Weal has been in these situations before where he can force a turnover deep in the offensive zone, or be part of a forecheck that does so.
"There's probably one a year you get that works out in a situation like that," Weal said. "It's just a matter of trying to get yourself into as many of those situations as possible. There's so many plays like that that happen over the course of the season. If you can try to anticipate a couple and get a turnover, it can give you an opportunity."
That goal, and his subsequent shootout winner, earned Weal first star of the game honors for the second consecutive contest. He has gone out in both games and had terrific showings against two playoff teams in the Penguins and Senators. Many might see it as a surprise, but even though Weal is a rookie, he is no spring chicken. He has honed his game over 264 American Hockey League appearances, and two years ago was named the MVP of the Calder Cup Playoffs after leading the Manchester Monarchs, the AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, to the Calder Cup with 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points over 19 playoff games. At the time of his recall, Weal was leading the Phantoms and was second in the entire AHL in scoring with 15 goals and 32 assists for 47 points in 43 games.
After winning the championship with Manchester, Weal re-signed with the Kings and began the 2015-16 season with them. But for whatever reason, Weal had trouble cracking the lineup and appeared in only 10 games for the Kings before Ron Hextall called his old team in January and managed to coax Weal and a draft pick away from SoCal for Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn.
Upon arrival in Philadelphia, Weal found himself with a Flyers team that was scrambling to get back into playoff contention after a rough start to the season. There wasn't a whole lot of time to acclimate in a new player who hadn't played much all year, and given the playoff race, there wasn't much room for error, either. As a result, Weal only saw action in four games over the rest of the way, but did stay with the Flyers the entire time.
"It was a tough situation," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said following Tuesday's win. "I think we've covered that. For him, just in terms of the lack of number of games that he played when he came over to us and on through. So really his opportunity started in camp and he's done a good job from day one. From training camp to going down to Lehigh Valley and doing a heck of a job from day one all the way through there. Then coming here and not changing his game. He didn't come here and change the way he plays. He just continued to play confidently here."
Although Weal spent the first half of the year in the AHL, he recognized it as an opportunity to get his game back, which could have been difficult at the NHL level after only playing 14 games over an entire season.
"I went down there and we had a great group of guys," Weal said. "We were all working hard and playing well. It's a lot of fun when you can be in there every night and play a lot of minutes. Just playing hockey and getting back to what I'm used to is definitely a big relief."
After this year is over, whenever that happens, Weal will look ahead to next season in hopes of securing a full-time Flyers spot. If he does, it probably won't surprise Kings amateur scouting director Mark Yannetti, and Weal's goal on Tuesday probably wouldn't have done so either. In an interview with the Boston Globe following Manchester's Calder Cup win, Yannetti specifically pointed out Weal's mental approach to the game - the kind of thing that leads to plays like the one against Anderson.
"He's an elite thinker," Yannetti told the newspaper. "The way he sorts the game, his creativity, the way he reads and recognizes space with and without the puck. His mind allowed him to deal with spatial things in a way that helps compensate for size."
Fortunately for the Flyers, that is happening here. And while Weal is settling in with the Flyers, he's not going to take anything for granted regardless of what success he might have.
"I'm definitely feeling more comfortable on the ice and playing hard and trying to work with my teammates every game," Weal said. "But [there's a] different kind of comfortable, relaxing in your work ethic and stuff like that, because - for lack of a better term - you've "made it…" I don't think you can sit back and do that. You've got to keep pushing forward and keep trying to get better."
There weren't many Flyers on the ice on Wednesday, but one of them was Nick Cousins, who missed the last road trip recovering from an upper body injury and is considered day to day. Cousins told the media he's been cleared to practice, and was happy to finally get back out with the team upon its return.
"I haven't been on the ice there for a while, so it's just a matter of getting back into game shape, getting my legs back and feeling good about myself," he said. "I think I'm pretty close here and when the time comes I'll be ready."
Video: Cousins on getting back into the lineup after injury