With the first four games behind them, the Flyers find themselves in the midst of a five-day break in the schedule. They aren’t back on the Wells Fargo Center ice until Tuesday, when they’ll host the Dallas Stars in the first half of their first set of back-to-back games this season. Wednesday night the team will be in Boston to take on the Bruins.
The break is both a blessing and a curse. While it offers time to recharge, the team just had two consecutive shutouts, and that momentum will have waned by Tuesday. But the Flyers are doing their best to treat it as a blessing simply because there’s nothing they can do about it.
“I think you use every day to your advantage,” said Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol. “We came off a hard performance [Wednesday vs. Chicago], so to be able to have a couple days where we’re still on the ice and we get some good work done, I think is valuable.
That includes taking time to rest and recuperate, and using the extra practice time to firm up some of the new systems that the team is using this year. After practice on Friday, the team had a complete day off on Saturday before resuming practice today.
“We’re not going to have many stretches like this during the season for sure,” Hakstol said. “Very seldom are you going to have two good days of practice in a row. It’s early in the year. We’ve got a good foundation, but there’s a lot of things that we still want to build and improve. We’ll use Sunday and Monday to slowly address some of those. You can’t get to everything all in even two days of practice, but we’ll get to some things we want to address and we’ll build and improve.”
The curse side comes in the simple fact that there’s very little a team can do in practice to replicate game situations. Scrimmaging mimics game situations, but the physicality just isn’t the same. Plus there’s no substitute for the mental and emotional process of getting ready for an actual game against another opponent.
The phenomenon reared its ugly head twice for the Flyers last year alone. They won three in a row on November 4, 6 and 8 and then hit an identical five-day break in the schedule. Their next game on November 14 was the first of four consecutive losses and started a 1-8-1 slide that the team couldn’t shake for more than two weeks.
Later in the season, they fared slightly better – a four-game winning streak was rudely interrupted by the all-star break, and afterwards the team was at least securing standings points. But even with that 4-1-4 record in the first nine games after the break, the Flyers would have liked to see some additional points.
Anecdotally, the players who have been with the Flyers for a few years or more know that it’s happened in prior seasons as well. One thing that comes with experience is that the Flyers seem to now be aware of it. Jake Voracek sees it coming four days out, and went so far as to say Friday that he knows the team will be rusty on Tuesday and that it simply has to not panic when it happens. Voracek’s experience has taught him that if the team works on the small things over this break and keeps the game simple in that first period against Dallas, it will go a long way towards avoiding the hangover.
“You can work on the system all year round; just get better at the details,” Voracek said. “Get better at defense, get better in the neutral zone, and just keep focusing on that. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish during the five-day break and just apply it to the game.”
Indeed, it’s that simple play that has brought the Flyers success through the first four games. The fact that they’ve been executing it to this point makes it a lot easier to go back out on Tuesday and plan on doing it again, rather than approach it from the standpoint of trying to remember how to execute detailed breakouts or otherwise try to take control of the game from the start.
“I think for us when we get back to it on Tuesday against Dallas, we’ve got to play that first 20 the way we played against Chicago our first 40,” said right winger Wayne Simmonds. “We took what they gave us; we didn’t try to force the play or anything like that. I think if we do that we should be successful.”
The break is also tough on goaltenders, and perhaps even more so for Steve Mason because his break has been two days longer. But the concept is the same for him – keep it simple.
“Focus on the fundamentals that were making the game sharp in training camp and then the first game of the season there,” Mason said. “The trackings, make sure you’re following the puck into your body, your gloves. When you’re doing that, it’s clean hockey; you’re controlling where your puck’s going. In the next couple days here, that’s something we’ll be focusing on a lot just to make sure we’re ready for the next game.”