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Speed, Skills and Thrills!

A look at the reasons why Philly is flying to early success

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

In hockey, speed kills but quickness is even more important. The Flyers ability to pressure the puck and turn defense into offense -- or to create turnovers with their forecheck -- has been one of the most notable developments of the early season. 

Over the course of the last year, the Flyers' team speed and skill level has been upgraded. That means little, though, without opportunities to use it. Thus far, Philadelphia is generating such opportunities with regularity. Here are five reasons why the Flyers appear to be a faster team and why the club has the NHL's second-best goal differential (26 goals scored, 16 goals against) through six games.

1. Young legs: The National Hockey League as a whole has trended toward younger, faster players in recent years and the Flyers have been no exception. The oldest skater on the Flyers roster (Valtteri Filppula) is just 33 years old. 

"Those young guys we have can skate for days," Flyers alternate captain Wayne Simmonds said. "We feel like we can dictate the play and skate against anybody."

The Flyers new fourth line trio with 23-year-old Scott Laughton centering speedy 23-year-old rookie Taylor Leier and tenacious veteran Michael Raffl has done an excellent job thus far of pushing the pace. Second-year forward Travis Konecny has already had a couple of breakaways, scoring on one and drawing a delayed penalty (canceled out by an eventual Dale Weise goal off a slick between-the-legs drop pass by Nolan Patrick) on another. 

Conditioning has also played a part in it. To a man, the Flyers players reported to camp in excellent physical condition and then went through the most physically rigorous and competitive training camp in recent memory. 

Top line right winger Jakub Voracek has used both his size and speed with regularity to generate scoring chances off the rush and around the net. Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere are fully healthy after coming back last season from hip and groin surgeries in the shortened pre-World Cup of Hockey summer of 2016. 


2. Depth: "I think we have a lot of depth, were rolling all four lines, that fourth line we are talking a lot of good about them. They're fast, they're skating, they're making it hard on opposing teams and they're creating momentum and that reflects all the way through the lineup. I think our depth so far has been really good and we gotta keep it that way," Couturier said.

The Flyers can roll out four separate lines with attacking capabilities. The Flyers are particularly much deeper through the middle than they were at this time a year ago, which has enabled Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol to "stack" the top line by having Giroux shift over from center to left wing and placing two-way stalwart Sean Couturier (eight goals and 24 points in his last 25 games, dating back to March 4 of last season) onto the line with the captain and Voracek.

The crafty and quick Jordan Weal, a converted center playing left wing on the second line with Filppula and Simmonds, excels in shielding the puck and creating time and space. He, rookie center Patrick and Filppula are all skilled playmakers who were not with the Flyers at this time a year ago. Konecny, playing right wing with Patrick and role-playing veteran Dale Weise, is also a high-skill player. The fourth line is getting rewarded with a few goals but, just as important, setting up the other lines to start their next shift in an advantageous position.


3. Gritty plays create pretty plays: There's a lot of hard work that goes into being able to use team speed as a weapon. The Flyers' have been dogged in their puck pursuit in most of the periods played thus far. It has often been the plays they've made without the puck that has turned into attacking opportunities. 

When the Flyers have seen an opportunity to push the pace and gain separation from defenders, the stickhandling and playmaking of the skill players come in play. Do that frequently enough, with teammates getting to the high-reward but heavy-punishment areas between and below the face off dots, and pucks are likely to go in the net eventually. 

With persistent attention to detail, the Flyers have been wearing down the resistances of many of their opponents thus far.

"I think right now the players are getting to the hard areas and they're making good confident plays. Not everything works out, but when the play doesn't work out the biggest thing to go along with that is the effort coming back up the middle of the rink to our end of the ice to help defend," Hakstol said.

I think the two go hand in hand, confidence to make plays and do that in the critical areas. Then in turn if it doesn't work and there's a turnover to get back 200 feet and work as hard as you can without the puck as well."

In the Florida game on Tuesday, Gostisbehere's goal was a good example of the process of turning defense into offense. Robert Hägg started with a blocked shot and getting the puck to his defensive partner. Gostisbehere then triggered the rush with a lead pass, joined the attack at the other end and finished off the play after taking a pass from Simmonds. Likewise, the subsequent Konency breakaway, jaw-dropping Patrick pass and eventual finish by Weise all started with a transitional play out of the Flyers' zone.


4. Pucks travel faster than the fleetest skates: One crucial facet of the Flyers' seeming upgrade in speed thus far has been efficient puck movement. The first pass is critical: do it tape-to-tape and there's a strong chance of exiting the defensive zone successfully. Put in a skate or turn it over and your side must work that much harder as the opposition gains a chance for extended attack zone time.

"Our Ds are moving the puck quick. When they do that we have a little more time with the puck," Giroux said.

Second-year defenseman Ivan Provorov and third-year blueliner Gostisbehere in particular have excellent in triggering defensive zone exits in stride but the blueline corps as a whole are making good first passes. Since pucks travel faster than even the quickest skaters, the Flyers have been able to cover more real estate on the attack with confident and accurate outlet passes.


5. Effective process trumps early-season adrenaline: Around the NHL, scoring is up early in the season. That trend is probably not sustainable - goals tend to get harder to come by, anyway, as each season progresses. That is why the fact the Flyers goal differential thus far is an encouraging sign. Philly is laying a foundation that often produces wins even in grind-it-out games or at times when they are on a grueling road trip facing a rested home team (the opposite of the situation the Flyers enjoyed in the home opener against Washington).

"Obviously, it's a long season, there's gonna be times when we hit the wall," Voracek said. "But we cannot lose 14 or 15 games like last year, it can last two, three games but then we have to get back at it. I think were skating well because we're in good shape."

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