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The Little Things

by Brian Smith | PhiladelphiaFlyers.com / Philadelphia Flyers

It might end up being the Flyers’ defensive play of the year. But it all started as a mistake by the opponent.

Halfway through the third period Monday night, Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman tried to hit Ryan Callahan in the neutral zone with an outlet pass. But he missed, and Mark Streit, who was probably anticipating Callahan to field the pass cleanly, suddenly had it hit him in the backhand right at the Flyers’ blue line.

To Callahan’s credit, he stayed with the play. And although Streit made his best effort to corral the puck, even going to one knee and trying to get his body behind it, the thing was behaving like a panicked squirrel in the street. In an instant it was behind Streit, and Callahan was in on a 2-on-1 with Brian Boyle.

Nick Schultz was the Flyers’ representative in this crisis. His hands suddenly full, Schultz’s first instinct was to figure out a way to make the situation easier on his goaltender.

“You don’t want to give the shooter a great angle to shoot at, but if it gets across to that guy, it’s tough for the goalie to make a save on that,” Schultz said in recalling the play after practice on Wednesday. “You just try to make him delay a little bit longer, try to make him second-guess or fake at him or do something to affect his thought process.”

Meanwhile, Brayden Schenn was back at the red line. He’d been forechecking, and was actually the one who forced Hedman’s pass wide of Callahan. Schenn had turned to track the play when he realized there was a problem.

“I just remember looking up and it was a bouncing puck,” Schenn said. “Streiter went down on one knee and tried to block it and it hopped over his glove.”

Schenn hit the gas and closed 25 feet by the time Callahan reached the left circle faceoff dot. Schultz was indeed forcing him wide, and Callahan didn’t seem to like the shooting angle presented to him – Mason had the post sealed off, and Schultz was effectively blocking any attempt at going far post. So Callahan ended up holding the puck an extra second and going almost to the goal line before he threaded a backhand in front to Boyle, who was now looking at a net as open as a 7-11 on Christmas.

“[Callahan] made a great play,” Schultz said. “It just got through. I think even Mase tried to get his stick on it. He made the pass pretty low.”

That extra second turned out to be everything for the Flyers. As the puck approached Boyle’s stick, Schenn arrived. He reached in and pushed it along to the right-wing boards just before Boyle could get to it.

“That’s Schultzie playing it well and not giving it a whole lot off the initial rush,” Schenn said. “Callahan did make a good play where he pulled it around Schultzie’s body and got it to Boyle. Thankfully I got there to break it up.”

“Schenner just came back and made a great play on it,” Schultz said. “It was huge.”

It’s easy to look at the stats and see Schenn’s career-high goals total, bolstered by his hat trick last week. But it’s plays like that, the latest in a series of them for Schenn lately, that stand out to Dave Hakstol.

“[It’s] about a hundred foot backcheck that saved a goal for us,” he said Tuesday on the Hockey Central radio show on 590 AM in Toronto. “It’s signs like that of a complete player that’s making him more and more valuable. He’s become a good 200-foot player for us.”

A GALVANIZING EFFECT
It’s plays like Schenn’s that not only prevent goals, but bring teams together. It’s been happening all year with this group, dating back to November when the Flyers went through a stretch of fighting majors all taken in the act of standing up for teammates. That kind of cohesion translates to wins.

“I can look to my left and see Gags, and I look to my right and see Coots, and I know those guys have my back no matter what’s going on,” said Wayne Simmonds. “We’re playing with confidence and we’re sure of ourselves right now. It’s a good way to be feeling going down the stretch here.

The team is learning from its past – both long-term and short-term. The bulk of the players in the locker room were together two years ago when the Flyers mounted a late charge to make the playoffs. They were together a year ago when a last-second loss in Boston on March 7 – coincidentally one year to the day before Monday’s momentum-building win over Tampa – effectively derailed their attempts to make the playoffs.

“I think we let it eat away at us after that,” Simmonds said. “This year we’re trying to be a little more composed, keep ourselves even-keeled, trying not to get too high or too low. We’re riding our wave right now, and it’s working well for us.”

Even during the most recent homestand, the Flyers showed evidence of maturing as a team. Through the first 30 minutes, Monday’s game against Tampa Bay was shaping up a lot like the previous Thursday’s 4-0 loss to Edmonton. The Flyers were down 1-0 on a Lightning goal that was fueled by a lucky bounce, and they’d taken almost 30 shots without beating Andrei Vasilevskiy. But as everyone knows, the Tampa Bay game had a different outcome.

“We didn’t get any bounces against Edmonton, and then we play Columbus and we get every single bounce,” Simmonds said. “Things appear not to be going our way against Tampa, not getting any of the bounces. We stayed calm, cool and collected, and just kept firing shots on net, kept getting to the net, kept taking his eyes away, we knew one would go in. As long as we took care of our own zone, we knew once we got one, we’d get two, and maybe even three. I think that’s the way we played it. We took care of our own zone, made sure we had no gaps there, and we put pucks in the back of the net when we had to. It was a good learning experience.”

Those experiences will be ones the Flyers look to fall back on this weekend and beyond as they try to get back into the postseason.

“Throughout the year we’ve shown a lot of resiliency,” said Steve Mason. “This is going to be a great test for us going down [to Florida] for two really tough games. Last year we kind of let one game dictate the rest of the season for us, and we can’t let that happen. We have to go down with the mindset of one game at a time, and that starts with a real tough game against the Lightning.”

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