Dating back even before the Flyers' current eight-game winning streak, the team was playing good hockey. Back in November, for example, the Flyers came through a gauntlet of 16 games in 30 days with the best record in the NHL. Later, following a rough post-Christmas road trip that saw the team go 1-4-1, things started to come together again.
The most recent run, however, has been beyond belief: not just good hockey but outstanding hockey. Just about everywhere you look, the team is firing on all cylinders. The Flyers aren't "just" winning games, they are doing it emphatically. Right now, all of the following things are clicking:
* Five-man units in sync: The Flyers have been doing a stellar job recently in taking away time and space from opponents at five-on-five. Forwards are backchecking. Defensemen are getting pucks efficiently up to the forwards, and are also picking their spots well in joining the attack. The forecheck has aggressive but not reckless. As a result, the Flyers have had the puck a lot more than they've had to defend. When they are forced to play in their own zone, opponents have been largely contained to the perimeter.
* Special teams humming: The Flyers had a little penalty killing hiccup against the Rangers this past Sunday, but overall, the PK has been very strong during the current run. In the meantime, the power play has been red hot, too. Some structural changes -- going back on PP1 to something similar but not identical to the structure that worked so well in past years -- has provided a spark. It's not too often, even for top teams, that both sides of special teams are clicking at the same time. The Flyers have that right now.
* Strong goaltending: Whether it's Carter Hart or Brian Elliott in net, the Flyers have been getting big saves at key times. The stats are strong most nights but goaltending success really isn't about goals against averages and save percentages. It's about the timeliness and quality of the saves. The team has a lot of confidence playing in front of their goalies right now which, in turn, makes it easier for the skaters to make plays with controlled aggression.
* Contributions from all around the lineup: One night it's the Sean Couturier line delivering a big offensive game. The next, it's Kevin Hayes' line. On a third night, it might be the Derek Grant line that does the damage. In the meanwhile, both the defense corps and fourth line (especially Nicolas Aube-Kubel) are chipping in with some regularity, too. Opponents are struggling to match up right now, which is a testament to the depth that's been assembled.
* Veteran leadership: The additions of Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun are paying dividends not only on the ice but in terms of the team's mental approach. I loved what Niskanen said the other day about winning streaks: The key to extending them is to focusing on playing a little better than you did in the previous game. When there has been adversity this season, the Flyers have used the same mentality to pull through it and start winning again. There WILL be adversity again as winter turns to spring and the playoffs draw near. Keeping that same approach will serve the team well.
* Experienced coaching staff: With all due respect to the Flyers' previous coaching regime, the experienced know-how of Alain Vigneault and his assistants (two of whom have previous NHL head coaching experience themselves) has shown over the course of the regular season marathon so far. Along with St. Louis' Craig Berube and perhaps either Boston's Bruce Cassidy or Colorado's Jared Bednar, I think AV deserves serious consideration for his second Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year.
One of the best messages that Vigneault has delivered this season is this one: We haven't accomplished anything yet. There's no checkmark next to our name as a team that's clinched a playoff spot, much less earning first place in the Metro (the Flyers still trail Washington via tiebreaker).
There is way too much hockey still to be played for the Flyers to pat themselves on the back or get complacent. Although it may not seem like it right now, with the offense having scored four or more goals in eight straight games and nine of the last 10, there will be nights where goals are hard to come by again. There will be games where things get a little out of synch defensively. There will be an ill-timed opposing goal or two that Hart or Elliott wishes he could have back.
There will also be some bad luck on bounces. I believe, for the most part, that the saying "the harder we work, the luckier we get" is true. But there are times where fluky things happen.
There will also be nights again where the Flyers run into hot goaltending or an opposing line that has it's A-game going. There will be some losses. There will probably be a stretch where a few of the things that are humming right now takes a backward step for a few games.
That's just the nature of hockey. When that happens, though, the Flyers can turn to the approach that's gotten them where they are right now. Keep at it, and things will start clicking again.
One thing about hockey is that the challenges keep on coming. The Flyers, after they host Buffalo on Saturday -- and, hopefully, avoid falling into a "trap game" pitfall -- are going to have a very difficult stretch to follow. They'll host Boston on Tuesday and then be in Tampa on Thursday. The road game against the Lightning will mark the beginning of a stretch of four games in six nights, which will end with the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues coming to Philly.
We all wish the Stanley Cup Playoffs could start tomorrow. They don't. There's still a lot of big games to play before then, tough tests to pass, and probably some fresh adversity to overcome. Vigneault's team seems to embrace that challenge. There's no other choice.