For a period of 13 days, the sights and sounds of hockey returned to the Skate Zone in Voorhees -- albeit in a modified fashion due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic -- as the Philadelphia Flyers conducted their pre-playoff training camp as part of Phase 3 of the National Hockey League's return-to-play plan. Now, the team will head to their assigned hub city, Toronto, to prepare for an exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. three round-robin games against the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, and Tampa Bay Lighting, and, finally, the start of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
On the final day of camp in Voorhees, all 34 players on the Phase 3 roster were present and accounted for on the ice; just as they were at the start of camp. Goaltender Carter Hart was a full participant in Saturday's practice, as was center Sean Couturier.
Hart left a scrimmage on Tuesday during a struggling first period and remained off the ice until after a final scrimmage on Thursday ended. While his two-day absence was said to be precautionary, there were nevertheless sighs of relief when he closed out camp by looking sharp in the final practice. Afterwards, Hart declared himself ready for game action.
"Been ramping it up the last two days. I feel really good right now. The plan is to be good to go for [the exhibition game] Tuesday. ....It'll be nice to get into a game on Tuesday when no one's played a game in more than four months. It'll definitely be nice to get that first game in there, just getting back into that game mentality. Just run through everything that you would normally do on a game day because it's been a long time for all of us," Hart said.
"I think this training camp for all of us was for us to get back and get into our rhythm as players and as a group. A lot of us haven't been on the ice for a long time. Some guys had access to ice. Others didn't. Some guys were off the ice for three months. Some guys didn't really take a break at all. For myself, I was off the ice a long time and came down a little early to get some work in with our goalie coach here. I thought that was very helpful in getting back into things. Then today was the last day of our two week camp. It was nice to have everybody here and get back our group together, practice together. The last couple days practice with mainly our group. That's what this camp was for, for everyone to get their wheels under themselves and get back into a rhythm."
Couturier's two-day absence was strictly for personal reasons. His wife, Laurence, gave birth on Friday to a healthy baby girl named Ella.
"I haven't given him any tips yet. I've congratulated him. It's a tough situation for him. I couldn't imagine leaving for what he's going to have to do. Hopefully everything goes well there. It's a tough situation for him to have a child and then have to leave immediately for maybe two-and-a-half months," defenseman Justin Braun said.
James van Riemsdyk, whose wife gave birth in early May to a baby girl named Scarlett, and team captain Claude Giroux, whose son, Gavin, will soon celebrate his first birthday, are in the same situation. On Friday, van Riemsdyk candidly discussed the dueling emotions tied to going all out to win the Stanley Cup while facing potentially a long period of total physical separation from his wife and child.
"It's tough. You want to be there for your family. You want to be there for all those little moments and the things that go along with that. Obviously, now is a time where things are changing pretty much every day with the little one at home," said van Riemsdyk.
"With that being said, everyone in my family and close to me knows how important this is to me and how important winning a Stanley Cup is. These are sacrifices that families have to make in the world of professional sports. Obviously, we are very fortunate to get to do what we do. They are excited to support me. Kind of chasing down a dream."
Saturday's practice, which was run by the team's assistant coaches (head coach Alain Vigneault was not on the ice), was divided into Group A on the Flyers rink on the left side of the building and Group B concurrently practicing on the Phantoms' rink on the other side.
Group A consisted of the 23 players (13 forwards, 8 defensemen and two goalies) who are locks to be on the postseason roster. Wingers Joel Farabee and Nicolas Aube-Kubel rotated reps on Nate Thompson's line during the line-rush portion of practice, with Michael Raff alternating sides. The lines were as follows:
Giroux - Couturier - Voracek
Laughton - Hayes - Konecny
JVR - Grant - Pitlick
Farabee/Raffl - Thompson - Raffl/Aube-Kubel
Provorov - Niskanen
Sanheim - Myers
Hägg - Braun
Gostisbehere - Friedman
Throughout the entire duration of camp, the coaching staff kept all of the team's defense pairs -- both Flyers players and Black Ace candidates -- the same. In terms of the top three pairs in the "A" group, these were also the same pairings as the team used for the lion's share of the regular season's second half.
Braun said that he felt there was a benefit to working with the same partner (Robert Hägg) each and every day during camp.
"I think it's huge. You want to be with a guy so you can kind of read off him again. Get that chemistry going because when you got to make those bumps, breakout plays, you can't be guessing where your guy is going to be. You got to know where he's going to be immediately, that he is going to be sliding over on the rush, that he's going to take away the middle. Just having those little detail things that you are working on every day with him. Beyond that, we are trying to all do the same thing out there. Everyone has a different style and different strength. I think it was good to kind of keep everyone where they were," Braun said.
There was a momentary scare during Saturday's practice. Doing battle behind the net, first-line and second-line centers Couturier and Kevin Hayes awkwardly got their legs tangled. Thankfully, both players were fine and finished the rep. Since there was no harm done, team captain Giroux was able to tease his teammates after the rep by recreating how they looked.
After 5-on-5 work, there was a drill with a simulation that most forwards -- even defensively sound ones -- dread: a situation in which they have to drop back into a defenseman's posture, skate backwards and defend a one-on-one rush. Mercifully for the forwards, this portion of practice was kept brief.
During Wednesday's practice and then for a pair of 10-minute portions of Thursday's scrimmage, the Flyers worked on their power play. Players who play only the PK side were given extensive reps, while players who play both sides of special teams (such as Couturier, Hayes and Ivan Provorov) were on the power play side. This reversed on Saturday, as the all-manpower players were assigned solely to the penalty killing side.
Braun, who is exclusively part of the PK side of special teams, was one of the players who got in extensive work over the final three on-ice days, feels the penalty kill is in good shape to take into the exhibition game and the round-robin. He cautioned, however, that there are some differences between a practice-day environment for a penalty kill and what it is like during a bonafide game.
"Guys aren't letting the shots go from up top and getting into the shooting lanes a little bit easier because guys are smart enough not to try to take your ankles out. I think it's just getting that movement around and getting your spots. You get a feel again. I think we were pretty good," Braun said.
"But in the playoffs, when Shea Weber's walking down the pipe and you've got to put your body on the line, that's the big difference. In the playoffs, you've got to eat some of those. We haven't really done that in practice. I think getting that mindset's a little different."
It was unsurprising in Wednesday's practice and Thursday's scrimmage that the penalty kill was ahead of the power play. That is usually the case in a training camp, because the timing has to be more precise for a power play to get set up and then to create and finish scoring chances. Flyers assistant coach Michel Therrien described the process after the final practice. It's a work in progress to get back to where the team left off at the time of the NHL pause.
"If you look at all our season, I really like the way we finished, how we played on the power play. We were successful the last ten games, last fifteen games. We were mostly in the Top 5 if you look at that segment. When you start all over again, the timing, the execution, it always takes some time. We had a power play practice this week. I think it really helped. Just at the beginning, let the guys go and you could tell we were struggling. It was normal, but like this week we had a good practice on the power play. Just focusing on that two days ago, today we were focusing on penalty killing. It's going to take some time. The execution's got to be there. A preseason game is going to be a good example to see where we're at. Even those three games we're going to play in that round robin is going to help us prepare for when we start the playoffs because we all know special teams is a big part of having success in the playoffs," Therrien said.
Over in the Group B session, the Black Aces had one final opportunity to state a case to be among the 31 players the team will take to the Secure Zone (AKA "the Bubble") in Toronto. All teams had to submit a tentative playoff roster to the NHL on Friday, but there was still a chance to make a last-moment tweak or two before the final rosters were announced by the NHL on Sunday. For Phase 4, teams may take a maximum of 31 players including goaltenders. In Phase 3, teams could have 30 skaters (forwards and defensemen) with an unlimited number of goalies.
Working on the Phantoms' ice with skills coach Angelo Ricci, the following players participated in Saturday's Group B session: forwards Morgan Frost, Connor Bunnaman, Carsen Twarynski, Andy Andreoff and German Rubtsov, defensemen Egor Zamula, Andy Welinski, Tyler Wotherspoon, and Nate Prosser, plus goaltenders Alex Lyon and Kirill Ustimenko.
Among this group of 11, seven players will be named to the group that goes to Toronto. Lyon is a virtual lock to be one of them, as every NHL team will carry at least three goalies while in the Bubble.
The 31st and final spot on the Flyers' playoff roster will be reserved for left winger Oskar Lindblom. At some point after a trip home to Sweden to visit family to celebrate being diagnosed in remission from Ewing Sarcoma, Lindblom is slated to join his Flyers teammates in Toronto.