When the Philadelphia Flyers’ marketing team came up with this season’s rallying cry, Back With A Vengeance, it had no idea Steve Downie would be suspended 20 games for an illegal hit on Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond, or that Jesse Boulerice would be suspended for 25 games for his senseless cross-check into the face of Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler.
Instead, the Flyers were looking to send a message to their fans, to their opponents and to the hockey world that they would erase the bitter memories of last season’s last-place finish. And while the Flyers have gotten their fair share of bad press in the past three weeks, guess who’s sitting atop the Atlantic Division standings?
“This is not last year’s team,” John Stevens, the Flyers coach, declared after the Flyers beat the Islanders on Saturday to move into first place in the Atlantic with a 3-1-0 record. “There’s a totally different attitude in the locker room.”
Maybe that fact has something to do with a totally different team being on the ice. Of the 23 players on the Flyers’ season-opening roster, only eight were with the team at the start of last season.
The big question coming into this season was whether Stevens could get all of the pieces playing together before the rest of the Eastern Conference put them in their rear-view mirror.
Actually, Stevens turned what appeared to be a bad omen – starting the season with a nine-day road trip through western Canada – to his advantage. The Flyers had a relaxing team dinner in Calgary, then beat the Flames 3-2 in Calgary’s home opener when Daniel Briere went top shelf on a third-period breakaway.
They stubbed their toes in Edmonton, where former Oilers captain and current Flyers captain Jason Smith was toasted by an adoring crowd with a pre-game tribute.
In hindsight Stevens said his team was overwhelmed by the tribute and could not match the Oilers’ intensity in a 5-3 loss.
The Flyers then used the next three days to introduce themselves to one another. In a three-day retreat in scenic Whistler, British Columbia, they rappelled themselves down trees, passed each other through “electric” fences, fell blindly into each other’s arms and played with Legos in an attempt to identify themselves as a team.
Corny stuff? Maybe. But it certainly broke the ice with a lot of players.
“A lot of us knew each other, but we didn’t know everything we needed to know,” said goaltender Martin Biron, one of several late additions to last year’s rebuilding plan.
“Let’s face it,” said Mike Richards, now in his third year as a Flyer and wearing an “A” as an alternate captain. “If you’re friends with someone, you’re going to go to battle for him.”
The Flyers returned from their team bonding mission a little weary, but summoned enough energy to beat the Isles 3-1 in their home opener Saturday. This week, they’ll try to gain sole possession of the Atlantic with home games against the Thrashers, Devils and Hurricanes.
“These next few games are where we set our mark for where we want to be at the end of the season,” Biron said.
Before the season, it was suggested to Biron that if the Flyers carried a .500 record through the first month of the season, that start would put the team in a good position to make a run as all the pieces began to fit together.
“No, no, no,” Biron shot back. “We don’t want to be .500. We set out to win every game. We have to set the tone early.”
Getting eight goals from your top line in the first three games is a good start. Briere, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble have found instant chemistry in the early going, with Briere netting four even-strength goals and Gagne and Knuble each netting two on the power play.
Third-year center Jeff Carter joined in the fun by getting the team’s fifth power-play goal in four games in the win against the Isles. By comparison, the Flyers were 28th in the League last season with 53 power-play goals in 82 games.
The Flyers are getting excellent puck movement on the man advantage because they’ve gone with an umbrella attack, with Kimmo Timonen at the top of the point and Richards and Briere on the half walls. That allows Knuble to plant himself in the crease and Gagne to roam around the ice looking for one-timers.
Richards is now living up to the “Captain Canada” hype he received after leading Team Canada to a gold medal in the World Junior Championships, impressing everyone with his tenacity on faceoffs, his gritty checking and his newfound offensive flair.
Defensively, Smith has been everything the Flyers hoped. He’s clearing out the front of the net, laying big hits along the boards and barking orders all game long. Against the Isles he blocked a shot in the waning seconds and from his knees fired the puck the length of the ice for the clinching goal.
The emergence of Smith and Timonen as the Flyers’ top defense pairing has allowed Stevens to use Derian Hatcher in a secondary role with second-year blue liner Braydon Coburn, who is still learning when to go and when to hang back. Hatcher looks fresher this season while logging 20 minutes instead of his traditional 24.The results are showing in the standings. Two years ago, the Flyers recorded 101 points. Last season they got off to a 1-6-1 start and never recovered, finishing with 58 points.
This season? Well, some believe that with this lineup a return to 100 points is not entirely out of the question.
“We have a great team,” said holdover Sami Kapanen, one of just two players (Gagne is the other) remaining from the team that went to the 2004 conference finals. “It’s early in the season, but I think this is going to be a great year for us.”
Around the Atlantic -- The Rangers have to be classified as the biggest disappointment of the season’s first two weeks, having dropped three of their last four entering this week. The biggest problem in New York is finding the back of the net on the power play, where they were 3-for-29. "I don't think the pressure from outside is more than the pressure we put on ourselves in here," said Brendan Shanahan, who had 14 power-play goals last season. "We just haven't scored a lot of goals, even though we've been playing better." Can it be true Jaromir Jagr already has played 200 games as a Ranger? …The Devils entered this week 2-3 on their season-opening nine-game road trip that made a pit stop in New Jersey. The Devils returned home for the second time during their road swing just to re-introduce themselves to their wives and girlfriends. Coach Brent Sutter was too ill to coach Friday's practice, but was behind the bench Saturday night for a 6-5 win against the winless Thrashers, improving them to 2-3. The Devils face a few easy trips ahead, at least in terms of mileage, when they visit Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Philadelphia on Thursday and Long Island on Saturday. … The Islanders’ strong start was tempered by 8-1 and 3-1 losses to the Leafs and Flyers. They’ll hit the road again Thursday in Washington. Enforcer Chris Simon returned to the lineup after serving his 25-game suspension and promptly dropped the gloves with Philadelphia’s Riley Cote. Simon muscled Cote to the ice, but neither player connected with any punches. …The Penguins stubbed their toes out of the gate, but rallied for a 6-4 win against the Leafs as Sidney Crosby broke out of a three-game scoring funk with a pair of goals. The Pens got off to a similar start last season when they went 16-15-6 through the first three months, then won 31 of their final 44 games to make the playoffs. Veteran right wing Mark Recchi said these Penguins will rebound faster. “We know what we have to do, how we have to play, and that we are not there yet," Recchi said.