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Flyers return to playoffs after one-year absence

Gostisbehere, Schenn, better goaltending among reasons Philadelphia's back in postseason

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / Deputy Managing Editor

The Philadelphia Flyers' return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs started with a shoulder fake in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 14.

It was the first NHL game of the season for rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who was recalled from Lehigh Valley of the American Hockey League earlier that day. With a little more than three minutes left in the third period and the Flyers trailing 2-1, Gostisbehere made a shimmy-shake that faked Hurricanes forward Chris Terry out of position, creating an open shooting lane. Gostisbehere put the puck on net for Wayne Simmonds to deflect it past goalie Cam Ward to tie it, and Jakub Voracek scored in overtime to give the Flyers a 3-2 victory.

"The coaches told me, 'It's your time to do what you do,'" Gostisbehere said. "I took my chance there and I'm glad it worked out."

Gostisbehere did a lot of what he does over the next five months, and the Flyers clinched a playoff berth with a 3-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, returning to the postseason after a one-year absence.

Here are five reasons the Flyers clinched:

Video: PHI@FLA: Gostisbehere beats Luongo to tie it late

1. Gostisbehere

Philadelphia is 35-19-11 since Gostisbehere's recall, and their 81 points are fourth-most in the Eastern Conference.
Gostisbehere leads rookie defensemen in every major statistical category, and his 15-game point streak set an NHL record for rookie defensemen and is the second-longest in the League this season.

He's been the engine that's driven the Flyers offense. In 63 games with Gostisbehere in the lineup, the Flyers have averaged 2.70 goals per game and converted on 19.5 percent of their power plays; in 18 games without him, they've averaged 2.00 goals per game with a 12.5 percent success rate with the man-advantage.

"He's unbelievable," goalie Michal Neuvirth said. "He's a special player and he works hard every day. It's fun to watch him."

Video: PIT@PHI: Mason snags Mouillierat's shot from in close

2. Improved goaltending

General manager Ron Hextall upgraded the backup goalie position when he signed Neuvirth on July 1 to replace Ray Emery.

The Flyers have allowed 2.57 goals per game with Mason and Michal Neuvirth, an improvement on the 2.72 per game last season with Mason and Ray Emery.

Mason has been especially strong in the Flyers' late push for a playoff berth. Since March 5, he's 10-4-3 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. He has started 12 consecutive games since Neuvirth sustained a lower-body injury March 16 and is 6-4-2 with a 2.21 GAA and .926 save percentage.

"He's our MVP right now," Gostisbehere said. "He's the backbone of our team. The way he's playing is unheard of."

Video: TOR@PHI: Schenn beats Bernier early in the 2nd period

3. Schenn stepping up

Brayden Schenn loved being teammates with his older brother, defenseman Luke Schenn, but it was Luke's departure that turned around Brayden's season.

Since Luke was traded to the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 6, Brayden has been the Flyers' top offensive performer and among the top 20 in the League with 17 goals and 38 points in 43 games.

He's set NHL career bests in every offensive category this season.

"I'm just trying to be more consistent," Schenn said. "For me, I think a big part to the game is keeping my feet moving. When I do that, I'm more successful, it gets me involved more, gets me more physical. ... Just comes with experience for you. Just try to be a more consistent player. It's not an easy league to play in, if you're not on that night. And so you try to do as much as possible."

Video: PIT@PHI: Bellemare seals the win on an empty net

4. Hakstol adjusting

Hextall's decision to hire Dave Hakstol as coach was considered an outside-the-box one because Hakstol had no NHL experience as a player or coach; he spent the previous 11 seasons as coach at the University of North Dakota.

The Flyers predictably struggled early as players adjusted to Hakstol's new systems and the coach learned his way around the NHL. But like Hakstol's North Dakota teams, the Flyers improved as the season went on. Hakstol's teams had a .699 points percentage during the second half of the college season (176-69-24), according to the North Dakota sports information department. The Flyers are 21-12-7 since playing their 41st game Jan. 13; the 49 points (.613 points percentage) in that span are tied for third in the Eastern Conference.

Hakstol also convinced Voracek to move to left wing, turning around his season; he's helped Schenn and Sean Couturier take big steps in their offensive games; and he's been willing to give Gostisbehere more opportunities, including playing him on the penalty kill and against top-flight offensive players.

Video: PHI@PIT: Voracek redirects the puck past Murray

5. Voracek waking up

Voracek had one goal in 30 games before he was moved to left wing Dec. 15 against the Hurricanes. Having never played the position before, Voracek adjusted almost immediately.

He had a goal and two assists in the 4-3 win against Carolina. In 29 games at left wing between Dec. 15 and Feb. 25, when he sustained a lower-body injury, Voracek had nine goals and 31 points; he was tied for sixth in points in the NHL in that span.

He struggled after returning March 19, with two assists in his first seven games back, but has a goal and three assists in five games in April.

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