Philadelphia - October 29, 2013 - After losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 a week and a half ago, the Flyers were faced with a seven day stretch with no games. While it may be an exaggeration to say that the seven day break and how the team responded could be a season-changing moment, it has certainly looked that way.
Prior to the stretch, the Flyers for the most part lacked emotion, heart, and fight when they played. They looked lifeless out on the ice, losing board battles, making a variety of mental errors, and playing as individuals instead of as a team. Steve Mason was the lone bright spot that kept the team from being blown out on a regular basis.
In the first two games since the break, the Flyers have looked significantly better. The Rangers and Islanders aren’t juggernauts by any means, boasting a combined 7-10-3 record this season, but for a team that struggled as much as the Flyers did out of the gate, any win is a big development.
The biggest reason for the turnaround is the stronger attention to detail throughout their play. Before the break, many of the goals allowed by the Flyers were the result of a huge breakdown in defensive coverage. There were way too many men left uncovered in the slot and in dangerous scoring areas around the Flyers net. Looking at the three goals they allowed against the Rangers and Islanders, defensive breakdowns could not be faulted for any of them.
Brad Richards scored a fluky goal after he threw the puck towards the net from the half boards, and it deflected off Braydon Coburn into the net. Against the Islanders, Kyle Okposo scored with a rocket of a point shot, and a tricky backhand by the red hot Frans Nielsen were the only pucks to get by Mason. Improved coverage and awareness by the entire team in the defensive zone was the biggest, most visible improvement the team made on the defensive side.
On the offensive side, there were some obvious changes the team made, and the early returns have been strong. The forwards showed an increasing willingness to battle in the corners and along the boards. Previously, the Flyers tended to lose many more one-on-one battles than they won in the offensive zone, which contributed to their lack of ability to generate even-strength offense off the forecheck. In the past two games, they managed to score five even strength goals. In the other eight games, they had a combined seven even strength goals.
Another important change the offense made was to place Vinny Lecavalier on the first line alongside Claude Giroux and newcomer Michael Raffl. It was speculated throughout the offseason that Lecavalier could make the switch to wing to play with Giroux, but the last two games was the first time it had been given a serious chance. They combined for six points against the Islanders, including a hat trick for Lecavalier against the Islanders.
Even though there have been visible improvements by the offense and defense, the two wins would not have been possible without the rock solid play of Steve Mason in the net. He’s been by far the Flyers’ best player this year, and has singlehandedly kept them in games despite being hung out to dry by his defense on many occasions. The only knock on Mason coming into the season was that his sample size as a Flyer was small. But with each passing game, the sample size gets larger and larger, and Mason continues to shine.
While it is easy to get excited about two wins in a row, it is important to keep in mind that the Flyers shooters were facing two goalies with 22 combined NHL appearances coming into the games in Cam Talbot and Kevin Poulin.
If the team continues to do the little things right, big improvements should be in the Flyers’ future.