Tonight we may find much more about one of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ biggest challengers: the Philadelphia Flyers. It has been a year of surprise Metropolitan Division challengers. The New Jersey Devils had a lengthy run atop the division before falling comfortably into the playoff mix. Now, it is the Flyers’ turn to push the Penguins. But, these Flyers are not what you may expect.
The Broad Street Bullies are no more. Perhaps they changed with the game, changed with the times or adapted without late owner Ed Snyder’s fastidious promise to never be pushed around again. The Philadelphia Flyers are beating teams with finesse and speed.
In the past, Philadelphia rolled an enforcer on each line. Enforcers and never-ending chippiness are gone. Seriously. It may be hard to imagine an orange and black team which does not attempt to enforce its will with physicality and grit, but the Penguins have changed the game. Slightly ironic, isn’t it?
This season began bleakly on Broad Street. The Flyers dropped 10 straight from November to early December, but head coach Dave Hakstol led a turnaround. The Flyers are 26-11-3 since the 10-game calamity.
Giroux to Wing
Sean Couturier is having a career year centering the Flyers’ top line. Couturier leads the Flyers in goals with 29, and his 63 points only ranks behind Claude Giroux and Jakub Vorachek. Philadelphia maxed out the Couturier’s potential since slipping veteran top line center Giroux to the left wing. Giroux’s move to the left side also allowed young centers Nolan Patrick and Scott Laughton to develop in their natural positions. The increased ice time availability gives the duo opportunities to play with the gritty sniper Vorachek for more production.
Philadelphia has the ability to roll four lines and they take advantage of it. Fourth line center Valtteri Filppula gives Hakstol flexibility. However, the squad leans heavily on its top-six. Looking ahead to the playoffs, Hakstol may insert Wayne Simmonds into a third line role next week when he returns from injury. Simmonds to the right of Laughton would bring a scoring element to the third pivot and a more balanced group of forwards.
Despite a plethora of young, talented defensemen, defensive woes are becoming a trend. They rank 10th in the league in goals allowed, but the Flyers have given up 15 goals over the past three games and there is a glaring issue of defending teams on the rush–which plays to the Penguins advantage.
Increasingly, teams with fast, strong skating forwards have exploited the Flyers. Sunday, the Florida Panthers pounded four goals in transition due to a lackadaisical forecheck and defensemen that pinched too far in the offensive zone. Here is one example courtesy of Florida winger Evgenii Dadonov.
Despite these struggles, the Flyers have three young defensemen who will produce for years. Ivan Provorov, Robert Haag and even Shayne Gostisbehere, who is still only 24 years old, will provide blue line punch for years to come. Depth defensemen like Andrew MacDonald, Radko Gudas, Brandon Manning and newly acquired Johnny Oduya need be better, much better, or the Penguins will skate past the Flyers. Literally and figuratively.
A recurring theme for Philadelphia fans has been the inability of goaltenders. Petr Mrazek posted a sub-.900 save percentage in four of his six starts since the Flyers acquired him from Detroit. Mrazek’s backup is 25-year-old rookie Alex Lyon. Last month, Brian Elliott underwent successful core muscle surgery and will be out until later this month.
Giroux, Vorachek and Couturier are going to produce. How far they Flyers can go in the playoffs depends on defense and goaltending. The Flyers are good and are a legitimate contender to win the Metropolitan Division.
Cup contention is only a few years away.