Inside the Flyers: Even-strength play fuels Flyers turnaround

Steve Mason's excellent play in goal has helped the Flyers get back into the playoff race after their 1-7 start. Even-strength play has also been a factor.
Steve Mason's excellent play in goal has helped the Flyers get back into the playoff race after their 1-7 start. Even-strength play has also been a factor. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 25, 2013

The Flyers' transformation - from an early-season NHL laughingstock to an Eastern Conference playoff contender - can be traced to improvement in several areas.

None has been more critical than their eye-opening even-strength play.

If their five-on-five play was a stock, the Flyers would have gone from J.C. Penney to Google in the last two weeks.

It took them about a month before they adjusted to new coach Craig Berube's defense-oriented system, but the results have put them back in the Metropolitan Division hunt quicker than anyone could have expected.

In the process, the Flyers are starting to build an identity, one that features terrific goaltending and a hardworking defense.

(You really did read the words Flyers and terrific goaltending in the same sentence. You are not in a time machine that has brought you back to the Ron Hextall or Bernie Parent eras. Carry on.)

The Flyers entered Saturday night on a six-game points streak (5-0-1), a span in which they had outscored their opponents, 14-1, in even-strength situations, excluding empty-net goals.

Prior to that, they had been floundering with a 4-10-1 record and had been outscored an unfathomable 28-14 while at even strength.

"The confidence level is very, very high right now," winger Jake Voracek said this past week. "Everybody is being responsible defensively, and I think that's why we're playing so well right now."

The continued goaltending excellence of Steve Mason and, to a lesser extent, Ray Emery is another reason for the turnaround from a franchise-worst 1-7 start.

So is this: Stability in the lines and the defensive pairings.

The Flyers were on a 5-0-1 run entering Saturday night's game against the Islanders. During that streak, the defensive pairings have been the same - Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen, Nick Grossmann and Mark Streit, and Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson. Berube has a puck carrier (Timonen, Streit, and Gustafsson) with a physical defenseman in each pairing.

In addition, in the last five games before Saturday, Berube had the same lines.

"In the beginning of the season, when Chief came in, he was trying to find the right chemistry with the guys," said Voracek, referring to Berube by his nickname.

Besides the blossoming defense, the Flyers are starting to form an identity on offense. They have two lines that can score (Claude Giroux centering Scott Hartnell and Voracek; Vinny Lecavalier centering Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds), a third line that can shut down opponents and chip in with timely goals (Sean Couturier centering Steve Downie and Matt Read), and a fourth line that can be physical, give the team energy, and win lots of faceoffs (Adam Hall centering Zac Rinaldo and Jay Rosehill).

"We're getting used to each other," Couturier said.

The Flyers' recent even-strength dominance, which Berube thinks is an offshoot of their power-play success, has offset a dip in their penalty-killing efficiency.

The team's even-strength play the last two weeks has been a reversal from last season, when the Flyers were 25th out of 30 NHL teams in their five-on-five goals for/against ratio (0.86/1.00). They finished third in the NHL in power-play production last year, but it didn't mean much because of their even-strength struggles.

Even-strength play, of course, is much more critical because teams spend most of a game in those situations.

"It's all about skating and supporting the puck in all three zones," Berube said. "When you do that, you end up playing in the offensive zone more and you get more pucks on net."

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the third line. Downie has made the line click since he returned from a concussion and replaced rookie Michael Raffl. His corner play has set up numerous scoring chances for Read and Couturier.

The chemistry has been highly noticeable.

"If you have your head down or are along the boards, you kind of know where your linemates are," Read said. "I think everyone in this room is really smart and talented and can play with anybody, but the lines are pretty solid now and I don't see them changing. There's no reason to change while you're winning."

The Flyers' recent goal-scoring improvement has enabled the defense to stay at home more often, another factor in their strong even-strength play.

"When you're not scoring goals and you're pressing offensively, you maybe take chances that you wouldn't normally take in the defensive zone to try to create something on offense," Coburn said. "We weren't scoring and it puts pressure on your all-around game when you try to force things a little too much."

Now they are playing more relaxed, playing with more focus.

Playing like hockey is fun again.


scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull

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