Key stretch begins for Flyers

Posted: December 03, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. - As the calendar turned to December and the temperature has dipped, the only thing getting warmer is the heat being turned up on the Flyers.

It is no stretch to say that the next 38 days may well define their season. At the very least, the next month or so will give a true glimpse into whether the Flyers are contenders for a playoff spot or just pretenders.

Beginning tonight, the Flyers will play 18 games in 38 days: 13 road games; nine games against Western Conference teams who are a combined 56-26-10 against the East; five divisional games; and three games on the end of back-to-back nights.

They will travel 15,409 miles between now and Jan. 8, nearly half their entire total for the season. They will change time zones eight times. They will be tested in ways they have not been this season.

It is a daunting road. Yet, it is not an impossible road, not based on the 11-5-2 hockey they have played since their 1-7-0 start. Especially not since they have remained almost completely healthy the entire season, able to adjust to systems as an entire team and not individual parts.

The Flyers tonight have their second crack at moving above .500 for the first time. Here are three quick absolutes the Flyers must have during this stretch to remain in the thick of the East:

1. Steve Mason: The Flyers wouldn't have skated away with two points from Nashville without the play of Mason, who earned his first shootout win as a Flyer. It was also the first time he'd played both games of a back-to-back set since March 25-26, 2012, when he was a member of the Blue Jackets.

Mason, 25, actually has a winning record (9-8-2) this season, a testament to the job he has done in net on most nights with little in front of him. He is eligible to sign a contract extension beginning Jan. 1 - and after taking a pay cut to re-sign with the Flyers after his trade from Columbus, surely this will keep him motivated through the New Year.

It isn't often that a team will squander the kind of performance Mason has put up this season, with a sterling .934 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average. Yet the line between winning and losing in the NHL is so slim, it's hard to envision the Flyers being in the race with any sort of let-up from the 26-game pace Mason has set since joining the team last April.

2. Skating: After Saturday night's win, longtime Nashville coach Barry Trots said the Predators felt they "could take advantage of some of [the Flyers'] footspeed, or lack thereof."

It is true that at times, Saturday was a poignant reminder of the slower Flyers skating over the last season and a half, which contributed to the demise of Peter Laviolette. It is the reason Mason needed to stand on his head, with his teammates playing on consecutive days.

However, vastly improved skating is one reason the Flyers looked like a formidable opponent on their recent 6-0-1 run. They moved through the neutral zone with speed, entered the offensive zone with purpose. Coach Craig Berube had been drilling it into them for weeks, dragging them through arduous skating drills during practice when the schedule permitted. It paid off. And the Flyers did look different for a bit.

But if the Flyers are going to compete - especially against Western Conference opponents - they better have their legs.

3. Sean Couturier: Remember when Couturier went on that magical run as a rookie? He scored five of his first 13 NHL goals in a five-game span from Jan. 8-17, 2012.

Well, Couturier scored on Saturday to give himself goals in back-to-back games for just the third time in his career. He now has three this season, already one shy of last year's lockout-shortened season.

Both goals over the weekend were a reminder of his deft touch with the puck, placing a one-timer top shelf over Nashville goaltender Marek Mazanec and slipping a breakaway deke through the pads of Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec.

The Flyers don't need Couturier to score every night, but it is a bonus. They would be lost without him defensively. He logged north of 20 minutes per night in November, shouldering the toughest defensive assignments among forwards. Looking at the #fancystats, Couturier starts more of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other Flyer, and more often than not, ends them in the offensive zone.

What does that mean? He is efficient defensively, even playing a shutdown role, and he's playing with players who can help move the puck through the neutral zone.

When asked about Couturier's game on Friday against Winnipeg, Berube smiled and said it was "like he does every night." Ho-hum. He is a big part of the winning formula.

Slap shots

The Wild have gone 0-3-1 after opening November with a 9-1-1 run . . . Tonight marks just the Flyers' sixth visit (2-2-1) to Minnesota since the inception of the Wild franchise in 2000 . . . After suffering a contusion to his leg last Monday that St. Louis team doctors feared was a fracture, Wild leading scorer Zach Parise returned to the lineup on Friday night and played both games of a home-and-home against Colorado. He was expected to miss 2 to 3 weeks.

On Twitter: @DNFlyers


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