Something is happening in the Philadelphia sports landscape and there’s a good chance you aren’t even aware of it.
While you spent your weekend cheering the Eagles on to the Super Bowl and watching repeated videos of fans climbing Crisco-lathered poles, or driving a dune buggy up the Art Museum steps, or watching the fan in the subway run into a pole while chasing a train, something else has been quietly happening in town.
The Flyers have kept winning and have gone from last place in the Metropolitan Division to tied for second place in pretty much a blink of an eye.
And they have done it by winning four in a row, 16-of-22, and playing their best hockey of the season.
Now, I still remain a skeptic. I still think this level of play is unsustainable for the rest of the season, but there are starting to be signs that I could, in fact, be wrong.
And when you look at those signs – some which I, along with many of you fans, have been yelling about for months – the chances of me being wrong about this Flyers team grow more and more with each passing game.
Yes, the Flyers are two consecutive losses away from falling right back into a chase position in the topsy-turvy Metro, which frankly has eight teams of equal ability – all with identifiable strengths and glaring weaknesses. And yes, there’s a lot of hockey left to be played, and the cream will certainly rise to the top as it does every year (in other words, Pittsburgh isn’t going to miss the playoffs after winning consecutive Cups) but when the team is playing this well, there has to be a reason – well, several reasons – and after last night’s 3-2 overtime victory in Detroit, the Flyers third overtime win in the last four games – it’s time to start identifying them and to look at where the Flyers really are at this point.
1. Travis Konecny
This is the obvious jumping off point. After netting his first career overtime winner in Washington Sunday, Konecny provided an encore performance in Detroit Tuesday.
Travis Konecny wins the game in OT once again! pic.twitter.com/T1JT575BpT
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) January 24, 2018
Consider this; Konecny, who should have been promoted to this top line role much sooner, had 10 points in his first 35 games this season. It looked like he was destined for another lost season playing under Dave Hakstol.
But then something happened. It was just before Christmas, the team was playing Columbus and Hakstol, finally, after hearing the screams from Flyers Twitter and this very blog, put Konecny on the top line with Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier.
In the 13 games since, Konecny has 11 points – including back-to-back game-winners.
The Flyers are proving lethal in 3-on-3 overtime thanks to Konecny’s speed and skill.
The Flyers can attack you with two really good unit’s 3-on-3 that can rival any group in the NHL – There’s Giroux-Jake Voracek and Shayne Gostisbehere – two top five scorers in the NHL and a top-five scoring defenseman.
Then there’s Couturier-Konecny and Ivan Provorov – a top-five goal scorer, a 21-year-old forward with elite speed and the best 20-year-old defenseman in the NHL in a long, long time.
They are a matchup nightmare.
And it’s one of the main reasons the Flyers have vaulted into a tie for second (OK… OK… they’re in third. The NHL tiebreakers are hilariously bad – they are based on potential future outcomes and not events that have already happened – so forget the fact that the Flyers are 2-0-0 against the New Jersey Devils this year. Forget that they have more regulation wins than the Devils. New Jersey has more point-earning potential because of a game-in-hand… so they are ahead of the Flyers… asinine).
As for Konecny, he’s scoring more because he’s playing with better players, rather than on the fourth line, but he’s also learning. He’s learning not to try to do too much. Not to make mistakes with the puck or mistakes of aggressive play that lead to odd man chances the other way.
He’s still got room to grow there for sure, but you are seeing the growth of a young, talented, scoring winger who has potential to be a difference-maker for this team in the future.
2. Agressive penalty kill
There’s no question, the Flyers penalty kill has been the bane of their existence this season. They’ve been ranked at or near the bottom of the league pretty much all year.
But prior to the Rangers game last Tuesday, the Flyers had allowed 10 power play goals in 29 attempts over a span of 10 games, a horrific penalty kill percentage of 65.6 percent.
But in the last five games, the Flyers have allowed just three power play goals on 14 attempts, for a better percentage of 78.6.
It’s still a little too low. You want your penalty kill to really operate in the mid-80s as far as a kill rate is concerned, but the improvement in the past five games can directly be attributed to the team pressuring the puck more when the opposition power play gets set up.
They are chasing the puck carrier. Skating right at him actually. By doing that, they are taking away a shooting lane while simultaneously cutting down on the puck carrier’s time and space to find an open man. It’s pressuring him into a decision he doesn’t want to make.
This is another thing that was blatantly obvious with the Flyers for more than just that 10-game stretch of ineptitude. It doesn’t make sense that it took this long to fix it, but at least they have – and maybe they’ve done so in the nick of time.
3. The Big Three aren’t slowing down
Don’t look now, but the Flyers are the only team in the NHL with three players in the top 20 in the league in scoring.
They were at it again last night. Voracek had a goal and his league-leading 46th assist. Couturier had two assists. Giroux had another assist.
All of them scored a point on this power play goal:
Goal stands! Voracek makes it 2-1! pic.twitter.com/QGjHJUkfTE
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) January 24, 2018
They are proving that they can continue to score at a torrid pace over a lengthy period of time. Giroux is on pace for 96 points. Voracek is on pace for 94. Couturier is on pace for 84. All three would be career-highs and the best trio of offensive scorers in Philadelphia in 22 years.
4. The Defense
These guys aren’t getting the credit they deserve for the way they are playing. Especially in their own end.
In the last 22 games, the Flyers have allowed, on average, 2.46 goals per game. That’s not eye-popping by any stretch of the imagination, but when you are scoring 3.18 goals per game in that same stretch, it’s a pretty noticeable difference.
The thing is, if you look at the advanced stats, you wouldn’t know how good they’ve been.
With the exception of Radko Gudas and Gostisbehere, the regular six Flyers defensemen are all below 50% with their Corsi For percentage. (Actually, Travis Sanheim was the best of the bunch based on this metric, but he was sent down, finally, to get playing time – but he should be on the ice rather than either Gudas or Brandon Manning).
It’s no secret that Gudas and Gostisbehere like to shoot the puck, so that’s partly a reason why they are above 50%, but overall, the Flyers are just below 50% mostly because they are a little too unselfish at times and don’t shoot the puck enough.
But this group – specifically the top four, have been playing very well. Provorov and Gostisbehere really are a dynamic that most teams don’t match up well with – two guys who are good to excellent offensively who can see the ice well, pass the puck superbly and can get into the areas where they can shoot the puck with authority.
Andrew MacDonald and Robert Hagg have lower possession numbers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t successful. Neither is much of a puck mover, nor are either offensive-minded, so shots are fewer when they are on the ice, but then again, they are the best shot blockers on the team, bar none. They don’t get rattled, and Hagg is a physical presence and gaining a reputation of being hard to play against.
Gudas and Manning do nothing for me. Although they aren’t dreadful, they do tend to make more mistakes than you would like.
Manning is what he is – in my estimation a No. 7 defenseman. A serviceable guy who can fill in when needed, but who shouldn’t be relied on to carry a workload.
Gudas is something else entirely. I have had complete mood swings about Gudas. Two years ago I thought he was a guy who crossed the line too often and was detrimental.
Last season I thought he toed the line really well and was an effective, consistent, reliable, physical defenseman for an entire season.
Then this season happened.
In his first 17 games, Gudas wracked up 57 penalty minutes – including a 10-game suspension – but at least played with an edge.
Since coming back from his suspension, Gudas has played 19 games… and not taken a penalty.
That’s good from one perspective – it means he’s more disciplined for sure, and staying out of the penalty box always helps the team.
But, the negative is, he seems more passive. His average hits per game is down from 2.25 pre-suspension to two per game post-suspension. That’s not a huge drop off, but it’s definitely noticeable. He also doesn’t seem as aggressive when it comes to taking away time and space. He’s just kind of floating out there – which is why I think his blocked shot average is up post suspension, going form 1.35 per game to 1.63 per game.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ron Hextall looks for an upgrade for the third pairing on the blue line at an affordable price at the trade deadline if the Flyers are still in contention, which they should be.
As for Sanheim – it’s about damn time they got him back on the ice playing – even if it’s in the NHL. I don’t know what they were thinking by making him sit in the press box basically for a month. That’s not how you develop players, sorry.
I still stand by the notion that I ‘d rather see him work through his issues while playing rather than seeing a less ballsy Gudas or having Manning thrown at me night after night. But, this, at least, gets him back playing hockey and not drinking too much hot cocoa in the press box every night.
5. The Conference isn’t very good
Tampa Bay is the class of the East. Boston is a really good second-best team. After that, numbers 3-11 are all the same. From Washington to Carolina there is an 11-point gap between spots 3 and 11, but it’s even closer than that.
Nobody is going to run away and hide with the Metropolitan Division, so the opportunity is there for the Flyers to hang in the chase, even though I didn’t think they would.
I don’t think they’re going to go 16-5-1 in the next 22 games, but then again, I don’t think anyone else in the division is going to do that either.
As such, the Flyers are going to be in the thick of it, but every divisional matchup will be tight, physical, emotional and intense – and that’s when they have to be ready for it – unlike the Rangers game eight days ago or the Pittsburgh game two weeks before that.
But, they’ve been impressive – finally doing the things they should have been doing all along. And for now, at least, that’s a good thing. But we’ll see if it lasts.
They have two weeks until after the Super Bowl (and maybe an extra week or so if the Eagles win and there is a lengthy sports hangover in Philly).
But then the city’s eyes will be on them. And as it is with hockey, if it’s a good product, the city will stay with them. If not, we’ll be talking about pitchers and catchers, trusting the process, March Madness and NFL free agency before you can even bat an eyelash.