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Recently I heard one of those stupid polls on Philadelphia sports talk radio. The hosts were asking callers to rank their confidence in the coaching of the four major professional sports teams in town.
This came on the heels of the Phillies signing Joe Girardi to be their manager, so of course there was going to be a significant buzz for him.
And yes, the results were oh-so-predictable.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson was No. 1 – win a Super Bowl, and that ranking will last your lifetime.
Girardi was No. 2. The excitement of having him replaced the widely disliked Gabe Kapler and having a World Series title to boot made that a no-brainer as well.
Brett Brown came in No. 3, but was still lauded as the Sixers are considered by many to be a legit championship contender.
Coming in a “distant fourth” (the host’s words, not mine), was Alain Vigneault.
The host and the city might want a do-over on that one.
In the preseason, I was asked for a prediction about the Flyers season. I picked them to finish fifth in the Metropolitan Division and be in the mix for one of the Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference.
My rationale was that the Division was tough and that it usually takes a couple months before a new coach is able to really get a team to start playing the way he wants them to play – to break old habits and to re-teach their minds and bodies how to do things on the ice.
It was because of that reason that I expected the Flyers to be mediocre until about Christmas and then be better in the second half but have to still chase down a number of teams, which is hard to do in the NHL because of the loser point that teams get in the standings when games go past regulation.
But Vigneault has worked some magic with the Flyers thus far.
He’s taken basically the same team that the Flyers had last season, with a couple of tweaks on defense, and healthy goaltending, and he’s gotten them to play the right way quickly and efficiently to the tune of having the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference on Veterans’ Day.
And while the skeptics will be quick to remind me that Veterans’ Day is not St. Patrick’s Day, and that I should save my speech for March if the Flyers are still playing well, I will counter by pointing out that this Flyers team, at 10-5-2, has traveled more than any other team in the NHL, has had a really condensed schedule of playing multiple games in a very short time span, and just went on the road and beat two of the best teams in hockey on consecutive nights to get to where they are.
What the Flyers are doing right now is impressive. What Vigneault has done is even more so.
He has turned a team that a season ago would cough up an early lead and collapse into one bad loss after another, into a team that this season coughs up an early lead and finds a way to recover quickly, withstand a swing in momentum, and then take the game back.
It’s a confident team. It’s a committed team. It’s an accountable team.
And guess what? For the first time in a long time, the Flyers are a fun team.
Fans still may not be convinced. After all, some recent home games have had announced attendances that were smaller than a sellout at the Spectrum, the Flyers old arena which held roughly 3,000 fewer patrons than does the Wells Fargo Center.
Fans have turned away from the Flyers in recent years. They became apathetic toward hockey much in the way the organization had become apathetic toward progressing.
But the time has come to give this team another shot.
They are young. They are vibrant. They are talented. They have a little swagger back. They believe in themselves, and, most importantly, they believe in their coach.
How else do you explain this weekend?
Beating Toronto is one thing. For as fast and skilled as the Maple Leafs are, they are a bit of an enigma this season, having lost more games than they’ve won through their first 19 contests.
But then having to travel and play the next night against the defending Eastern Conference champions who have once again gotten out to a great start, and who were well-rested waiting for the Flyers to come into their home barn, and to defeat them as the Flyers did to the Boston Bruins with a 3-2 shootout victory Sunday, should be an eye-opener.
That makes them 5-0-1 in their last six games and 8-2-1 in their last 11 games. And to really make you think you are in an alternate universe, the Flyers are 3-2 this season in shootouts. That’s right. A winning shootout record. Considering the Flyers came into this season with a record of 45-83 all-time in shootouts, which is easily the worst in the NHL since its inception in 2005, being a game over .500 at any time in a season in shootouts is staggering for this team.
But again, it’s not just about shootouts. It’s not just about “finally” playing the young kids. The Flyers have approached their young talent in the right way – play them when they are ready, not before they are ready.
While Joel Farabee, who scored the game-winner in the shootout against Boston, plays beyond his 19 years, other young players needed to get in the right frame of mind before coming to the NHL and playing regular minutes:
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) November 11, 2019
In past seasons it was Scott Laughton. Or Travis Konecny and Oskar Lindblom. Or Travis Sanheim. Or Carter Hart last year. Or Phil Myers now.
If you’re ready for the big time, you’re more likely to contribute than if your game hasn’t quite ripened to the level it needs to be to play consistently in the NHL, no matter how long the fans are screaming for your name to be inserted into the lineup.
It’s also not just about goaltending – which the Flyers are getting this year from just two goalies, after trotting out a league record eight goalies a season ago.
The major reason this team is playing the way it is and garnering success is its accountability toward one another. It’s taking responsibility for your own play and not pointing the finger of blame at anyone else. It’s about believing that even if something breaks down, whether it’s team defense, or a faulty power play, or an energy-less penalty kill, that it’s just part of the game and that you can’t let it weigh on you and you just pick up where you left off and get back after it.
I point to the Toronto game a little more than a week ago when Sanheim made two mistakes that cost the Flyers goals in the first two periods but rebounded to score a goal himself in the third period.
Stuff like that didn’t happen previously. That’s a mental toughness that this team struggled to maintain in previous seasons. We heard the word “fragile” a lot to describe the locker room, and it was. Very fragile.
Not this group. Sure, they’ve had moments of weakness this season, but through 17 games, the Flyers have only looked completely out of sorts three times – in Calgary, in New York against the Islanders, and in Pittsburgh. All three were regulation losses. The other 14 games, it can be argued the Flyers were the better team.
If they’re going to be the better team in 14 out of every 17 games… this team is going to be playing well into the Spring.
That’s probably an ambitious expectation – especially so early in the season, but then you look at games like Boston on Sunday, where the Flyers had a 2-0 lead after 40 strong minutes but then completely ran out of gas in the third period and overtime.
And yet, they were able to get the game to the shootout because the one guy on the ice who was fresh from having not had to play the night before, was their goalie, and Carter Hart was sensational. He had 15 saves in the third period and stopped each Bruin shooter in the shootout, including this final stop on David Pastrnak (who he also stopped on a penalty shot earlier in the game) and he had a little Brian Boucher-esque celebration afterwards:
Carter Hart celly after stopping David Pastrnak for the win pic.twitter.com/VQlNW5mqgl
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) November 11, 2019
Sometimes, when you’re not at your best for a portion of a game, you need your goalie to come to the rescue. And with the way Hart is playing now and Brian Elliott has played all season, the Flyers have two goalies who can do this for them now.
Konecny scored again last night, to tie his linemate Lindblom for the team lead in goals.
As I have been telling you since the first game of this season, that duo, along with Sean Couturier, is the Flyers’ top line. Get used to it. Commit it to memory. They will play the most minutes and be expected to score more than the vets like Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, and Kevin Hayes.
You know who else scored again? Myers:
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) November 11, 2019
He has a goal in three straight games. He’s the seventh Flyers defenseman to do that in franchise history, according to the NHL Stats and Information department. That’s not an exclusive group, but the fact that he’s the first to do it since Mark Howe in 1987, well, that is noteworthy.
There’s a real drumbeat of a pulse about this team right now. There was always a promise of this eventually coming together and coming to fruition.
It might have taken longer than we all wanted and it certainly needed the right guy behind the bench to make it happen, but the time for both is upon us.
Now the city just needs to wake up and realize the Flyers might still be fourth in this market, but they shouldn’t be considered distant any longer.
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