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Hockey is not football in Philadelphia, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities.
The Eagles are struggling, and the fan base is splintered about quarterback Carson Wentz. There are those who ridiculously blame him for everything and insist he stinks just as there are those who defend him to the hilt, absurdly turning a blind eye to the fact that the franchise quarterback has not been good, especially in the last two games.
As is the case with most issues in today’s society, there are only extremes. The middle ground has been completely diminished down to a very rogue cross-section of realists who are often beaten down by the wing nuts on either side of an argument who insist the middle’s desire to hedge and see things from both sides is a greater detriment than wearing blinders.
In the world of Philadelphia hockey, two guys have gotten the Wentz treatment this season, Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek.
Giroux silenced critics with a four-point game last week, but Voracek still remains the target of vitriolic hockey fans who insist he needs to be traded, he stinks, he can’t score, he plays no defense, and he is a scourge to the progress of the ever-mediocre Flyers.
With Giroux, the two have been poster children for a forgettable era of Flyers hockey. Players who were talented but not enough to carry a team to success.
So, of course, the vocal minority want to simply discard them – especially Voracek and his $8 million-plus contract.
Jake hears it. He hears all the criticism. He’s only 30 years old, but he’s a throwback. He pays attention. He cares what is being said, what is being written. He’ll tell you what he feels and he doesn’t believe in holding back. He’s actually had Twitter beef with fans. He doesn’t believe in today’s culture of muscle-flexing in anonymity. He’s as in-your-face as you want an athlete to be. Honest. A straight-shooter. Gregarious. Fair.
Hell, last season, he had one game where he didn’t score but played great defense and was criticized for having a bad game, and the next night scored three points but played a terrible game and was named a star of the game and then told the gathered media that they don’t know what they’re watching because he played great in the game he didn’t score and was bad in the one he did.
So, you know you’re going to get the truth from Jake every time. He’s a beauty that way.
That’s why, after scoring the game-winning goal in the Flyers’ 2-1 victory over Vancouver Monday, the second straight game in which he scored a goal, Voracek responded to questions about finally breaking out of his slump in the only way he knows how – by being brutally honest:
“I’m moving a little bit better and I feel like I have that swagger back,” he said. “If I don’t play with a swagger… I think that’s what was missing. I got the swagger back and that ‘fuck you’ attitude that I need to be successful.”
Tell ’em Jakey.
Here’s the goal. It was a heck of a snipe:
— NHL Čeština (@NHLcz) November 26, 2019
I’ll dive into the great play by Justin Braun a little later in this post, and Russ is filing a story later today about the impact of playing with Sean Couturier and how that has helped propel Voracek forward, but Jake is starting to get back on pace to being the guy you expect him to be.
He also assisted on the other goal of the game for the Flyers, as both he and Couturier kept a loose puck alive long enough for Couturier to score in the second period to tie the game at 1-1 at that point.
Voracek now has six goals and 10 assists for 16 points in 24 games. That’s a pace for 21 goals and 34 assists for 55 points.
In his Flyers career he’s averaged 21 goals and 47 assists for 68 points per 82 games.
So, his goal scoring is about on average to where it always is. His assists are down, but keep in mind he was quickly shuttled down to a third line role and recently removed from the top power play unit, so he wasn’t playing with the skill players he is used to playing with and getting the opportunity to accumulate counting stats as frequently.
Now, playing with Couturier and Oskar Lindblom, who still leads the Flyers in goals despite stretching his season-long point drought to four games, Voracek will once again have those opportunities to add to those counting stats while still maintaining his solid possession numbers and continuing to play his underrated defense.
Wait Anthony… what the hell did you just type? Are you on crack?
I know. I know. But let’s look at his numbers and the numbers of the players he has been playing against.
In the three games since being put together with Couturier and Lindblom Voracek’s Corsi For Percentage at 5-on-5 has been:
- at Carolina – 65.22%
- vs. Calgary – 68.00%
- vs. Vancouver – 60.00%
Meanwhile the opposition lines who Voracek et al has played against most in those games and their Corsi For Percentage has been:
- at Carolina (Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov) – 50.09%
- vs. Calgary (Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm) – 37.93%
- vs. Vancouver (Tanner Pearson, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser) – 33.33%
Jake alone continues to be a puck possession monster, and now has some real skill on his line to boot, but he’s playing better defensively. It was pretty even against Carolina but defensively they smothered two really good offensive lines in the last two games.
It may have been a slow start for Jake. But he’s back. And if you don’t like it, well, he already told you what his attitude about that will be.
Justin Braun – Playmaker
The Voracek goal doesn’t happen without Justin Braun skating the puck in deep, wrapping around behind the net and feeding Voracek for that shot.
It surprised everyone.
“As a coaching staff, we were a little shocked that he got that far deep,” coach Alain Vigneault said when I asked him about the play. “But Braun gives 100% every time he is on the ice. For him to see that play and make it, great.”
Braun told me he hasn’t really had an opportunity to jump into plays and try and make something happen. He said the opportunity maybe didn’t present itself much.
Likely playing with Shayne Gostisbehere and always worrying about covering for him because he’s more of a gambler probably had a lot to do with that.
But now, playing with Travis Sanheim, Braun is a bit more empowered to read the play in front of him and try to take advantage of it – and he did.
“I’ve had a couple chances lately to get into the play more,” Braun told me in a one-on-one interview. “The first one I tried to force it in front and it didn’t work. Jake and I talked about it and he suggested taking it around the net. So I did that the second time and he was right there. We have to push it sometimes. We had good pressure in their zone and I don’t want to just give up that pressure. It just opened up and it worked out.”
Braun told me that play in the neutral zone has made life easier. He said the forwards being responsible with the puck has made decision-making on the back end a lot smoother. Just having that clarity allows him to make the play he makes on Voracek’s goal.
That and knowing the forwards are going to cover for him and that Sanheim isn’t as likely to take a risk on the other side like Gostisbehere would do, meaning Braun feels more comfortable pushing the envelope and taking a chance.
The combination of Braun and Sanheim has been a revelation the last two games.
“That duo, as the game went on, they took away space and time from a very skilled team,” Vigneault said when I asked about them. “From my estimation, they were able to kill plays and get the puck back, counter, and go on the attack. We spent most time in the second and third period in Vancouver’s end, and a lot of that is having our defense, whether it be that pair or the other two pairs, trust that their forwards are going to reload, and we are going to have someone high and in good position. That is how D’s can keep pucks in and that is what our guys did.”
Vigneault started the season with Sanheim and Braun paired together, but they didn’t click right away and were broken up rather quickly. But he thought they might mesh well and this second opportunity seems to be the spark both needed.
“Our first go-around wasn’t very good,” Braun told me. “I was struggling and he was struggling, so they separated us. But we’ve both been better since and they put us back together and so far it’s working out pretty well. We’ve been breaking out the puck pretty well, and that’s huge. That’s how we get those good possession numbers.”
Braun has been another target of fan anger this season. Trading two draft picks and clogging up some much needed salary cap always seems to be what brings out that ire.
But, to the fans’ point, Braun was pretty brutal in the plus/minus realm. It’s not always the best stat, but it’s definitely one the players pay attention to. Braun was a team-worst minus-13 after a loss in Florida last week. But, in the last three games, he’s been a plus-2. Believe it or not, that plus-2 is his best set of three games this season.
And he’s only been a minus for one game in the last seven.
Couple that with his immensely positive impact on the Flyers penalty kill, which is now tied for third-best in the NHL in a stunning role reversal from a season ago, and Braun is quietly and slowly turning into a real positive in the Flyers lineup.