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A lot of narratives were debunked in Washington Saturday night.
Let’s start with ‘the Flyers are bad on the road.’ Well, they donned the road whites, and went into the building of the best team in the NHL’s best division and buried them 7-2, the most goals by a road team in Washington since 2006.
With that win, the Flyers improved to 10-2-1 in road games this year that were either a one, or two-game road trip (they are 2-11-2 in road games on trips of three games or longer).
For the record, there are no playoff road trips longer than two games.
With the dismantling of the Capitals, the Flyers are tied for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with Carolina, but right now would still be on the outside looking in by virtue of an ever-changing tiebreaker.
Nevertheless, in the overall standings, the Flyers have the 11th-best record in the NHL. Their record this season against the 10 teams in front of them? How about 11-5-4? Not too shabby, eh? Not many teams in any sport boast winning records against winning teams, never mind those that are in the top third of the league overall.
So, the Flyers are proving they can play with anyone and if they make the playoffs, they will be a tough out. A very tough out.
That’s because the Flyers play very good team defense.
And that’s another narrative that was debunked on Saturday.
No, there’s not this over-riding belief that the Flyers stink defensively, but there are players who have been derided for their lack of defensive play who have been really good for long stretches this season, and really showed it Saturday.
Of course, it all starts on the blue line, where it’s become very obvious the Flyers’ best defensive six-man unit does not include Shayne Gostisbehere.
Ghost was a healthy scratch Saturday, replaced by Robert Hagg, who continues to be very good in his own end when given the opportunity to play. He logged 17 quality minutes against the Caps, blocked four shots and finished as a plus-2.
Now, plus/minus isn’t a very good stat to look at in individual games, as it leaves a lot more room for interpretation for what happened on a given play and to determine if a player truly deserved a plus or truly deserved a minus based on the play itself.
That said, when you look at a larger sample size, it can tell a different story. Sure, luck can play into it and you can be lucky to be on the ice for more goals scored by your team either at even strength or while shorthanded, and to not be on the ice when goals are scored against your team at even strength or while on the power play.
But sometimes you also create your own luck with the consistency of your play.
Hagg hasn’t been in a minus player in any game since Dec. 11 in Colorado. The Flyers have played 24 games since then, Hagg has played in 17 of them. In those 17 games Hagg is a plus-13. That’s a pretty noticeable number.
In fact, Hagg has only been a minus player in four of the 35 games he’s played this season for the Flyers, and three of them came in consecutive games… all the way back in October.
Hagg and Justin Braun have been a nice pairing since they were put together. They were paired together for the first time seven games ago and with the exception of the loss to New Jersey on Thursday, when Hagg was a healthy scratch, the Flyers are 5-0-1 with them as a pair, with the duo combining for a goal and three assists and a plus-10 in six games.
Not bad for a third pair on defense playing about 17-18 minutes a night.
Their steadiness as a duo has allowed the Flyers to keep Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim together as the second defensive pair. And although they have had their struggles as a young duo, they are being flanked by reliable pairs on either side of them (Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen as the other pair) it has allowed them to start to figure it out, and in fairness, they have been better in recent games despite the occasional glaring mistake.
I know there are a lot of Flyers fans who still love Ghost, and I understand why, but the reality is, this team is better without him than with him. Plain and simple.
But the team defense goes well beyond the actual defensemen. The forwards are all buying in to their responsibility on the defnsive side of the puck – and this includes guys who never had a reputation for being “defensive-minded.”
Guys like James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux have been much better in their own end this season than in previous years, but the biggest difference has to be Jake Voracek, who continues to play some of his best hockey after finally getting on board with what the coaches want from him.
It was interesting to hear Alain Vigneault talk about Voracek recently and how in discussions with him, there was a give and take about style of play and creativity, but that Vigneault confirmed that there were several “non-negotiables” with Voracek – much of what had to do with playing defense.
It took a little while for Voracek to get comfortable playing differently, but once the old dog did in fact learn some new tricks, he’s arguably been one of the two or three most important players on the team this season.
Since that game against Vancouver when Voracek announced to the world that he has his “swagger back” and is playing with a “fuck you attitude” on the ice, he has 28 points in 32 games. (He actually scored the night before that quote too if you want to include that since he wasn’t asked about his swagger or attitude until the next game).
He’s played mostly with Sean Couturier, who has been the Flyers best 200-foot player, and they are playing against some of the best players in the world on a nightly basis, and Voracek is back to producing at his normal levels for some time.
And we’re not talking about bottom-feeding teams struggling to get good chances against the Flyers, but the Pittsburghs, Washingtons, Bostons, Tampa Bays of the world who are finding very little room to work with against the Flyers.
This is some next-level stuff for the Flyers that hasn’t been seen around these parts in a long, long time.
Voracek has been blowing up the underperformance narrative for more than two months now, but Giroux hasn’t been able to shake his – then he goes out and has a three point night against Washington to reach 800 points for his career, becoming only the third member of his draft class to reach that plateau (Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel). Not too shabby for a scrawny kid drafted 22nd overall.
Giroux was back on the wing, where he’s more comfortable, as the Flyers recalled Morgan Frost to add another center to the roster. The shift was precipitated by the need for Joel Farabee to miss another game because of illness, but it also sparked the captain to his best game in a while.
And as the Flyers keep winning these games, they are proving the narrative that they are merely mediocre is no longer the case. Yes, you can look at the division standings on Feb. 9 and see them in sixth place and laugh at the words I just typed. But the reality is, the Flyers are only two points behind the team with the sixth-best record in the NHL this season.
And considering almost every NHL prognosticator will tell you there are five elite teams in the NHL (Boston, Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and St. Louis) to be right on the door step of those teams with two months of regular season play to go is a very good spot for the Flyers to be.
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