Because the playoffs are still ongoing, we can’t yet discuss what the banner that will hang from the rafters of the Wells Fargo Center will say to commemorate the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers season.
But, even if the Flyers do not win another game this summer, they should at the very least fly a Metropolitan Division Championship banner, because there is no doubt they are the best team in this division.
After another hockey clinic on Thursday – in which the Flyers simply smothered the Washington Capitals 3-1 – there should no longer be an argument.
The Flyers weren’t on a hot streak in February and March – they just were that good of a team.
And even after four-and-a-half months off, while the other teams around them in the division are trying to get their sea legs, the Flyers just picked up right where they left off with two master class victories over Cup Contenders from Boston and Washington.
There is one more test – and it’s a big one – when they play Tampa on Saturday with the winner being the No. 1 seed and the loser being the No. 2 seed for the remainder of the playoffs.
It’s made bigger by the fact that the Flyers have defeated 14 of their 15 Eastern Conference opponents this season – the only one they haven’t, is the Lightning.
This, in some ways, is their Waterloo.
Yes, it’s only going to be one game, and the season is not on the line, by any stretch. And frankly, both teams are looking to stay healthy through this game so they can be a full go once the games really matter for them next week.
But still, this is a test. The Flyers have been playing with extreme confidence so far in the Bubble. That confidence existed in training camp. It existed prior to the season’s pause. It’s there. This team believes in itself. It’s why it is one of the favorites to emerge from Toronto and play for the Stanley Cup.
But, Tampa is a hurdle. Tampa is a thorn that the Flyers haven’t been able to avoid.
And while this one game can be an appetizer for a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup (yeah, I’m predicting these are the two teams that will close the Toronto bubble), it’s also got a lot riding on it as a confidence builder for the Flyers.
Because really, that’s all that’s left.
Sure, we can sit here and nitpick – the top line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jake Voracek haven’t made a peep since hockey returned. The power play looks sluggish. Coach Alain Vigneault already sent a message to another veteran – James van Riemsdyk – that he needs more out of him, benching the big-money player in favor of Connor Bunnaman against Washington.
But really, these are small tweaks that need to be made during these tune-up, round-robin games.
Instead, let’s focus on the real story lines:
Great players make those around him better. I’m not ready to elevate Hayes to greatness status, but if singular performances could be considered microcosms of careers, then what Hayes did against Washington was Mt. Rushmore-worthy.
His puck possession skills and heads-up play are what makes him so effective. Combining him with Travis Konecny and Scott Laughton gives the Flyers a second line that can score, that plays the game the right way, and that has just enough sandpaper to it to frustrate the opposition.
Hayes assisted on all three Flyers goals against Washington, but none was as impressive as the play that led to Travis Sanheim’s goal:
— NHL Deutsch (@NHLde) August 7, 2020
This is a set play, in a sense. It’s practiced all the time. Sanheim originally goes to the net then swings back out again like he’s going to go back to the point. As he’s doing that, Scott Laughton cuts to the middle of the ice. This creates a split second of uncertainty on the part of the defense and they get caught flat-footed when Sanheim surprises them and makes a second move to the net where he’s in great position to accept a pass from Hayes.
And while the design of the play and the Flyers execution of it (including Phil Myers serving as a decoy option for Hayes at the point with his stick cocked in a shooting position ready for a one-time howitzer if Hayes were to pass it to him) was textbook, none of this works without the work of Hayes to keep the puck for the entire time.
Fending off defenders. Stick-handling through poke checks. All the while to have the presence of mind to execute the play like a veteran quarterback with touch and precision.
This is what makes a difference for the Flyers.
Yeah, he’s a fun guy. Yeah, he’s like the team’s social coordinator and has an infectious personality. Yeah he’s a chatterbox on the ice. Yeah he’s rah-rah and all the intangibles you want from an alternate captain.
But guess what, he’s got game too. A lot of us were wrong about Hayes, and he’s making us all take another nibble of crow each game.
During the dark years better known as the Dave Hakstol era, there was a lot of screaming from the crowd to play the kids. Even if they’re not ready, play the kids.
Well, one who was playing and had been playing and kind of dropped below the radar for fans because it was assumed he was nothing more than a gritty bottom-six forward at the NHL level was Laughton.
Yet, it’s easy to forget that Laughton was a first-round draft pick. First round picks aren’t selected because a team thinks they should be a bottom-six forward or a bottom-pair defenseman or a backup goalie at the NHL level.
No, when the Flyers selected Laughton, they expected him to be a top-six contributor.
It took a little longer for it to happen, but Laughton is there now. And likely, to stay.
No player has refined his game more in the last 12 months than Laughton. He’s become a complete player. A two-way player. Responsible, hard-nosed, determined, and a finisher. He’s turning himself into a Brad Marchand type.
That’s not to say you should expect Laughton to suddenly become a 100-point player like Marchand, but consider Marchand’s career path:
- Enters the league as a bottom-six forward who is known more as an agitator than a scorer.
- In his first five full seasons (he only played 20 games as 21-year-old rookie) He only topped 50 points in a season once.
- He had a breakout season in 2015-16 at age 27, scoring 37 goals and 61 points
- In the four seasons since he’s been a perennial All-Star, with at least 85 points per season.
I don’t foresee Laughton becoming a better than point-per-game scorer, although, you never know, but, the fact that Laughton has scored four of the Flyers 11 goals in the Bubble so far (including the Pittsburgh exhibition) is not a fluke.
We are witnessing his coming of age in real time, and that’s a huge bonus for the Flyers:
— Eric Reese (@EricReesePSN) August 7, 2020
This first goal was just a matter of Laughton going to the net once the Flyers steal possession (thanks for the turnover, former Flyer Radko Gudas), and yes, it was a heck of a no-look pass from Travis Konecny, but it’s the more aggressive Laughton than in the past that makes the difference.
In previous years, he may have stayed even higher and not been able to get into that scoring position for Konecny to make the pass to him. But now, Laughton is hunting for goals. He has the coaching staff’s confidence to be more pursuant of offense and he’s taking full advantage of it:
— Eric Reese (@EricReesePSN) August 7, 2020
Again, Laughton’s maneuver here is one of a scorer’s mentality. He does what I like to call the “scorer’s drift.” It’s basically skating in a circle to separate yourself from the defense away from the play and then, once there’s enough distance between yourself and a defender, you drive yourself hard to an open spot on the ice and get into a prime scoring position.
Laugton doesn’t have to take a big maneuver on this goal as Washington’s defense over-committed a little bit to the puck, allowing him more room to work in a smaller space, but it’s still the same concept.
Laughton has become a guy looking to do this constantly now. It’s only going to lead to more and more goals. for him and make the Flyers second line as dangerous on a nightly basis as it’s first line.
The Washington Capitals got off 17 shots against Brian Elliott – the entire game. They’ve done more than that in a period this season. They’ve done more than that in a period against the Flyers in previous seasons.
But, this isn’t “those” Flyers. This is “these” Flyers. They play a different brand of hockey under Vigneault and their play with and without the puck is more aggressive.
The Flyers simply can shut you down now. Their defense is like a rattlesnake. It chokes the life out of you. And then, the offense is like a lion. It’s sits in the weeds waiting and then pounces at just the right time.
And it’s not just the six-man defensive unit, although they’ve been great – so much so that despite originally saying he’d like to get Shayne Gostisbehere and Mark Friedman into a game, Vigneault isn’t as sure that’s going to happen now – but the entire team has bought into the defensive requirements of the system.
The buy-in is what is most important. The system certainly makes sense on a chalkboard, but unless the players are on board with it – and specifically the veterans to show the way – then Albert Einstein could have invented the system and it wouldn’t work.
So buy-in is crucial. The Flyers have that buy-in from everyone. And if a player slips up, Vigneault isn’t afraid to send a message – as he did with van Riemsdyk against Washington.
Either you do it right or someone else will come into the lineup who is willing to do it right.
Vigneault’s opening comments in his press conference after the game against the Caps were the most telling.
He was talking about his team’s aggressiveness with a two-goal lead at the start of the third period and how their puck possession and keeping the pedal on the gas is dictated by their defense. They are going to look for a put-away goal by having their offense being the result of strong defensive posture.
“I really enjoyed our first 10 minutes, what we were trying to establish,” he said. “We were spending some quality time in the offensive zone and we were getting some good looks. This is only our third game in the restart so I believe we’re on the right track, but we’re not quite there yet.”
If this isn’t “quite there yet” then the rest of the NHL better be damn worried if they do get there.
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