January 03, 2017
The captain of the Philadelphia Flyers is Claude Giroux, but as this season grinds into the first month of 2017 and a crucial game with the New York Rangers at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night, it is becoming increasingly evident that the heartbeat of the Flyers is provided by forward Wayne Simmonds.
Simmonds started the Flyers on the road into 2017 on Sunday night in Anaheim when he got into a New Year’s night dance with Ducks tough guy Kevin Bieksa. It was very early in the game, and by the end, Simmonds was headed to the penalty box with his jersey, shoulder pads and Under Armour all hanging from his hockey pants.
Somehow, even though the Simmonds’ strap had been fastened, Bieksa managed to get all of that equipment off and it probably should have been a comical scene.
But there was little humor in this – mostly because Simmonds approached the fight, with the same serious; teeth clenched approach he took into the game; the same approach he takes into every game.
Like all of his teammates, Simmonds knew the Flyers' season was – and remains – in a dangerous spot. Despite reeling off an impressive 10-game winning streak, the club never really got any real breathing room and the rough patch of games that sandwiched the Christmas break left them vulnerable.
Two nights earlier, the Flyers had been pretty much silenced in San Jose, where they shut out by the Sharks. The game was a reminder that their up-tempo, offensive approach could not work if they were literally pushed around by a bigger team.
The Sharks, especially their bigger forwards, simply suffocated the Flyers. They won battles along the boards, controlled the neutral zone, and scored a relatively easy 2-0 victory.
As such, the stage was set two nights later in SoCal where the Ducks feature a similar style of play. Much like the Sharks, the Ducks can use bruising bodies to force their will on teams and negate a team like the Flyers’ speed.
Not this time.
Within the first minutes, Simmonds was in the faceoff circle looking at Bieksa, and they both decided to take the plunge. It was a far more important element for the Flyers, as they somehow had to make a statement that this was not going to be like San Jose and they were not going to be shoved around the rink.
So, in a league and a sport where fighting has become less and less relevant, you actually watched an altercation that meant something in terms of changing the direction of a team.
As had has done so often – in far more important matters than dropping the gloves, Simmonds made a move to drive his team. The net result was a 4-3 shootout loss to the Ducks, but the Flyers dominated most of the game, taking 55 shots on net, and only a superb performance by Anaheim goalie John Gibson stole the extra point from the Flyers.
The Flyers are in the throes of a four-game losing streak, with just one point in those four games. They have lost six of their last seven, and have not won a game in regulation since December 17 when they beat the woeful Avalanche 4-3.
In that time, rookie Travis Konecny was benched for the game in San Jose and then came back to score against the Ducks, with an assist to Simmonds.
Simmonds was also involved in the shootout, and he missed a chance to ring the bell when a puck bounced as he dragged it past Gibson, and he could not lift it over the leg pad for a goal. After the game, Simmonds was still fuming over the bounce and addressed head-on the fact the team had charged through the first 65 minutes and likely deserved better.
It was Simmonds at his best, and it would have been fitting if he had wound up with a tweaked Gordie Howe Hat Trick with a nifty assist on Konecny’s back-in-the-lineup goal, a fight to get the emotions rolling, and then the shootout goal – which bounced out of his reach.
But even after the loss, it was quite apparent that Simmonds’ play had driven the Flyers and it has been that way much of this season.
The 2016 portion of the Flyers season had many highlights, including the winning streak, the amazing hot streak by Jake Voracek, consistently solid play from Giroux, the emergence of rookies Konecny and – especially – Ivan Provorov as the club’s top defenseman, and a steadier game from Steve Mason in net as the season progressed.
However, it has been Simmonds who has been the glue for the team. He has developed into one of the NHL’s elite power forwards and is certainly deserving of a spot on the NHL All-Star Game roster.
More than just feasting on the power play, Simmonds has been a five-on-five mainstay and he has also returned to penalty-killing duties which he hadn’t done much of since his days in Los Angeles.
The Flyers have a long road ahead, and the fact they have only 11 games in January makes every one of those tremendously important as they battle in a Metro Division that boasts powerhouses in Pittsburgh and the suddenly magnificent Columbus Blue Jackets.
There are many things they need to go right – such as Mason getting back to star level, Brayden Schenn developing a five-on-five game, Shayne Gostisbehere finding that magic carpet he rode as a rookie last season.
But one thing they don’t have to worry about is the effort and tenacity of Wayne Simmonds. Game after game, period after period, shift after shift, it will always be there.