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December 13, 2016

Flyers rookie Ivan Provorov already proving to be a generational talent

If you take a quick look past the big, green shadow of the Philadelphia Eagles and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, and then get around the every-other-game saga of Sixers rookie Joel Embiid, you’ll find another emerging star of the Philadelphia sports scene in orange and black.

The name is Ivan Provorov … and every game there appears to be another sign that he is what you might term a generational defenseman.

At just 19-years old, Provorov has already become the Flyers’ mainstay on defense. He is the guy everybody in the ice looks to when they get in a high-risk situation and then sends the puck his way to get out of danger.

The Flyers will take their nine-game winning streak into Colorado on Wednesday night against the woeful Avalanche, and Provorov is one of the biggest reasons the team is knocking on the ceiling of its division.

Even with defenseman Mark Streit and Shayne Gostisbehere banged up with injuries, Provorov provides enough stability to give the Flyers a chance to be dangerous at either end of the ice.

The early season rookie headlines belonged to Travis Konecny, the Flyers other 19-year old but his scoring pace has since cooled. On the other hand, Provorov just gets better and better.

You could argue that he had his rookie “statement” game just over a week ago when he scored two goals against the Chicago Blackhawks at the Wells Fargo Center.

Then again, Provorov is so much more than just a scoring threat. He can play at any time during the game, and when the Flyers won their most recent game at Detroit on Sunday night, Provorov played over six minutes of shorthanded time as the Flyers held the Red Wings power play scoreless in five attempts.

To top that off, Provorov engineered a terrific give-and-go-and-go again with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds during the three-on-three overtime to set up Schenn’s game-winner in the 1-0 victory.

Provorov is already mature enough to handle those high stakes situations and he doesn’t seem to be rattled at all by anything that happens on the ice. He made a few costly mistakes in his own zone in the early season, but those errors were quickly corrected.

In those very early games, he seemed to lack the respect for the overall speed of the NHL game and he would attempt to make a finesse play in his own zone to avoid a forecheck.

But over the past month he has advanced his game to make the simple play when needed, and time and again he can chip the puck out of the zone to alleviate any pressure. He makes small plays in tight quarters that are not usually part of any rookie’s repertoire.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Flyers’ recent surge is that Provorov’s play is only a part of what has catapulted the team. Goalie Steve Mason has been remarkable since Michal Neuvirth was injured, and even rookie Anthony Stolarz has stepped up, registering the shutout against the Red Wings.

As much as Provorov was a mainstay on the penalty kill against the Wings, so was forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. There were great worries that when Sean Couturier went down with the Flyers would follow – as they did when Couturier was out last season.

Instead, they have made up for his loss and, at times, appear to have even stepped up their speed game with Bellemare in the lineup.

Two of the driving forces are the usual trio of important elements with captain Claude Giroux, the white-hot play of Jake Voracek, and the emergence of Wayne Simmonds as perhaps the elite power forward in the NHL. In addition to his play on the power play, where he has always been a beast, Simmonds is playing at another level in all situations, including on the penalty kill.

Coach Dave Hakstol has put this whole stew of success together, but not without the special ingredient of spicy decisions. At times, Hakstol has benched Gostisbehere and Micheal Del Zotto to ensure the best effort from each, and he has moved Schenn here, there and everywhere in a message that he had better get his game in order.

Schenn finally came through with his power play hat trick against Dallas on Saturday, and then the game winner in overtime the next night in Detroit.

All of this has been delightful, but the reality of the situation is that it was not a bonus. The nine-game streak hasn’t been any sort of luxury as the Flyers are battling in what amounts to a killer division and conference, and have needed the points just to stay in the playoff conversation with the likes of the red-hot Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.

On the whole, it’s a great deal better than in past seasons when the Flyers needed to make a late-season push to make up for early-season losses. And the best part of it all is that this is just the beginning of the Provorov era in Flyers hockey.

Yes, he’s THAT good.