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October 15, 2015

On Kimmo Night, Flyers turn the tables on the champs

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After finishing his career on the highest note possible, Kimmo Timonen seems plenty at peace with his retirement. With 24 years of professional hockey in the books, he isn’t feeling the proverbial itch as the NHL moves on without him.

“Reality is, I’m 40 years old,” Timonen said. “I just had a glass of red wine. Can’t really turn that down anymore. I’m enjoying the time right now.”

Timonen definitely enjoyed himself on Thursday night. How could he not? There he stood at center ice, in the arena that he called home for seven years, with loud “Kimmo, Kimmo!” chants raining down from a raucous crowd.

To make the scene even sweeter, his former Flyers teammates weren’t the only ones tapping their sticks on the ice in a sign of admiration. Nope, the people that he captured the Stanley Cup with just four months ago were on the other side, doing the same. Even though Timonen wasn’t much of a factor on the ice in the Chicago Blackhawks’ run to the title, he earned quite a bit of admiration in that locker room as well.

“I wanted to take my jacket off and raise my hands really high,” Timonen said. “I’m not that flexible anymore. You can’t have that in life, other than playing sports and having this kind of respect.”

Last year, Ron Hextall sent Timonen to Chicago before the trade deadline because the Flyers were out of playoff contention. He traded Timonen to a team that represented one last chance to win a title, because his organization couldn’t. As the 40-year-old said himself, three in six is something special. At the moment, the Blackhawks are hockey’s gold standard.

Which is why it was a pleasant surprise that the Flyers, almost unanimously picked to miss the playoffs before the season began, skated evenly with the defending champs all night. The Orange and Black barely lost the even-strength 5-on-5 Corsi battle 45-43, not an easy feat at all against the possession monsters of the Midway.

And mostly, the Flyers came away with a 3-0 victory because they capitalized on their chances: Sam Gagner scored off a deflection on the power play, Claude Giroux knocked in a rebound from point-blank range (at even strength, alert the masses!), and Matt Read drove hard to the net and cashed in on another rebound.

“It’s nice to be able to build as you’re tasting some small successes,” Dave Hakstol said. “But we had a little bit of each as we have gone through the early part of the season. Last Saturday wasn’t easy for anybody but everybody took it for what it is.”

“I think were doing a good job of fronting pucks in front of them and trying to play in their end with some pace,” Gagner said. “I think we did that again tonight.”

At the other end of the ice, Chicago couldn’t capitalize on any of their chances (and they had some good ones). That largely had to do with the man in between the pipes for the Flyers. When asked what he likes best about Michal Neuvirth, Giroux matter-of-factly said, “That he doesn’t let any goals in.”

The captain ain’t lying. Hextall targeting a major improvement at backup goaltender this past summer is already paying dividends. Neuvirth has recorded back-to-back shutouts and is sitting on 132 minutes and five seconds without allowing a goal. You can binge on almost three episodes of “Narcos” in that time.

“It’s been unbelievable the last few days and the guys have been unbelievable as well,” Neuvirth said. The last time that the 27-year-old Czech recorded back-to-back shutouts was in 2009, when he was playing in the AHL.

As a team, the Flyers have to be happy with how they responded after Saturday night’s poor performance in Florida. Gone are the fears of a weak penalty kill — Chicago went 0-5 with the man advantage thanks to a strong group effort on the PK — and another slow start to the season in general. We still have no idea if the Flyers are any good, but they’re at least not stumbling out of the blocks. 

“It’s nice to be able to build as you’re tasting some small successes,” Dave Hakstol said. “But we had a little bit of each as we have gone through the early part of the season. Last Saturday wasn’t easy for anybody but everybody took it for what it is.”

At least initially, Hakstol doesn’t look overwhelmed at the NHL level. Hockey is hockey, after all. While coaching could be in the Timonen’s future, he’s going to take it easy for now. After working so hard to play at a high level for all of those years, Kimmo is taking a little “me-time.”

“It’s the first time in my life I can actually enjoy my time,” Timonen said. “I want to spend time with my family and so on.”

Timonen still lives in the area, so he’ll get to relax and check out a few Flyers games. And maybe, just maybe, his self-described “number one team” might just be a little better than we all anticipated.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann