February 20, 2018
Things are rapidly changing around the sports scene in Philadelphia and the Eagles' rise to the championship might just be the trumpet sound of better things to come around the entire calendar.
And the Flyers might be the most pleasant surprise. While the Eagles were on their Super Bowl run, the Flyers began a run of their own and it is reasonable to expect playoff games featuring both the Flyers and Sixers for many future springs.
The Flyers, who host the Montreal Canadiens tonight, have turned what could have been a disastrous 10-game winless streak into a long stretch of the season during which they are among the best teams in the National Hockey League.
The shouts of "Fire Dave Hakstol!" have been silenced as the Flyers' young players are beginning to blossom, while veterans Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and especially, Sean Couturier, have earned spots at the NHL's head table.
The revival of Giroux and the ascension of Couturier are especially tied into the coaching of Hakstol. It was Hakstol who listened to Couturier's plea to play a more prominent offensive role with the team this season, and Hakstol who made the bold decision to move Giroux to a wing and put Couturier as the center of the top line.
Everyone knew Couturier could play rhythm guitar – but few would have guessed he could also kill it as the lead guitarist. Well, the combination of Couturier and Giroux is playing some beautiful music these days.
Despite a lack of burner speed, which seems so essential these days, Couturier has used his unique skill set to always be in the right place, and his persistent charge toward the net has turned him into an offensive force.
In the meantime, Giroux took the move from the middle as a chance to snuff out all the suggestions that he had fallen from the discussion as one of the NHL's best players. Giroux has responded to last season's disappointing performance to regain his status among the league's top forwards.
Making this combination even more effective is the fact that the Flyers essentially have two centers on the ice in terms of defensive awareness, and Hakstol also has a pair of face-off demons who can set up on either side of the ice, giving the Flyers some of the best set face-off plays in the NHL.
Hakstol also deserves credit for finally pulling apart the first line and placing Travis Konecny with Couturier and Giroux. Konecny's speed and grit have been a great addition to the line. Basically, Konecny just points his skates down ice and wheels.
There is still an element of risk in Konecny's game, but the worst of his high-risk/low-reward maneuvers were aggressively coached out of his game as he sat at times last season. The result is a dynamic player who is taking full advantage of his opportunity with a couple of stars.
Similarly, Hakstol's at-times maddening decisions to sit down or minimize Shayne Gostisbehere in the past has had the desired effect as Ghost's defensive game is far better this season. Perhaps this would have come about anyway, but no doubt this version of Gostisbehere is a lot better balanced than the past - and all of this without losing his creative offense, especially on the power play.
The solid play of 21-year old Ivan Provorov is a given, but for the better part of this season, Ghost has been the Flyers' best defenseman at either end of the ice.
Everything was going so well – and then goalie Brian Elliott went out with a lower-body injury that required surgery. Elliott really did look like the solid veteran the Flyers have been searching for through so many seasons, but that type of injury could very well be the end of his season.
The Flyers are hopeful that recovery is five to six weeks, but nobody would be surprised if the surgery did not either end his season, or make it very difficult to come back and regain the level of play Elliott gave the Flyers when he left the lineup.
And, as you might expect, Michal Neuvirth was a short-term solution as he was quickly injured in Elliott's absence. Neuvirth is a maddening talent, at times displaying the ability to be premier goalie able to carry a team - but then always succumbing to an injury or illness of one sort or another.
General manager Ron Hextall quickly came up with a plan C involving a trade to acquire Petr Mrazek from the Detroit Red Wings, while continuing to hope that Alex Lyon can get over the shaky play of his first two games in the NHL, and use his effort to win on Sunday at Madison Square Garden as the launching point of a successful NHL career.
Hextall would be wise to consider this goaltending situation on a longer-term basis. The Flyers have come together quicker than expected, and the GM's best off-season move would be to trade Neuvirth and get whatever he can as it is pointless to have a backup goalie as insurance when it is the backup goalie who needs the most insurance.
In the meantime, this edition of the Flyers – while still lacking in terms of bottom six forwards and depth on defense – has enough high-end skill and youthful energy to really make some teams nervous in the playoffs.
Yes, we're talking playoffs … and with any sort of goaltending the Flyers have enough offensive punch to concern any potential opponent.