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TEMPE — Thursday night’s battle between the Philadelphia Flyers and Arizona Coyotes was more of a slog than anything else.
Flyers head coach John Tortorella referred to it as an ugly game, on both sides. Neither team cracked 30 shots on goal. By the admission of Flyers players, there were too many uncharacteristic breakdowns on their part, and they ultimately trailed in all the major advanced stat categories.
But the Flyers still left the 5,000-seat Mullett Arena with a 4-1 victory, taking down a red-hot Arizona club that had defeated the last five Stanley Cup champions in their last five games.
The difference between the two teams? The Flyers had Travis Konecny, and the Coyotes didn’t.
“Yeah, he’s a really good player. He’s got a great engine to him,” Tortorella concurred after the victory.
Konecny’s engine was running at maximum capacity in this one. He kicked off the scoring with a laser beam of a one-timer off a Sean Couturier faceoff win that Coyotes goalie Connor Ingram nearly stopped, but Ingram’s shoulder couldn’t arrest the puck’s momentum entirely, and it bounced over him and into the net anyway. Then, after Arizona cut the deficit to 2-1, it was Konecny once again, storming into the Coyotes zone on the penalty kill for his third shorthanded goal of the season, giving the Flyers a lead that would prove insurmountable.
“He’s doing a heck of a job with all those shorthanded goals,” Couturier raved. “I think he’s learning and doing a great job of when to go and stay back. Credit to him.”
This level of impact isn’t new for Konecny. Dating back to the start of the 2022-23 season, Konecny now has 45 goals in his last 86 games. He’s tied for the league lead in SHGs over that time period with six. And he’s one of only a few Flyers who can regularly take over games with his physical ability, as he did on Thursday.
Is Konecny a superstar, who can be the best player on a Stanley Cup-contending team? Probably not, given the fact that he has been just that for the Flyers over the past two seasons and the team is still a far cut below the top clubs, even with solid depth. But could he be in the next tier down, a true impact player on a high-end first line or entrusted with supercharging the second line?
This Travis Konecny absolutely can do that.
Konecny’s breakout 2022-23 campaign came without his longtime running mate of Couturier, who was recovering from his second back surgery. And for all of Konecny’s offensive gains last season, the absence of Couturier showed in his two-way results — his 45.89 percent expected goal share at five-on-five and 16th percentile rank by xG impact among forwards hinted as much.
Paired with the defensively sound Couturier again this year, however? His underlying metrics are back into solid territory (56.25 percent xG, 75th percentile impact), and downright stellar (63.27 percent xG share per Natural Stat Trick) when skating alongside No. 14.
The existing chemistry between Konecny and Couturier plays a role, as does the fit between an offensively-oriented risk taker and a steadying stabilizer. But don’t discount Couturier’s influence on Konecny. When informed that Couturier had praised Konecny’s improved maturity just minutes before during his postgame interview, Konecny laughed out loud.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s from him,” he admitted. “That’s been demanded. And it’s funny, because he’s always been on me about that. Even to this day, there’s still times when I get away (from it), and I just get a look on the bench (from Couturier). And I’m like, ‘Alright.'”
“Yeah, I think definitely he’s grown. He seems to (have) come these last two years in great shape to camp, and you can tell he’s got that extra jump,” Couturier added. “I don’t know if he’s done anything different or not. But when you have a guy like him who takes care of himself and shows up in great shape, I think you can expect some some good hockey out him.”
It’s not that Konecny is a perfect player yet, his newfound on-ice maturity notwithstanding. Tortorella, for his part, pinned Arizona’s only goal largely on Konecny, due to his turnover up ice that led to a 3-on-2 numbers disadvantage on the ensuing transition rush. But the head coach realizes a simple truth: give Konecny enough time, and he tends to outscore his mistakes.
“He drives me crazy with some of the things he does, but that is also part of him that I can’t get in the way all the time,” Tortorella explained. “Even (if) I don’t like some of the things, I need to let him be who he is, because that’s why he’s such a great player. So that’s the fine line that him and I are trying to walk together here. But he’s a terrific player.”
And Konecny isn’t going to stop being a terrific player anytime soon. He’s pacing for 44 goals, his advanced metrics continue to improve, and he remains fully capable of games like Thursday, when he is the obvious difference between a win and a loss for his club.
“He’s intense, aggressive, fast skater, explosive. When he when he sees a loose puck, he’s most likely winning that race,” Couturier noted. “It’s fun to play with a guy like that.”
It’s fun to watch him, too.
2. Olle Lycksell was recalled for the trip, but Tortorella confirmed on Wednesday that he wasn’t a guarantee to make an appearance on the trip, unless an unexpected issue arose with one of the existing 12 forwards. So, of course, Ryan Poehling gets sick before puck drop and Lycksell has to jump into the lineup in his place.
Lycksell may have skated with the fourth line during warmups, but he mostly cycled in and out with the top-niners, largely trading shifts with Bobby Brink. Lycksell played with energy, but his most memorable moment was a questionable boarding call which inspired Tortorella to unleash upon the officials a torrent of curses.
3. So who did get most of the vacated 4C duties with Poehling out? Scott Laughton took the bulk of them — a logical choice, given Laughton’s experience this season playing between Nicolas Deslauriers and Garnet Hathaway. In fact, Laughton was double-shifted most of the game, and ended up leading all Flyers forwards in ice time.
4. Hey Torts, maybe give Joel Farabee a little bit more ice time? He scored his ninth goal of the season in the first period and is currently on pace for 28 on the season, yet he’s averaged just 14:49 minutes per night, and ranked eighth on Thursday among Flyers forwards. The coaches would be well served to find more ways to get him on the ice.
5. Speaking of ice time, Travis Sanheim was an uncharacteristic fourth on the D corps Thursday night in terms of minutes (19:15 — easily a season-low). An example of Tortorella trying pull back on his minutes? Sanheim has had some rough nights recently.
6. In addition to Konecny, it looked like Cam York was at least partially at fault for Arizona’s only goal, as he chose to try (and fail) to block a pass from Matias Maccelli to Lawson Crouse, vacating the crease area in the process and giving Crouse a slam-dunk goal. But he made up for it in the third with a highlight-reel tally of his own, dancing around Jason Zucker and Michael Kesselring before wiring a shot past Ingram to essentially put the game on ice.
7. Konecny was clearly the first star of this game, but Carter Hart probably deserved Star No. 2. He didn’t make too many incredible stops, but he was steady throughout, particularly in his rebound control. A second straight stellar performance from the Flyers’ top goalie.
8. Logan Cooley showcased his high-end skill near the end of the second period, nearly dangling through the entire Flyers team on his way to the net. But he also was on the ice for all four Philadelphia goals. Ah, the development of exciting young rookies. It takes time for them all.
9. Nicolas Deslauriers picked up his 100th NHL point on York’s third period goal.
10. The best part about watching a game at Mullett Arena? It’s much more obvious just how fast the truly fast players are. At Mullett, the “press box” is right behind what at a normal arena would be the “100” level seating, so the writers are extremely close to the ice surface. The explosiveness of players like Konecny and Owen Tippett was impossible to miss from down there. It’s not that it can’t be seen from up top, but you really do get a better feel of how difficult it must be for opposing defensemen to deal with their straight-line acceleration and powerful strides.