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When this unexpected success of a Philadelphia Flyers season really got going a few months ago, it still tended to follow a clear and consistent game-over-game pattern.
If the Flyers worked their tails off and executed head coach John Tortorella’s system to near-perfection, they could play with any team, no matter how stacked with talent. If they didn’t, they could lose to any team — even cellar-dwellers like Ottawa and Anaheim, or a winless club like San Jose.
The Flyers were a tough team, but one without much margin for error. The impressive part was how often they found ways to be “on,” not that they had the ability to overcome poor performances and win anyway.
But for two periods on Monday against the Arizona Coyotes, the Flyers much more closely resembled the team that fell to the Sharks than the one that swept Vancouver and took down Vegas and Dallas. Except this time, they found themselves very much still in the game, down just 3-2 in spite of a number of defensive breakdowns and sloppy shifts with the puck.
“We kinda talked about it, it just felt like one of those games that we knew we were going to come back and win,” Morgan Frost noted.
And come back they did, fueled by a three-goal third period surge that quickly erased the largely underwhelming first 40 minutes of play and buried the Coyotes.
“It’s a different way of winning, and those are the types of games we’re going to have to feel comfortable in,” Tortorella said after the 5-3 victory.
What’s different about it? The Flyers are, in short, winning games now without their fastball.
It’s been the defining feature of this post-all star break four-game winning streak. Against Florida, they delivered two good periods; versus Winnipeg, they managed just one. These were not 60-minute efforts — yet both ended in wins for Philadelphia, just as Monday did.
Tortorella contended after the win that the Flyers’ work against Arizona wasn’t as poor as it may have seemed — that the team was still creating lots of scoring opportunities and that the Coyotes were more opportunistic than dominant. It’s certainly fair to say that Arizona never seemed in control of the game, but over the first 40 minutes, neither did the Flyers. After a solid start, they devolved into sloppiness with the puck in the second half of the opening stanza, and while the Flyers’ offense came around in the middle period, their defensive play also slipped. Add in the fact that Philadelphia went an ugly 0-for-8 on the power play, and it sure looks like a formula for a loss.
So how did they win? How are the Flyers winning, in spite of not playing their best hockey over the past week?
Goaltending has been a big part of it, of course. Sam Ersson may not have been the hero on Monday, but since returning from the break, he’s delivered a 0.931 save percentage, and came through with a huge save on Jason Zucker in the third period after Scott Laughton had given the Flyers their first lead of the night. Ersson’s impact was even more important against Florida and Winnipeg last week, as he kept the team within striking distance during their ugly first period against the former opponent and then held down the fort over the final two-thirds of the contest versus the latter.
But their ability to squeeze wins out of less-than-complete showings is just as much about what goes on away from the public eye, as newcomer Jamie Drysdale pointed out.
“I think everyone just kind of picks each other up, to be honest,” he said. “I’ve seen it pretty much every game. If someone’s made a mistake or anything, it’s come in here, shake it off, keep your head up, pick your head up. It’s just a great group, great environment.”
Even the mercurial Tortorella appears to have his finger on the pulse of his club right now. After the Winnipeg game, he made his dissatisfaction with the team’s performance abundantly clear to the public via a vintage 63-second postgame presser. But behind closed doors, he chose to not dwell on the negatives, instead trusting that the locker room would naturally realize that the team’s play over the final two periods was unacceptable, and address the root causes to prevent any potential carryover.
The result: the team’s most complete post-break effort two days later against Seattle.
On Monday, however, Tortorella made the determination that staying mum this time wasn’t the play — that at second intermission with the Flyers trailing by a goal, they needed a little extra encouragement.
“Torts came in, in between the second and third and just said, ‘Got a good feeling about this one,'” Drysdale recalled.
“No, we weren’t great, but I still thought we were generating enough,” Tortorella explained regarding his between-periods chat with his team. “I still thought our energy was good. I just felt that if we just stayed with it and not get anxious about it and give up more by being too anxious, we’d find our way.”
It also helps that some of the Flyers’ once-dormant depth players are coming around. Drysdale had a big third period goal, as he continues to work to acclimate himself to his new club. Morgan Frost was the best player on the ice for either team in the middle portion of the game, continuing his strong work post early-January scratching. Laughton delivered his second straight standout showing, hinting that finally, at long last, he may be turning around his disappointing season.
“It’s a big part of the game, the mental side of it,” Laughton admitted when asked to explain his apparent resurgence. “I felt like I was on the ice all the time thinking if I’m doing something wrong. I’m just going out and playing and not thinking about anything. I think that’s when I’m at my best.”
Sure, the Flyers need players like Travis Konecny (seven points in his last four games) and Sean Couturier (GWG on Saturday) to thrive in order to rack up wins. But if they continue to produce and players like Drysdale and Frost and Laughton are providing quality support too, suddenly the Flyers become a very difficult team to beat.
And there are a number of other depth pieces who could get going at any time. Noah Cates continues to tease a full-fledged breakout. Cam Atkinson — benched in the third period on Thursday — could go on one of his classic streaky runs. The always noticeable Garnet Hathaway could finally start producing some offense. The Flyers may not have lots of truly great players — the type that battle for end-of-season awards and are locks for national team rosters — but they do have a lot of good ones.
And this bunch of good players now appears capable of winning even without playing close to their best game possible.
“We just found a way to win,” Konecny said. “That’s what we’re learning. And that’s a good thing for our group, is just finding ways no matter how the game is going. You just keep yourself in it and give yourself a chance.”
Can it continue? A road battle against Toronto on Thursday and then the outdoor game versus division rival New Jersey two days later will provide far sterner tests than Arizona did. Presumably, they’ll need to play better than they did over the past four games to turn this into a six-game winning streak.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps they’ll just continue to “find a way,” as they learn to win while at less than peak form.
“I hope so,” Tortorella said. “I hope they can lean on it, because there’s gonna be more games like this. There are never perfect games, there are gonna be some bumps. I hope they can lean on it.”