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    Is it time to start believing in the Philadelphia Flyers?

    Charlie O'Connor Avatar
    December 10, 2023

    DENVER — Saturday night felt like a tipping point for the Philadelphia Flyers.

    It’s not that the Flyers hadn’t played well in the 26 games leading up to Saturday. They had. They’ve driven play at five-on-five. They have one of the league’s best penalty kills. They had victories over high-end opponents like Vegas, Carolina and Los Angeles. They even entered the day in a playoff spot, at least by point total.

    But going into Ball Arena against one of the most skilled teams in the NHL — the 2022 Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche — and not merely winning but getting the better of play as well?

    Is it truly time to start believing in this club?

    “Yeah, we knew it was a great test for us tonight,” Travis Konecny said after the 5-2 victory. “I think it’s great for our group. And it gives us the belief that we’re a hard team to play against as well.”

    Look, there remain plenty of reasons for skepticism regarding the Flyers. The team’s blueline corps still doesn’t look like anything special, at least on paper. Their forward group is full of unproven youth and veterans that wouldn’t make anyone’s list of the top players in hockey. And most importantly, the Flyers have been somewhere between bad and downright embarrassing for three consecutive seasons, largely with these same players.

    It’s tough to believe in them. But the Flyers are having little trouble believing in themselves, a sentiment that Sean Couturier articulated after Thursday night’s win against the Arizona Coyotes.

    “I think we’re out to try to prove people wrong,” Couturier said. “There doesn’t seem to be much pressure on us. So I don’t know if we’re just naive or young, but we just go out and play hard and aggressive hockey. I think we’re building some special here.”

    The Flyers aren’t hiding the fact that they hear the doubters. They don’t love that the front office is publicly proclaiming their commitment to a “rebuild,” a tacit acknowledgement by the bosses that they don’t believe the current team is good enough to win anything meaningful. And they’ve certainly noticed that a vocal contingent of fans would rather the team finish near the bottom of the standings for a few more seasons, with the purpose of garnering a few more top-10 draft picks with superstar potential.

    The lack of faith in the players here right now is galvanizing the group, as Carter Hart openly admitted on Saturday.

    “Yeah, I don’t think anybody wants us to win,” Hart said with a rueful chuckle. “And I think that fires us up, and fuels the fire for us to prove everyone wrong. It just strengthens our belief in each other in here.”

    There’s a reason, after all, why they use a dog mask as part of their locker room victory celebration. It’s the same one that Lane Johnson and Chris Long wore on the field back in 2018 after the Philadelphia Eagles took down the Atlanta Falcons — a game that saw the Eagles take up underdog status (by 2.5 points per the Vegas books) despite entering the postseason with the top seed in the NFC. With their backup quarterback at the helm, the Eagles adopted an “us against the world” mentality that carried them all the way to a Super Bowl title.

    The Flyers are trying to do the same.

    “Yeah I think that’s from Day 1 kind of been our mindset, and we’re continuing to stick with that. Continue to still feel that way,” Travis Sanheim acknowledged.

    The “nobody believes in us” rallying cry is a tried-and-true sports cliche for a simple reason: it works. It’s a fantastic motivating factor, and the Flyers have every right to use it as fuel. That said, it’s not like the doubting is unjustified. After the past three seasons, the Flyers deserved to be treated like an also-ran. They made their bed with their on-ice play. And while the players would surely love it if the front office pulled the plug on this rebuild nonsense and went all in on chasing a title, the last three seasons loom large in the braintrust’s memories as well. They clearly still have their doubts about the quality of this club.

    General manager Daniel Briere confirmed to PHLY Sports on Saturday morning that, despite the team’s strong run of play, he still doesn’t envision the team being a buyer at the March 8 trade deadline. And even in the afterglow of a massive victory over the powerhouse Avalanche, head coach John Tortorella still held firm to the overarching rebuilding plan.

    “We’re still (just) 27 games, 28 games in,” he noted. “It’s not going to change how this has to be done. We have to be really careful about that. And I’m certainly not not excited about how we’re playing here now. There have been some surprises. Does that change in our thinking as far as the future? Sure, there might be some things that change. But it doesn’t change the philosophy (of) what we’re going to try to do here with this organization.”

    Those surprises Tortorella referenced, however? They’re very real. And they’re why the Flyers were able to go into Denver and not only beat the Avs on the scoresheet, but also throttle them at even strength, leading in expected goals by a 4.23 – 1.94 margin.

    Travis Sanheim is certainly one such surprise, and he reemerged in full force from a recent slump, scoring one goal on a snipe of a wrister and helping to set up another with a power move to the net that Tortorella called a “bull rush” that Sanheim never even would have attempted last season. Bobby Brink (so much of a surprise that he wasn’t even supposed to make the team out of camp) had two highlight-reel primary assists — a bank pass off the boards to Owen Tippett in transition, and a soft feed across the crease to Joel Farabee while surrounded by three Colorado checkers.

    “He made a great play on that bank, he’s a smart player,” Tippett said. “You can even see on Joel’s goal that he has that patience to wait for that guy to open up, even though there’s four guys around him. He thinks the game really well and he has the patience he needs to.”

    Those naive young players — as Couturier called them — are all over the roster, making plays and driving victories.

    “I mean, I’m not gonna name the names, because I don’t want to forget somebody,” Travis Konecny cracked when asked about the kids on the club.

    Konecny is also very much on the “surprises” list. It was abundantly clear that he was back to being a very good player after he scored 31 goals in 60 games last season, but there was no guarantee he would replicate that performance; after all, Konecny delivered a two-year long regression after his last apparent breakout season.

    This time, however, Konecny isn’t merely matching his previous season totals. He’s reached an entirely new level. With his two goals on Saturday, Konecny is pacing for 48 goals over an 82-game slate, and in the process, he’s doing a darn good impression of the high-end talent that the Flyers supposedly lack.

    Take the third period, for instance. Nursing a one-goal edge, the Flyers had blown two golden opportunities for real breathing room — Nicolas Deslauriers missed a tap-in open net, and then both Cam Atkinson and Joel Farabee were stymied on a breakaway by Ivan Prosvetov. It very much felt like the Flyers would severely regret not putting the Avalanche away while they could; a tying goal seemed inevitable.

    So what did Konecny do? He put the team on his back, just as a star is expected to do, drawing a penalty shot and then burying both it and the Avs in one fell swoop.

    “He’s just a really good player,” Tortorella crowed. “It’s fun to watch him play.”

    But the Flyers didn’t win on Saturday solely because of Konecny, even if he was a driving force. They won because they played a team game, adjusting after Nathan MacKinnon dominated the first and slowing him down via a group effort the rest of the way, holding him to an underwhelming 40.15 percent xG share at even strength per Evolving-Hockey’s model. The Flyers came at MacKinnon and the Avalanche in waves, and in the end, it appeared to wear them down.

    “We just sucked them into our game,” Carter Hart (36 saves on 38 shots) contended.

    And they were only able to do so because they’ve convinced themselves that they’re a better team than pretty much everyone in the hockey world thinks they should be.

    “We believe that we can be in these types of games,” Konecny confirmed.

    That said, don’t expect these wins and the internal confidence of the locker room to lead to a full-scale pivot away from the rebuilding strategy. Tortorella reiterated as much on Saturday.

    “Oh, we’re excited about our team right now, the way we’re playing,” he said. “It doesn’t change a thought at all, as far as what we have to do with our team, as far as how we have to build.”

    But the players under contract are under no obligation to buy into this rebuilding plan. They can continue to use the word as fuel, and the laments of tank-supporting fans after victories as invigorating virtual tears. Combine that delicious spite with the clear affection that the players appear to have for each other, and the result has been a team with the statistical profile — and a track record of wins over quality opponents — of a playoff-bound club.

    “We all love each other, we all get along so well, we have a such a tight group here,” Hart said. “Everybody’s willing to fight for the next guy standing beside them. I think that’s crucial right now in how we’re playing. Everybody has each other’s backs.”

    Can the Flyers keep it up? It doesn’t even seem like Tortorella and Briere are fully convinced — just as most fans aren’t. But perhaps, after a big road win over one of the consensus Cup favorites, it’s time to start believing, even just a little.

    “We’re not looking too far ahead in the standings and where we’re at,” Sanheim noted. “We know each day is a challenge, and we’re trying to step up to the plate.”

    So far, so good.

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