Considering their job descriptions standing in front of the net, taking the body, protecting teammates, dropping the gloves, and doing so all while scoring its something of a wonder that, by the end of Saturday's 4-2 loss to the Penguins (see story), Flyers forwards Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds played in all 82 regular season games this year.
Eighty-two games. That means that from October through early April, not illness, nor injury, nor even the prospect a random maintenance day for two guys who both take and dish out a whole lot of punishment could keep Hartnell or Simmonds off the ice. Defensemen Matt Carle was the only other Flyer to dress for and skate in every game, though Braydon Coburn and Max Talbot each missed only one apiece.
But as the goaltender and the team's ever-expanding crop of rookies dominated most of the headlines over the last six months, it's Hartnell and Simmonds who have been the glue of a largely young and inexperienced hockey club.
Starting with Hartnell, his performance this season has been nothing short of remarkable considering how bleak his future once looked. Remember, for the first two weeks of the season, Harsty was seeing limited time on the fourth line, and media members were spilling all sorts of ink about what to do with the chippy winger whose franchise had seemingly moved on, despite the winger's continued presence on the roster.
But all it took was an injury to James van Reimsdyk for Hartnell to jump all the way from the fourth to first line, where he found a home beside Claude Giroux and opposite Jaromir Jagr. Those are the kinds of things that happen when you show up everyday.
Admist countless HartnellDowns, Bird Dog scored a career-high 37 goals this season, placing him in a five-way tie for fifth in the league with and check out these names Ilya Kovalchuk, Phil Kessel, Alex Ovechkin and Corey Perry. Deservedly, his unforseen breakout season earned him the Flyers' Most Improved Player award last Thursday night.
As for Simmonds, he showed up in Philly as part of the deal for Mike Richards, though was plainly overshadowed by the promising potential of Brayden Schenn and the flash and hype of free agent goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. That said, other than Hartnell, there's been no other Flyer this year who's looked and behaved like, well...more of a Flyer.
He's worn full-shields, half-shields and jaw-shields all to protect himself after mutliple pucks to the face. But every time Simmonds would head into the locker room bleeding and pained, he would return, sometimes just moments later, with protective equipment good enough to get him back out on the ice. One needs only to look to last weekend when Simmonds unintentionally deflected a puck with his face to score goal, received eight stitches to his nose, returned to play, and proceeded to get himself in a fight the very next afternoon in order to protect a teammate as the most obvious example of the forward's team-first attitude.
And on the scoresheet, although Paul Holmgren certainly seemed excited about his acquisition following the Richards trade, its hard to believe even he would have expected Simmonds to score 28 goals this season. He, like Hartnell, was presented some hardware of his own on Thursday, taking home the Gene Hart Memorial Award for the player who demonstrated the most heart during the season.
Even more impressive for both Simmonds and Hartnell, it isn't as if the 2011-12 campaign was a fluke in terms of their shared durability. In four NHL seasons, Simmonds has never played fewer than 78 games. This is the second season, with the first being his rookie year, that he's played in all 82. Hartnell, likewise, has played in 80 or more games in seven of his eleven NHL seasons. Four times he has played in all 82 games, doing it twice as a Flyer.
With consistent, gritty efforts on display literally every time their team takes to the ice, they may not be the flashiest players on a highly-talented Flyers roster, but heading into the playoffs, when open space is hard to find and physical play becomes the norm, Hartnell and Simmonds are surely two of the most important.
E-mail Nick Menta at firstname.lastname@example.org