If you’ve noticed an improvement in the Flyers’ defense over the past few weeks, you’re not alone. The players have commented on it, as have countless fans, reporters and TV commentators.
You might, though, be surprised about why the team believes it’s improved so much in all three zones when not in possession of the puck.
“It’s more probably us skating more, forechecking hard,” Kimmo Timonen said. “Not letting the other team get out of their zone so easily. It’s easier as a defenseman. When the teams are after you all the time, it’s not easy. We’ve been skating a lot and putting a lot of pressure on their D, and that’s the key.”
Certainly the addition of Andrew MacDonald has provided a boost as well – particularly to partner Luke Schenn. But the Flyers’ forecheck has caused opponents to turn the puck over or simply feel pressured to make passes they ideally wouldn’t have to. And the Flyers have been able to capitalize.
“I think our forecheck’s been really good,” coach Craig Berube said. “We try to talk about it all the time, we want to play a hard forecheck game. Having our forward in good position to track pucks and be on the backside of our defense, we can get more aggressive and kill the play coming out of the zone.”
Tonight against the Dallas Stars at the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers will have to keep it up. The Stars, who are also fighting for a playoff spot, are a fast, aggressive team. A strong forecheck has been a part of Berube's plan since he took over as head coach, and it's something he's had to continuously work on with his players.
Of course, these days it is paying dividends.
"It’s something you really have to preach about to your forwards, reloading and pressing pucks," Berube said. "It’s important. You look at all the good teams in the league, they all do it. You’ve got to skate without the puck, you’ve got to put pressure on the other team."
'A bad taste'
Thursday’s game is the second and final between the Flyers and Stars this season. They met last on Dec. 7 in Dallas, a 5-1 Flyers loss.
“We got it handed to us down there pretty good,” Berube said. “We played the first period shorthanded seven minutes. Then we came out of that period 2-1, and had nothing after that. They’re a good team, they’ve got good offense. The big line, obviously, they’re explosive. We’ve got to make sure out there against them we take care of them. They’re going to be aggressive today. They’re going to come at us.”
Like this current stretch of games, the Flyers were playing well heading into their meeting with the Stars. They were coming off an impressive 6-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, and had won three of their last four.
There’s no doubt they want to avoid a repeat this time around.
“It kind of leaves a bad taste in our mouths,” Nick Grossmann said. “And we want to come back tonight and have a better game tonight.”
Mason vs. Thomas
As expected, Steve Mason will return to the Flyers' net tonight. Mason got his first break in eight games Tuesday, when he backed up Ray Emery in the Flyers’ 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Predictably, the Flyers feel confident in both of their goaltenders – no matter which suits up for them. Emery was strong Tuesday, and Mason has been solid lately, as well.
“They’ve been playing well, both of them,” Claude Giroux said. “They’ve made some key saves every game to keep us in games and give us confidence. Steve or Ray, we’re pretty confident.”
Timonen summed it up even more succinctly.
“If your goalie isn’t playing well, you don’t win games,” he said. “I hate to say it but that’s the way it is. These guys have been doing a good job for us.”
Across the ice, the Stars are expected to dress Tim Thomas. Thomas is 18-21-4 this season, with a .908 save percentage and 2.90 goals-against average.
Before he was a Flyer, Grossmann spent more than five seasons with the Stars. It's still strange for him to suit up against his former team.
"I was there for a lot of years," Grossmann said. "A lot of good memories. It’s always special. But on the other side, there’s not too many guys that I know that’s still there."