After starting out 4-7-1 under Craig Berube, the Flyers are 5-0-1 in their last six games. (USA Today Images)
The Flyers' 4-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night placed them at the quarter pole of the season. They're 21 games in.
Craig Berube has been at the helm for 18 of those games. He's 9-7-2 and his team is in the midst of a six-game point streak.
Players say the improvement has to do with getting Berube’s systems down to the point where they no longer have to think about what they’re going to do. It’s become intuitive.
That includes the 1-2-2 forecheck that the coaching staff refers to as a "1½," with the second man not over-committing, a third directly in front of the net, and a two-man forecheck in the neutral zone that stresses locking up the middle of the ice -- not the wall.
“It’s still hockey, it’s still high-paced,” Matt Read said. “Just try to get the second forechecker to be a little more [cautious] rather than just go-go. I think it’s becoming more of a habit rather than thinking about it. You notice it in games, we’re sustaining more pressure. Creating more turnovers in the neutral zone and playing better defense.”
Added Wayne Simmonds, “Reader is exactly right. It’s become second nature. So much now, you don’t even think about it when you go on the ice. It just happens.”
Getting in shape
What's happening is possible because of an upgrade in team conditioning. Berube’s Skate Zone practices accentuate skating and high-paced drills with little stoppage.
Simmonds said he began to see the results of all that skating in his own game last week. The Flyers aren’t looking winded when the third period arrives.
When Peter Laviolette replaced John Stevens, it took the Flyers more than two months to figure out his systems. Berube’s aren’t a complete makeover.
“It’s different little things in the defensive zone,” Vinny Lecavalier said. “When you’re used to a system, you don’t even have to think about it. When you change it, all of a sudden you’ve got to think, ‘I have to be here, not there.’ It’s more little things like that. The more you do it, the better you get at it and the less you think about it and you use more of your instincts.”
It doesn’t happen overnight. Still, the coaching staff hoped enough of it would be in place to stabilize things and get the Flyers back into the playoff picture. It has.
The Flyers are 8-3-2 in their last 13 games. They’ve outscored opponents, 22-9, in regulation play over their last six games (during which they're 5-0-1), while allowing just one even-strength goal.
There is a marked difference in the third periods during the past six games, when the Flyers have outscored opponents, 9-3.
“It’s the mentality of the team trying to go out there and win a game in the third period rather than sit back or [be] scared to go win the game,” Berube said. “We’re young and you’re tight in the third period. Now we believe we know we can win the game and [we] go out and try to win it.”
“Early on, we had some 2-1 leads or were tied going into the third period, and we didn’t win those games, and it affected us,” Berube said. “It takes some time to get that [confidence] back, but I believe we are getting there.”
In the past two weeks, four players broke goal droughts of 20 or more games, including team captain Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier.
“I think guys are starting to feel better about themselves,” goalie Steve Mason said. “When you start to feel good, you have that confidence to make plays and take shots and have that belief you’re going to score goals. It’s nice to see the guys coming around a little bit. We have to make sure we continue to work hard and [are] earning our chances in the games.”
Confidence is now apparent on the ice. When Giroux hammered in a shot against Ottawa this week, there was no hesitation. He one-timed the puck. Three weeks ago, he was pressing so hard, he flubbed shots.
“Well, obviously scoring was a bit of an issue earlier in the year,” Kimmo Timonen said. “You know, when you score two goals, it’s really hard to win games in this league. You can win a couple games here and there, you can tie a lot of games, but that was a little bit of an issue.
“[The] power play was an issue. I don’t think it was a work ethic. It was more paying attention to detail on the power play and scoring more goals 5-on-5. But, those are the things, when you work hard, you skate hard, you create your own luck, you create only your own turnovers, good things will happen and we have been able to see that in the last few games.”
The power play has gotten marginally better with five goals over the past four games, yet it remains mired in the bottom third of the NHL.
The penalty kill, once ranked sixth, has dropped to 18th because of a recent skid that saw the Flyers give up eight goals on their last 24 kills. How much of that is tied to trading Max Talbot is subject to debate.
Defensively, Berube changed the pairings around, even moving Timonen back with longtime partner Braydon Coburn, and the results are there: The Flyers are better in front of the net, the gaps between defensemen and forwards are shorter on breakouts.
The single biggest positive for Berube has been his team's goaltending. Mason is unquestionably the Flyers’ MVP at this point with a 2.12 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.
Ray Emery, a victim of poor play by the team early on, has a 2.53 GAA and .910 save percentage.
Win or lose, Mason draws accolades every game because he’s given the Flyers a chance to win every outing. When was the last time you could say that about a Flyers goalie and say it with absolute assurance?
“It’s nice to hear, but at the same time, that’s our job, to make sure we’re that steady force back there,” Mason said. “We just have to continue to work hard in practice and make sure that, regardless of who’s in net, we give ourselves the best chance to win. So far it’s gone well. We just have to make sure it continues that way.”
Berube expects continued growth from this club.
“Right now, I feel and believe our skating is getting there where it needs to be,” Berube said. “A lot of that has to do with knowing the system and not thinking so much and just going.
“There’s always growing pain. It takes time to change things. It’s still going to take time. There are growing pains throughout the year.”