Flyers season preview: Which team will we see?

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Flyers season preview: Which team will we see?

So which Flyers crew shows up Wednesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Will it be the one that has the potential to do some damage in the realigned Eastern Conference with newcomers Vinny Lecavalier, Mark Streit and Ray Emery?

Or will it be the one that lost five of seven preseason games and held a lead for less than 14 minutes?

Will it be a team that protects the slot or one that invite chaos in front of its goalies?

Most of all, will this look like an extension of last spring’s Flyers squad that won six of its final seven games and realizes a hot start is absolutely necessary, or will it be a carbon copy of last January's club that started off losing six of its first eight and never recovered?

For Peter Laviolette’s sake, this club needs to be decisively settled into a positive rhythm from the get-go.

“No question we want to get off to a good start,” Laviolette said. “When you put yourself behind the 8-ball, you are burying yourself and you have to dig out of a hole and that becomes difficult. … For us, it remains get off on the right foot, win hockey games, put yourself in position.”

A quick start would prove the preseason was a mirage forged out of the team having just one exhibition with a full, healthy roster.

“You want to have a great start,” Scott Hartnell said. “That is what everyone focuses on. Not just the first game, but the first five to 10 games. You want to get wins, get hot early, get a couple points, get the confidence going in the first part of the season.

“When you are winning games, points are gonna come. … We have to hit Wednesday running and have a quick start. It’s not going to be easy this year.”

Unlike the lockout restart, Hartnell is in shape, looking to turn the clock back two years ago when he had a career season with 37 goals and 67 points.

Thanks to a full-scale realignment, it will more difficult this season. Not just in the East overall, but in the new Metropolitan Division, which is the “old” Atlantic plus Carolina, Washington and Columbus.

That can be daunting for a club that failed to make the playoffs during the lockout-shortened season.

“I’m ready,” 15-year veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “I feel like I’ve been off a really long time. Too long. To have a year like that last year, sometimes, it’s good to settle down and see what we did wrong together -- everybody. Coaches, players, management, everybody.

“I hate to say it was good that we didn’t make the playoffs, but at least now everybody realizes we have to work even harder and make better decisions. Sometimes, you need [as a team] to go down to come back up again.”

So much is riding on team chemistry -- offensively and defensively -- for a club that seemed to lack both in exhibition play.

Streit was signed to move the puck efficiently and yet he struggled in the preseason, as did young Erik Gustafsson, who looked nervous in his own end.

Only Timonen and partner Braydon Coburn seemed relaxed.

You can’t emphasize enough how important it is for the Flyers to settle down in front of Emery and Steve Mason. A strong defense at the season’s start will allow the offense to catch up. 

“Defense is important everywhere,” Lecavalier said. “You got to be sharp defensively. In practices we do a lot of offense, which is very refreshing. You’re feeling good in the offensive zone.

“Protecting that puck, the difference from last year to this year for me is getting that puck in the offensive zone and keeping it. Not just being a one opportunity and you’re out. Cycle and do things like that.”

Emery figures to be No. 1 in goal. Whether he stays remains to be seen. Neither he nor Mason were sharp in exhibitions amid the chaos in front of them.

“It’s healthy to have competition,” club chairman Ed Snider said. “It’s great. These [players] both know each other, like each other. It’s not any negative type of competition. It works out well for us.”

Lecavalier will center Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. The top line remains intact with Claude Giroux centering Hartnell and Jakub Voracek.

“Just play simple,” Voracek said. “Take care of the puck in our zone. Everything will come if you’re skating. Lanes open up.”

Lecavalier developed some chemistry in camp with Schenn and Simmonds.

“It’s all about feeling comfortable with the guys you play with and I feel comfortable,” Lecavalier said. “I played with everybody last year. So many [lines] I can’t remember.

“It changed one period to the next. Guy Boucher changed lines constantly. I didn’t have anyone consistently with me for the last few years except Teddy Purcell.”

Laviolette was encouraged with Lecavalier in exhibitions.

“He looks like he is in terrific shape,” Laviolette said. “He had Tampa Bay going in the right direction and then the injuries hit the club and hit him. He seems 100 percent healthy and motivated. He’s in shape, and he’s a talented guy.

“I still go back to the first couple times we played Tampa Bay last year. I was so impressed with the way he played the game. His competitiveness. The fact that he fought a couple of our guys. The way he was playing offensively.”

If Lecavalier ignites the offense, there should be a trickle-down effect. Voracek and Giroux were pretty much the only offense last season.

“We have a good balance of players here,” Laviolette said. “We have guys who can score and put up points. What teams do in the summer doesn’t matter as much as what they can build together as a group. The confidence they put into each other and play hockey games.

“Whether they are scoring or playing defense, winning is the name of the game. I think teams build that. That’s not put together in a summer. That doesn’t build a successful team or a championship team. It will come from the guys in this room … the identity and brand we bring on a consistent basis, that will be the difference between winning and losing.” 

Giroux seems recovered from a right hand injury via a freakish golf accident in August. He led the club with 48 points -- two more than Voracek, who led the team with 22 goals.

Giroux hopes his year carries over into something far more.

“I was playing with a lot of confidence,” Giroux said. “Any player who is playing with a lot of confidence can be a dangerous player. It’s about finding yourself and your game. You go on the ice and know what to do.

“It’s something I want to do, become a dangerous player offensively and defensively.  Jags [Jaromir Jagr] told me if I was going to be one of the best, I would have to also be the hardest working guy out there. I have had that on my mind [all offseason].”

With the Eagles in the tank, all eyes in South Philly shift to the Flyers this month.

General manager Paul Holmgren is a bit on edge as well.

“We need to be better,” Holmgren said. “The players know that. I am sure the coaches laid it out to them that it’s got to be better. I've addressed a couple individuals. In the last couple days, I think the players that we have realized it and picked it up a couple notches in practice.”

Flyers look to limit goals against, improve 5-on-5 play in second half

Flyers look to limit goals against, improve 5-on-5 play in second half

VOORHEES, N.J. — As bad as things have been for the Flyers – just three wins in their last 14 games – there was no massive shakeup during their mandatory, five-day “bye” week.
 
General manager Ron Hextall didn’t make a trade, nor did he make any roster moves involving a call-up from the Phantoms.
 
Coach Dave Hakstol took one day off, then got back to watching video and live games, almost in a scout mode.
 
When the players hit the ice Friday afternoon at Skate Zone, Hakstol’s lineup was pretty much the same.
 
The only change saw Matt Read re-enter the lineup on the top line with Claude Giroux and Michael Raffl after missing two games with a skate cut.
 
The lines and defensive pairs remained the same. Goalie Michael Neuvirth will start Saturday against New Jersey at Wells Fargo Center.
 
“For me, the biggest thing is our overall performance,” Hakstol said. “Coming out of a break, that may be a tough thing to do -- to put it all together. But I think the energy will be there both mentally and physically. That’s important. The overall performance.
 
“The results are important on a different level when you start looking at the playoff picture and the race. At the end of the day, two points are going to be important, as well.”
 
The Flyers begin anew with back-to-back games against New Jersey here on Saturday and then the Islanders on Sunday in Brooklyn.
 
They will play four Eastern Conference opponents between Saturday and next Thursday before they begin the three-day All-Stark break.
 
Three of these games are against Metro Division opponents while the fourth is against Toronto. The Maple Leafs happen to hold the second wild card that the Flyers previously had going into the bye week.
 
“Guys realize the situation we are in,” Brayden Schenn said. “We know the circumstances. The break came at a good time, mentally ... Guys know what we’re coming into there with the back-to-backs.
 
“You were kinda scoreboard watching. We know where we’re at. We’re in a dogfight battle with teams for those wild card spots. There’s a lot of hockey left. It’s no secret. Everyone pays attention where we’re at.”
 
Hakstol said after his one-day off, he went right back to work in evaluating where this team is. That the team remains intact without any kind of moves seems to send a message to the players.
 
That message is: it’s on you at this point. Don’t count on getting help from the outside. It has to come from within the current roster.
 
“Anything we’ve talked about is us as a group doing things we do well,” Hakstol said. “We’ve had a rough couple weeks where we haven’t been able to do the things we need to and want to consistently.
 
“I’m very confident in this group and this team. For us, what the players said is true. It was a real good time to have a mental and physical break. Now it’s time to get back to work.”
 
What has to improve right from the get-go is the Flyers' 5-on-5 play. Forget for a moment they have scored 75 goals and are 13th in the NHL averaging 2.76 goals a game.
 
The critical factor is 5-on-5 goals against. The Flyers have allowed 98 goals in that situation – only Colorado [100 GA] has allowed more. Their 3.13 goals against is 28th worst in the league.
 
Unless those number improve significantly, they won’t be in the playoffs.
 
“We have to stay within our system,” said defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. “We give up too many odd-man rushes. Especially in those final games before the break. That’s a big thing.
 
“When we’re giving up that many, it’s not going to be in our favor. It’s not fair to judge our goalies in those games because we didn’t give them too much help out there.”
 
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who plays on a checking line, said the 5-on-5 goals against is a telling stat.
 
“You have it right there,” he said. “You don’t have to say much more than that. You cannot be a consistently, good team in the league if you are that low in goals against. It’s something we have to all work together at, as players.”
 
Hakstol said the Flyers enjoyed success 5-on-5 when they were winning because their team play was “consistent” game-to-game.
 
That hasn’t been the case during this 3-8-3 stretch.
 
“Our 5-on-5 game hasn’t necessarily regressed, but the consistency of it has,” Hakstol said. “That’s when you see the holes defensively. That’s when you see some of the problems you run into.
 
“We’ve got to get back to it. Back to a full 60-minutes of good 5-on-5 play. That’s up to each and every one of us, taking that responsibility and making the push to do that.”

In different spot after bye week, Flyers ready for playoff push with 'new perspective'

In different spot after bye week, Flyers ready for playoff push with 'new perspective'

VOORHEES, N.J. — When we last left the Flyers on Sunday evening, they were picking up pieces of themselves all over the ice at the Verizon Center after a 5-0 beatdown by the Washington Capitals.

They have had to stew over that defeat all through their five-day NHL mandated bye week, which ended Friday afternoon when they reported to Skate Zone for a rare 4 p.m. practice.

They’ll host the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night.

“You go into the break thinking about [hockey], but the whole point of it is to refresh mentally,” said Wayne Simmonds, who got engaged. “I didn’t drive myself crazy over it. This a little stretch here before the final playoff drive.”

When Claude Giroux became engaged in late November, the Flyers won eight straight as part of their 10-game streak.

“So to replicate that, we need everyone in here to get engaged,” Simmonds said. “We've got a lot of work to do. We know that. We got off to a good start compared to the past and then we faltered.

“We know we've got to be better. We all have to be accountable to each other. We’re not starting from scratch, but we need a new perspective here. Come out of the gate and do it the right way, again.”

A lot has happened since the loss in Washington. The Flyers remain fifth in the Metropolitan Division, but the layoff has seen them plummet to ninth overall in the Eastern Conference.

None of that, however, is as important as this: the Flyers no longer hold the second wild card. Toronto has it now with the same number of points as the Flyers — 50.

Difference is, the Maple Leafs also have two games in hand on Dave Hakstol’s club. Worse, the Carolina Hurricanes are snapping at the Flyers' skates with 49 points and they have three games in hand.

All of this is entirely the Flyers' fault as they’ve gone 3-8-3 since their 10-game win streak ended.

Yet they remain in striking distance of the wild card, although they are 11 points out of third, which is an automatic playoff spot.

They are fortunate they’re not farther behind in the wild-card standings.

“For sure, over those days there ... our division did lose a little bit,” Brayden Schenn said. “It’s going to happen. But at the end of the day, if we don’t win hockey games, it’s not going to matter what the other team will do.”

After Saturday’s game against the Devils, the Flyers head to Brooklyn for a Sunday night encounter with the Islanders. Sit five days, then play a back-to-back. Ah, the joys of the NHL schedule this season.

“We know we lost all that ground we gained with the 10-game winning streak,” said Jakub Voracek, who shaved off the beard he’s had for a year and a half during the break. “We are right there in a playoff spot. Now we keep pushing.

“We have 36 games left. We go game by game. I don’t remember how many points out we were last year with the playoffs, but we’re in a better position now.”

Last year after 46 games, the Flyers had 48 points, but were seven points out of a wild-card playoff spot. They have two more points now but are in better wild-card shape.

They know they have to get themselves going quickly but the harsh reality is, they seldom play well coming out of a four or five-day break.

Most of the players went away during the break and didn’t think about hockey. They said they wanted to come back refreshed with a new attitude and clean slate. It starts Saturday.

“We have to stop overthinking things,” Voracek said. “When we were winning, we just kept going. When you are losing, you begin to overthink things.

“You’re a half step slower thinking whether you should go or not. That’s our problem. We have to refocus. Everyone is excited to be back. Get back to work. Push this team to the playoffs.”