Post-Olympic stretch run will favor fresh Flyers

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Post-Olympic stretch run will favor fresh Flyers

When the Olympics end and the Flyers’ schedule resumes after a week of what will surely feel like training camp in February, Craig Berube should have reason to smile.

The stretch run to the playoffs favors the Flyers from the standpoint of the schedule. They have 23 games in 46 days -- essentially, a game every other day.

Better yet, 14 of those games are home, versus just nine away.

Plus, the Flyers will have just one extended road trip and that’s to Florida and Pittsburgh -- not all over Western Canada and the U.S. like they did on their five-game, post-Christmas road swing.

For a team that is sitting in third place (playoffs) in the Metropolitan Division and seventh overall in the Eastern Conference, you couldn’t ask for more.

“We put ourselves in a good spot,” said Berube, who is easily also on the short list for the Jack Adams Coach of the Year award, along with Tampa’s Jon Cooper and Anaheim’s Bruce Boudreau.

“In saying that, we play a lot of good teams. Even though you are at home, it’s a one-game-at-a time thing. We have to make sure that after this break we can compete and play at a high level right away. Right away.”

Every NHL organization worries how its players will return. Will they stay in reasonable shape? Or will they lose too much of their conditioning?

The Flyers' first game back is Feb. 27 at Wells Fargo Center against San Jose.

“We have a program set up already that hopefully they will follow,” Berube said. “It is not mandatory. Hopefully they are good pros and follow it. Keep yourself ready. I think the break is good, but make sure you're working out and training. That’s important.”

On Saturday, many Flyers began their treks to mini-vacations (see story). On Sunday, the five players going to the Sochi Olympics left for Russia.

The Flyers welcome a stretch run that is easier on the travel side.

“The month of March, it seems like we have one-day road trips,” Scott Hartnell said. “Looked like in November and December we were gone the whole time. Seemed to be on the road, not know what your room number was, so many.

“It will be exciting to be home. Get some groceries that won’t go bad in the fridge while you’re gone for weeks. That’s one thing I am looking forward to and so are the guys with families. They want to see their kids.”

Defenseman Braydon Coburn said the Flyers need to take advantage of playing at home. Earlier in January, the Flyers were in the midst of a 10-game home winning streak.

They are 16-10-1 at home versus 14-13-5 on the road. Most years, they're a better road club. Not this year.

“The fact we have a lot of home games and not a lot of tough travel is good for us,” Coburn said. “That being said, we have to take advantage of it. When you get an opportunity like that to have games in your conference at home down the stretch, it’s something you can’t take for granted.

“You have to keep your foot on the accelerator. It’s something Chief has been stressing to us. Get your rest over the break, then it’s full steam ahead to the finish line. When we come in here every day we get a chance to look at the standings and it’s a jumbled mess.

“The parity within our division and our conference is remarkable this season considering where it has been at in past years.”

The Flyers need to find separation between themselves and divisional opponents, such as Columbus and the Rangers. Yet they play the Rangers in only a home-and-home in March and Columbus once in April here.

They will also face the Washington Capitals in a home-and-home the first week of March, as well.

That’s not enough games to gain separation, which is why it’s more important for them to play well against all conference opponents.

“It kind of works in our favor playing a lot of home games,” Matt Read said. “It’s a tough league. Any team can come into Wells Fargo [Center] and win a game.

“We have to take every home game and play smart for 60 minutes and build as a team again. Keep our playoff spot and move from there.”

Berube hopes his players are mentally, as well as physically, refreshed when they return. Non-Olympians have the option of going back on Feb. 19. Camps open for everyone on Feb. 24.

“Everyone should be rejuvenated coming back,” Berube said. “Guys going to the Olympics, it will be different, obviously. Guys staying here are going to have a lot of energy and ready to go from that time off.

“Not traveling, not grinding, the games. It’s not so much practicing. It’s the grind, the schedule, the travel, playing the games. Not doing that for a couple of weeks will leave them fresh.”

NHL Playoffs: Rangers ride Zuccarello to 3-1 win in series-clinching Game 6

NHL Playoffs: Rangers ride Zuccarello to 3-1 win in series-clinching Game 6

NEW YORK -- Mats Zuccarello scored twice in the second period and the New York Rangers beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in Game 6 on Saturday night to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Derek Stepan also scored and Henrik Lundqvist stopped 27 shots to help New York get past the first round for the fifth time in six years. The Rangers won three straight after falling behind 2-1 to beat Montreal for the ninth time in 16 postseason series.

The Rangers will face the winner of the Ottawa-Boston series, which the Senators lead 3-2.

Alexei Emelin scored for Montreal and Carey Price finished with 20 saves. The Canadiens, winners of the Atlantic Division after missing the playoffs last year, were bounced from the postseason by the Rangers for the second time in four years. In 2014, it was in the conference finals (see full recap).

Paajarvi's OT goal gives Blues 4-3 win to oust Wild in 5
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Magnus Paajarvi scored at the 9:42 mark in overtime, giving the St. Louis Blues a 4-3 victory over Minnesota on Saturday in Game 5 of their playoff series, eliminating the Wild.

The Blues advanced to play Nashville in the second round.

Jake Allen made 34 saves for the Blues, who led 2-0 and 3-1 before a furious rally by the Wild to try to keep their season alive forced the extra frame.

Paajarvi's first career playoff goal gave Blues coach Mike Yeo the satisfaction of beating the team that fired him a little over a year ago.

Mikko Koivu and Jason Zucker scored to bring the Wild back from their second two-goal hole, a deficit that held past the midpoint of the third period (see full recap).

Flyers excited for full-season upgrade of Valtteri Filppula

Flyers excited for full-season upgrade of Valtteri Filppula

As the Flyers packed up for the offseason much earlier than they had hoped, the focus started shifting to the outlook for 2017-18.

There was some optimism provided by Valtteri Filppula.

It wasn't anything he said. Instead, it was what he did in 20 games.

Make that a full sample size and the Flyers are excited about the possibilities.

Filppula, a well-rounded, 33-year-old center, was acquired at the March 1 trade deadline in the Mark Streit deal. He added five goals and three assists in his 20 games.

"I felt like later in the year, we had more bullets in our gun," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said last week as the team held exit interviews and cleanout day. "(Jordan) Weal comes in and does a good job. Filppula comes in and really gives us stability. Really upgraded our top nine. So when you're talking 5-on-5 play, just to depend on five or six guys, all of a sudden you have nine guys you can count on."

The Flyers were 27th in the NHL with 128 goals at 5-on-5 -- a significant factor in their postseason absence.

But Filppula should bring more than simply a 5-on-5 boost.

The Flyers desperately needed depth at the center position to relieve some pressure from Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. Filppula, who came from the Lightning and played seven seasons with the Red Wings -- winning a Stanley Cup in 2008 -- is a sound matchup center and plays on the penalty kill, too.

"I think with Fil coming in this year, it really helped our depth," Giroux said. "He brings a lot to the team. He kills penalties, power plays, very good defensively and he's a smart player. When you bring a guy in like that, you kind of get excited a little bit."

From Filppula's first game on March 2 to the end of the regular season, the Flyers scored 56 goals, 12th most in the NHL over that span and 2.80 per game -- both improvements from their ranking of 21th on the full season and 2.59 per game.

"Now that we feel like we have nine guys that are legit top-nine forwards," Hextall said, "we've got good balance."

Couturier saw immediate benefits when the Flyers acquired Filppula. Couturier started playing with Dale Weise and Brayden Schenn, which turned out to be the team's best line combination to finish the regular season.

"I think it just brought some depth to our lineup," Couturier said of Filppula acquisition. "I had the chance to play after that with Schenn and Weiser and we just found chemistry right away and things went really well."

It provided head coach Dave Hakstol greater flexibility.

"The addition of Val Filppula to our group up front made our group of forwards better," Hakstol said. "Not just his presence, which I think he's an outstanding hockey player, a good hockey player and a real good veteran, but it just allowed some of the others to come together. I think there's real substance there."

The Flyers hope it shows with a full season of Filppula.

"I think when Filppula came in, the balance that seemed to come with him entering our lineup helped us both with and without the puck," Hakstol said. "Will that cohesion help us generate more offensively on an 82-game basis, not just a short-term basis? I think the answers to those things are yes."