New Jersey, Montreal, and Ottawa. Those are the Flyers’ three opponents this week.
Stink, stank, and stunk.
Then again, the Flyers fit that description for most of the previous three weeks as they put up lousy offensive numbers, got two coaches fired — including a guy who has collected the eighth-highest win total in NHL history — and dropped to near the bottom of the Metropolitan standings.
Despite their crash and their lack of depth amid a laundry list of injuries, the Flyers still have enough time to regroup and sneak back into the playoff race.
The parity-driven NHL loves it that way. Lose 10 straight, as the Flyers did recently, and you still have a chance to play in the postseason because the league is filled with mediocrity.
This brings us back to New Jersey, Montreal, and Ottawa, the Grinch’s favorite teams. Those clubs have already combined for 33 more losses than wins, and the Flyers need to beat them and reestablish themselves after the hot mess they created under dismissed head coach Alain Vigneault.
They took the first step Tuesday, blasting the shorthanded Devils — three of their players missed the game because of the league’s COVID-19 protocol — and their ill goalie, Mackenzie Blackwood, 6-1, at the Wells Fargo Center. On Thursday the Flyers are in Montreal (6-21-3), and Saturday they host Ottawa (9-16-1), which has suddenly won five of six, including consecutive wins over Tampa Bay and Florida.
Cam Atkinson was Tuesday’s headliner. He scored his seventh career hat trick and keyed an attack that equaled its highest output all season as the rejuvenated Flyers whipped a New Jersey team that had beaten them, 5-2 and 3-0, during their 10-game nosedive.
Amazing what a little confidence will do for a team. You could see it in the Flyers’ body language and their aggressive forecheck, in their attack mentality, and in their suddenly pinpoint passing.
“I think it all started in Vegas, playing the right way, playing with structure,” said Atkinson, referring to a 4-3 victory Friday that started this season-best, three-game winning streak. “I think you get rewarded when you’re playing the right way. And obviously coming home after those two wins, we wanted to make it harder for them to come into this rink.”
After losing their first two games under interim coach Mike Yeo, the Flyers have rediscovered their scoring. Atkinson was Exhibit A on Tuesday, but it was also eye-opening to see the team’s defensemen more involved in the offense.
The defense combined for two goals, seven points, and a plus-10 rating. Goals by defensemen Travis Sanheim and Justin Braun helped set the tone as the Flyers built an early 3-0 lead and coasted from there.
Ending a drought
“We want to get back on the offense,” said Sanheim after scoring his first goal of the season. “That’s how we’re going to be better defensively, working together as a group, transitioning quick and playing in the offensive zone. We did a good job of that tonight.”
Sanheim (two points, plus-3), Ivan Provorov (two points, plus-3), and Rasmus Ristolainen (two primary assists, plus-2, six hits) contributed greatly from the back end.
The Flyers don’t usually have a lot of firepower up front — they entered the night 27th out of 32 teams in goals scored per game (2.53) — so they need their defensemen to be more offensive than they have shown, especially Sanheim, who looked like he would become a consistent double-digit goal scorer a few years ago before tailing off the last two seasons.
“I don’t think you can have success without your defense being part of the offense,” said Yeo, whose team will get more production from the defense when the injured Ryan Ellis returns to the lineup, perhaps later this month. “What I liked about it tonight was that they weren’t forcing the issue, and you look at the offense that came from our blue line tonight, a lot of it was literally from the blue line. It’s not like they were forcing the issue up the ice [or] getting caught in bad positions.”
Yeo said the forwards “did an outstanding job playing the game in front of our defensemen, creating turnovers. When that happens and you’re playing in the offensive zone, that’s opening up time and space for them up top. And obviously recovering those pucks and getting it to them. I’ll just say that everything is always connected. Your defense is not going to have success without your forwards, and vice versa, so it was nice to see that.”
The Flyers have averaged four goals per game, scored four or more goals in four of five games, and are 3-2 overall under Yeo. They averaged just 1.6 goals in Vigneault’s last 17 games, never topping three in any of those contests.
And, so, with two-thirds of the season remaining, they are somehow just five points out of a playoff spot despite losing 10 straight at one point.
“Our mindset every single day has to be to continue to grow our game,” Yeo said after the Flyers’ first home win in almost a month, “and the confidence we can have coming out of that is huge.”