Winning isn’t everything. In fact, for the Flyers right now, it’s virtually nothing.
The Flyers entered COVID-19 lockdown as hockey’s hottest team. It became that by implementing new coach Alain Vigneault’s system in their first 43 games, then going 19-6-1 in their last 26 games, 12-2 in their last 14. Only a pandemic stopped their charge to the top of the Easter Conference.
Now, as the No. 4 seed in the Toronto bubble, the Flyers will be part of a four-team round-robin competition to determine the conference’s top four seeds, while seeds Nos. 5-12 play best-of-five series to determine which will earn the last four playoff spots. And yes, while every hockey player wants to win “every shift and every game,” as defenseman Ivan Provorov said Wednesday, the team that emerges from the round robin on top won’t necessarily be the best team in the conference, or even the best version of itself.
That’s why fans shouldn’t panic if the Flyers falter when they play the Bruins on Sunday, the Capitals on Thursday, and then the Lightning on Saturday. The absence of fans and the absence of travel will further diminish whatever negligible advantage home ice delivers these days. What matters much more is whether the Flyers can recapture their chemistry, said veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen.
“These next three games are really important for us to keep pushing, and obviously we want to do well to get a better seed, but the most important thing is to make sure our game is at the best possible level for Game One” of the playoff round, he said.
Even then, the work won’t be done. Niskanen won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018, the seventh time he’d advanced past the first round. This is his 11th trip to the playoffs. He knows the best teams ripen on the vine. That’s doubly true this year, since the NHL suspended play for more than 4 months.
“We’re going to have to continue to get better probably through the first round in order to win that first round,” Niskanen said, “and in order for us to get where we want to go, it’s going to take a couple of weeks, probably, to reach our full potential.”
This is the essence of what Vigneault preached since the Flyers reconvened July 13 for summer training camp.
“We, as a staff, a team and an organization have to measure what’s the best thing for us right now,” Vigneault said early in camp. “Is it to be a higher seed? Or is it to prepare our team and prepare our players the best way that we can in this situation?”
Wednesday, his focus was obvious: Improvement trumps victory. And rightfully so. The Flyers have a handful of crucial choices to make concerning roster spots and player roles, and those decisions are more important than using Provorov for 26 minutes every night or starting Carter Hart in goal all three games.
“We talked about our group about the need to get better. I believe the execution will get better. The game conditioning will get better,” Vigneault said Wednesday after the Flyers won their sole exhibition game Tuesday against the Penguins. “We have three important games in front of us. We’re going to play them, obviously, to win, but also to prepare our team for that first real playoff game.”
General manager Chuck Fletcher agrees.
“We have to use these four games and practices to make sure we’re peaking when that happens,” Fletcher said Monday.
The players got their message.
“The bigger picture is more important in two weeks,” Sean Couturier said Monday. “I think it’s just going to be important to find our game as quick as possible and ramp up our intensity, so we are ready right off the start of the actual playoffs.”
They‘ll be playing hard, but they’ll be playing smart.
“It’ll be nice to ease our way back into things,” Hart said.
And why not? Home ice earns teams little even when they aren’t playing in a pandemic bubble. Historically, home teams have won 56.4 percent of their games, but that number is becoming more and more misleading.
Last season the team with home-ice advantage lost eight of the 15 playoff series, including one Western Conference semifinal and the Stanley Cup Final. Five of the upsets happened in the eight series that were played in the first round. A year before, the team with home-ice advantage lost both conference finals series and the Stanley Cup Final.
In most cases, regardless of venue, the Stanley Cup playoffs are won by the better, healthier team. When the Flyers last reached the Final a decade ago they rolled over New Jersey and outlasted decimated Boston, both of which had home ice. That’s why the Flyers’ players aren’t sweating the coming week.
“I think every day our main goal is to get one step closer to where we were when COVID hit,” center Kevin Hayes said.
Given the way they were playing when the world stopped in March, it doesn’t matter who the Flyers play. They should fear no one. The Flyers are 17-5-4 against seeds Nos. 5-12. The Flyers have losing records against only two teams in the bubble, and the No. 2 Lightning (0-2) collapsed in last year’s playoffs, and the No. 7 Islanders (0-2-1) beat the Flyers twice in the Flyers’ first 20 games, when the Flyers were still figuring out Vigneault.
The Flyers are 5-3-1 against the three other top seeds. Better to focus on getting the kinks out. Plenty of kinks remain, Niskanen said: “We’re ahead of where I thought we might be, but we still have some ‘summer hockey’ left in our game that we’ve got to get out.”
Claude Giroux believes winning equals confidence, but the Flyers passed that benchmark a month before quarantine. Win or lose, they know when they’re playing well.