WASHINGTON — They’ve lived on the fringes of NHL relevance for so long now that it’s hard to view the Flyers through any lens that isn’t pessimistic. Don’t judge them too early.
We all did that with the Flyers in 2010 when they turned a season-finale win into a No. 7 seed and, eventually, a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. We all did that with the St. Louis Blues last season when they turned the worst record in the NHL after 37 games into a Stanley Cup championship. It’s hockey. With a hot goalie, healthy players, and a catchy theme song, anything is possible.
That’s how this iteration of the Flyers regularly leaves you after weekends like the one just past. They added high-character veterans, their dormant star looks ready to supernova, and they can beat any team in any given game, proved again Saturday night in D.C., a 7-2 domination in which the Flyers carried the play for 56 of 60 minutes. This was no rogue solar flare. They have enjoyed a steady burn.
Since their four-game losing streak at the end of their annual and ridiculous holiday road trip, the Flyers are 8-3-1. That includes wins over the Boston Bruins, a second win over the Capitals, and Pittsburgh Penguins, who rank first, second, and fourth in the Eastern Conference points race, as well as a win over the Blues and the Colorado Avalanche, who are first and second in the West. The Flyers entered Sunday night with the eighth-most points in the East and just outside of the playoff group, but they’re better than their 67-point total.
“It’s the way we’re built,” said Sean Couturier, who led the team Saturday with two goals and another elite two-way performance. “We have a good team. We have some depth. We can play with any team in the league. It’s just a matter of doing it night after night.”
Couturier referred to what happened two nights earlier: a devastating, 5-0 home loss to last-place New Jersey. That defeat did not leave them defeated. They reset, recalled the message of their players-only meeting after their nine-day break from Jan. 22-30, then crushed Washington, one of the most complete teams in the league.
“We weren’t happy with our game against New Jersey,” said captain Claude Giroux, whose power-play goal ended a 13-game goalless streak, tied for the longest of his career. "Coming out of the bye week, we said, ‘If we lose one, we have to regroup and win the next one.’ ”
The Flyers regrouped, erased Alex Ovechkin, the league’s top goal scorer, and chased goalie Braden Holtby, and -- poof -- the Devils were a memory dismissed.
“You’d like every game to be your 100 mph fastball on the black, but sometimes you throw 'em in the dirt,” said James van Riemsdyk, who has eight points in his last 10 games. “[Saturday], we showed the type of team we can be.”
A playoff team. A complete team. But that sort of team doesn’t collapse against the mediocrity presented by the Florida Panthers, who visit Monday night and then host the Flyers on Thursday. It is the first game in a stretch run littered with teams like themselves: the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, and Panthers twice each, and the Carolina Hurricanes once in early March. Yes, with 27 games to play, the Flyers barely hold the eighth spot, but they’re just two points behind the fifth-place Blue Jackets and six behind the Penguins, whom they face once more.
It’s hard to parse precisely what each upcoming matchup means, given the NHL’s convoluted seeding system and how it weights divisional finishes, but a strong enough finish could earn the Flyers a home series -- a massive advantage since they’ve only exited five home games without a point, the second-best result in the East. They are 30-18-7 overall. They are not surprised.
“We’re a good team,” insisted Alain Vigneault, the polished veteran coach newly charged by general manager Chuck Fletcher with implementing the rebuild that deposed GM Ron Hextall began six years ago. Vigneault knows what it takes to reach deep spring hockey. He took the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011, then guided the New York Rangers there in 2014. He’s been fun to watch, on every level.
A gentle but firm critic, Vigneault has managed to prod stars like Giroux and Jake Voracek. He has incorporated newcomers Matt Niskanen, a rock-solid defenseman who won a Cup with the Caps in 2018, and charismatic center Kevin Hayes, a do-it-all leader Vigneault coached with the Rangers and who leads the league with four shorthanded goals. Finally, Vigneault has overseen the ascension of Travis Konecny to All-Star status, and the ascension of Couturier as the team’s best player.
What’s more, the Flyers might be getting better sooner than later. Second-year goaltender Carter Hart missed the last nine games with an abdominal strain but could return as early as Monday. Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere missed a month to knee surgery. He came back against the Devils but sat again in Washington. The Flyers don’t need him right now, but when he’s sharp and defensively sound, Ghost can be a points terror.
They’ve even managed to fortify themselves in the face of attrition. The absence of talented young centerman Nolan Patrick, who is likely to miss the entire season to a migraine issue, has allowed the Flyers to plumb the abilities of Connor Bunnaman, who centered the fourth line that overwhelmed the Capitals. Shot-blocking fetishist Robert Hagg, who seemed likely for seventh-D slotting this season, proved himself invaluable while Gostisbehere healed. He reprised his role as Ovechkin’s favorite target, and Hagg seems unlikely to sit again soon.
That’s the mark of a dangerous team, and that’s what the Flyers are -- at least, that’s what they become when they set their minds to it.
“I think we just get up for them,” said Giroux, who is the most intriguing Flyer of them all.
Giroux was sitting on 35 points through 54 games going into Saturday’s game, when he erupted for his first three-point game since he had two goals and two assists at Carolina on Nov. 21. He’s an 800-point scorer who averaged 76 points per 82 games entering this season.
He has 38 points now, or half of his average. What if "G" goes on a run?