WASHINGTON — The best part of the Flyers’ first 10 games has been the strides they have made on defense. It’s been a pleasant surprise because Ryan Ellis — arguably their most important offseason addition — has missed seven games with an undisclosed injury.
The Flyers are 6-2-2 for a lot of reasons: Better starts to games, an improved penalty kill, and much better goaltending.
But the overall defense — and that includes the forwards being more committed to a 200-foot game — is at the top of the list.
You want numbers? Consider these: The Flyers were last in the NHL when they allowed 3.52 goals per game last season. Ten games into this season, they are No. 6, surrendering just 2.40 goals per game.
Yes, it’s a small sample size, but, again, they have done it without Ellis, whose injury has forced the Flyers to juggle two of their three pairings and insert journeyman Nick Seeler into the lineup. Seeler has been serviceable, and many others have raised their games.
Last season, “our defensive structure wasn’t very good,” defenseman Justin Braun said before Saturday’s impressive 2-1 win in Washington. “We were kind of all over in the D zone. This year, we’re a little more dialed in and not giving up as many quality A [chances], night in and night out. We’re still working on it, but it’s much better than last year.”
Braun raises play
Braun, 34, has played extremely well as Ellis’ replacement, moving from the No. 3 pairing to the top defensive unit, alongside Ivan Provorov. Braun is plus-8, tied with Joel Farabee for second on the team behind Cam Atkinson (plus-9), and has contributed seven points, one more than he accumulated in 53 games last season.
Provorov, meanwhile, has been his workhorse self, averaging nearly 25 minutes of ice time per game and blocking 28 shots, the league’s seventh-highest total.
Besides goalie Carter Hart’s turnaround, perhaps the biggest difference between this season and last has been the improved defensive play of the forwards, and the addition of Rasmus Ristolainen on the second pairing. Ristolainen has given the team some much-needed physicality on the back end, and he leads the Flyers with 26 hits despite missing two games with an injury.
“Personally, if I take a hit or I hit someone, I get my body and mind going,” Ristolainen said after the Flyers used an aggressive forecheck to disrupt the usually high-scoring Capitals over the first two periods. “That’s my kind of game and I really enjoy it.”
Saturday’s hard-fought win in Washington made the Flyers 3-1-1 on the road, including a 2-1 trip through Edmonton, Vancouver, and Calgary. Overall, their .700 points percentage is second in the best-in-the-NHL Metropolitan Division.
“We knew we had some tough games coming up when we looked at the schedule,” center Derick Brassard said after scoring the first goal to trigger the victory in D.C. “We went to western Canada, which is a hard trip. Three [games] in four [nights]. This was another big game for us and we needed that game badly. The guys competed hard for 60 minutes and sacrificed their bodies up and down the lineup. It’s a positive. We’re just trying to build our game and it’s good to see.”
It has also been good to see Hart (3-2-2, 2.41 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) show last season, with numerous poor performances, was a fluke. His backup, Martin Jones (3-0, 1.68, .950 ), has also excelled over his first three games.
“They both have given us a chance to win every night,” Ristolainen said.
The Flyers’ 6-2-2 start feels better than last season, when they went 7-2-1 to begin the year but were outshot in nine of 10 games and outplayed in a lot of their wins.
Sean Couturier, who is tied with Claude Giroux for the team lead with 12 points, was asked about the Flyers’ defensive turnaround in the first 10 games.
“We’re not panicking,” he said. “We’re a little more experienced throughout our lineup, a little more mature in our game, and we’re just sticking to what we need to do. Even if we let up a bad goal, we respond and just come back and play our game.”
“The team is playing really well, and we’re defending really well and the [penalty kill]has been really good,” Jones said, “and that’s a good recipe for a goalie.”
Coach Alain Vigneault said he likes the identity the Flyers are trying to forge: being a smart team with and without the puck, one that “competes real hard and is hard to play against.”
So far, so good. And the good news is that this team should get markedly better when Ellis and second-line center Kevin Hayes return to the lineup.
The NHL announced that Brassard has been fined $2,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct after he was called for interference against Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway on Saturday night. ... Farabee, Travis Konecny, and Seeler did not participate in Sunday afternoon’s skills practice led by coach Angelo Ricci. Per assistant coach Mike Yeo, Farabee and Konecny took maintenance days. Seeler was sent to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, perhaps to bank cap space with the Flyers not playing their next game until Wednesday. ... Both Ellis (lower body) and Hayes (abdominal) participated in the skills practice. Their status for Wednesday’s game is uncertain.