PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The Flyers had an uneven preseason, one that should have been expected. The new coach, Alain Vigneault, was still learning about his players — their strengths and weaknesses and, in some cases, even their names.
On the flip side, the players were learning Vigneault’s aggressive system, and, at times, looked disjointed as they won just one of seven exhibition games.
So it was a bit surprising that they looked so crisp for most of their regular-season opener, the first game the Flyers ever played in Europe since the franchise started in 1967.
Michael Raffl downplayed the Flyers’ exhibition record.
“The preseason was really good for us,” the left winger said after Friday’s 4-3 victory over Chicago in Prague. “Maybe we didn’t get the results, but the practices were very intense. Even the practice the other day, I was bent over a couple times [gasping for breath] and usually that doesn’t happen before a game. If we keep that [pace] up the whole year, we have a good chance of winning.”
On Friday, it was the Flyers who looked like the faster team as they constantly applied offensive pressure and had a 67-49 advantage in shot attempts. They also had their forecheck working and, for the most part, didn’t allow the Blackhawks to generate much speed coming through the neutral zone.
“We were consistent in what we were doing,” captain Claude Giroux said. “Every line. … [Sean Couturier’s] line was great. They controlled the game in their zone. I think every line did a good job of doing that.”
The fourth line — Connor Bunnaman centering Raffl and Tyler Pitlick — produced what turned out to be the winning goal. In many fewer minutes, the fourth-liners had six shots on goal, compared with seven for the top unit of Kevin Hayes, Giroux, and Jake Voracek.
The players on the fourth line averaged over 10 minutes. Much more time than the fourth-unit players played last year.
That, Hayes said, is Vigneault’s style.
“I’m used to that,” he said. “I was in New York with him for four years. He likes his four lines. … If everyone is playing the right way, they’re all going to play. Some guys more than others some nights, but it’s good. It’s accountability. When you have guys on the fourth line that are contributing and playing well, it makes the guys that are on three, two, and one above them make sure they’re on their game as well. It’s friendly competition that allows the team to be successful.”
If the opener was an indication of how playing time will be distributed, the balanced minutes should help keep everyone fresher throughout the season.
As for the win, it made the long flight home much more bearable. The Flyers left this charming city with a win and some great bonding experiences from Switzerland and the Czech Republic — from some teammates giving rookie Carsen Twarynski a haircut, to Voracek taking the entire team to one of his favorite restaurants (Cafe Vaclav), to riding scooters down Prague’s ancient, bumpy streets.
The players got to know more about each other and their families, and it was especially beneficial for the new players and new coaches.
“We had a week or so overseas, so it was great experience,” left winger Oskar Lindblom said after thriving in Vigneault’s up-tempo style in the opener, scoring a goal (on a defection off a Chicago player) and firing a team-high five shots. “We were with each other 24/7, so we had to get to know each other, and it was a great trip.”
“Getting to know everybody on a different level is pretty important for us,” said Travis Konecny, the speedy right winger who engineered the win with the seventh two-goal game of his career. “I think everyone has a relationship now and it’s good for the team.”
As was the victory.