The Flyers’ offense has gotten most of the attention lately, scoring four or more goals in seven of the last nine games.
With production like that, even the Zamboni-driver-turned-goalie who bailed out the Carolina Hurricanes the other night would probably be successful.
The Flyers’ offense has been, in a word, opportunistic. When they get an odd-man rush, it seems, they are converting at an eye-opening rate.
Offensively, the Flyers have moved into ninth in the NHL (average of 3.25 goals per game) after finishing 18th (2.94) last season.
The more important strides, however, have occurred down the other end of the ice.
Credit goaltender Carter Hart for blossoming in his first full season and backup Brian Elliott for being steady and better than his numbers appear.
Credit forwards Jake Voracek and Travis Konecny for being much more defensively responsible this season.
But, mostly, credit Matt Niskanen, a first-year Flyer who has transformed a disorganized defense into a strength.
Just a year ago, the defense was in disarray and allowed an abundance of odd-man rushes. Now, the unit is much more calm. Call it the Niskanen Effect.
“That’s why they call him ‘Steady Eddie,’ ” defenseman Ivan Provorov said after Thursday’s practice in Voorhees.
Niskanen’s quiet leadership has rubbed off. There’s no panic in his game, and it’s settled down his teammates, especially Provorov, his defensive partner.
“He’s certainly affected [us] in a very positive way,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said. “First of all, the way he conducts himself. He’s a real pro, one of the best I’ve seen in this game. His preparation, his compete level, his understanding of the game, and his understanding of the moments in a game is beneficial for our whole group. With the young corps of D that we have, he’s been a great role model.”
The younger players – Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Phil Myers, Robert Hagg, and Shayne Gostisbehere – have benefited.
“He’s a great defensman. Tons of experience. He’s super steady, and it never seems like he makes mistakes out there,” Provorov, 23, said. “He can move the puck, defend, create offensively.”
Niskanen, 33, who had a maintenance day Thursday but should play Friday against the New York Rangers, was acquired from Washington in the off-season for Radko Gudas. He has been particularly effective during the Flyers’ recent run, collecting 13 points and a plus-10 rating in the last 14 games.
He has also helped Provorov rebound from a subpar season.
“We read off each other pretty good. We have good chemistry,” said Provorov, who has 11 goals – four more than last season. “We move the puck pretty good, and it allows me – both of us, really – to spend less time defending and more time attacking. When you don’t have to defend the whole game, like we did last year, you’re not going to get scored on as much.”
Defense is what will be most important when the Stanley Cup playoffs roll around, as St. Louis demonstrated last season. Space is at a premium. Every inch of ice is tougher to negotiate. General manager Chuck Fletcher set the Flyers up for the playoffs – yes, there are still no guarantees they will get there – by adding Niskanen and veteran defenseman Justin Braun in the off-season, along with Kevin Hayes and Tyler Pitlick, forwards who aren’t allergic to the defensive end.
Fletcher continued that theme at Monday’s trade deadline, adding defensively sound centers Derek Grant and Nate Thompson.
But make no mistake, Niskanen is the player who has meant the most to the defense, which is allowing more than a half-goal less per game (2.86) than last year (3.41) -- a decrease that is at the forefront of the Flyers’ revival.
Defensively, they finished 29th in the NHL in 2018-19 and are 11th this season.
“I think everybody on the team is playing better defense this year,” Voracek said.
The Flyers have 19 games left, and, ideally, they would like to finish second in the Metropolitan Division – they are one point behind the second-place Penguins – and earn the home-ice advantage in the opening round.
How important is home ice?
Well, in five-on-five situations, the Flyers have allowed a league-low 42 goals this season at home. On the road, they are tied with Detroit for allowing the most five-on-five goals (87). In those even-strength situations, they are plus-31 at home, minus-23 on the road.
Since power plays are at a premium in the playoffs, those numbers deserve even more attention.
But first, the Flyers have to get to the postseason. They will host the playoff-hungry Rangers on Friday and try to keep building their momentum. Since returning from a disastrous 1-4-1 road trip after Christmas, the Flyers have gone 14-5-1 and shown they can beat the elite teams.
They have 19 regular-season games remaining. Those games will determine whether they get to the playoffs and, if they do, what seeding they secure.
“We’re actually going into this part of the season and don’t have to chase,” Voracek said. “We go into each game confident … that if we play our best, there’s a 99 percent chance you’re going to win.”