As the season inches toward the halfway mark, the Flyers are 18-11-5 and in a wild-card spot. They have 41 points — nine more than at a corresponding point last season, when they were 14-16-4.
A lot of that improvement can be traced to the strides made by the penalty kill.
The next couple of weeks, then, are important. The penalty kill needs others to step in until injured forwards Scott Laughton (groin injury) and Michael Raffl (broken pinky) return to the unit.
“It’s a next-man-up mentality,” Kevin Hayes, one of the Flyers’ best penalty killers, said after Wednesday’s practice in Voorhees. “And we have some good faceoff guys, and that helps a lot. If you can win a faceoff right away, it takes away 20 seconds, and one of the things we’ve been harping on is the wingers helping the centers on the PK faceoffs.”
In addition to Laughton and Raffl, the PK has been missing injured forwards Oskar Lindblom (Ewing’s sarcoma) and Tyler Pitlick (sinus/head ailment), along with suspended forward Joel Farabee, who had been playing occasionally while the Flyers were shorthanded.
“It’s been a challenge,” coach Alain Vigneault said. A good way to keep the PK fresh and effective, he said, is to “make sure if you do take penalties, they’re good penalties and not penalties that are 200 feet from your net.”
Considering they were without five forwards who have been spending time on the penalty kill lately, the Flyers did a solid job defending Anaheim’s power play in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over the Ducks.
Anaheim did manage one power-play goal on a double deflection, but the Flyers’ altered PK units allowed a total of only two other shots while being shorthanded for 8 minutes, 37 seconds.
It should be noted that penalty killers Claude Giroux, Nic Aube-Kubel, Matt Niskanen, and Hayes spent some time in the penalty box and weren’t available for some of the five attempted kills.
Sean Couturier (4:29 of penalty-kill time), Mikhail Vorobyev (4:04), Hayes (3:24) and Giroux (3:04) were the heavy lifters among forwards on the PK. Aube-Kubel (2:03 on PK) and Vorobyev are among the many players recently recalled from the Phantoms.
Ivan Provorov (4:46 on the PK), Justin Braun (3:51), Travis Sanheim (3:46) and Matt Niskanen (3:33) were the key defensemen on the penalty kill.
“One of the things we say when we’re killing penalties is that, ‘If one goes, four go,’ which means if one guy is pressuring, four guys have to pressure at the same time,” Vigneault said. “Otherwise, there’s some open spots. Sometimes it takes guys time to realize that — guys that are new to the way we’re doing things here now. It’s been challenging, but at the same time, it’s given great opportunities to other guys to see if they can handle the extra workload.”
The good news is that one of the penalty killers, Pitlick, is expected to return to the lineup Thursday against visiting Buffalo, which features high-scoring Jack Eichel (24 goals, six on the power play) and rookie Victor Olofson (14 goals, eight on the power play) and has the league’s 15th-best power play.
The Flyers’ PK, which had a rare poor game and allowed three goals Sunday in Winnipeg before rebounding Tuesday, is eighth in the 31-team NHL.
“I thought against Winnipeg we gave too many shooting lanes,” Couturier said. “We did a better job [against Anaheim] of taking those lanes away.”
“Our PK’s been going pretty well for a while now, and that definitely makes it easier for new guys to step in,” Provorov said. “We play with a structure.”