Had a deja-vu moment Friday morning. Took me back a decade: driving to a Flyers pregame skate, reviewing the team’s storylines, and I felt as if it was 10 years ago.
The 2019-20 Flyers have turned out to be a lot like the 2009-10 Flyers. Think about it.
Hire an experienced, charismatic coach? Peter Laviolette then, Alain Vigneault now.
Add a veteran with a big body with a big presence and give him a big paycheck to play a big role? Chris Pronger then, Kevin Hayes now.
Team gets hot in January? Melt-the-ice hot, brother.
Enticing young stars play major roles? T.K. and Hartsy are the new G and JVR.
Third-year All-Star wing Travis Konecny, 22, leads the team with 58 points. Goalie Carter Hart, 21, is 21-12-3 with a 2.49 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage, and he’s playing in his first full season. The young stars from 10 years ago -- Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk -- are still shining as 30-somethings in Philly, but they see the similarities to their former selves.
“We started that year in last place by Thanksgiving," said van Riemsdyk, who scored 15 goals as a 20-year-old rookie, “but after a coaching change, we went on a run.”
Indeed, the Flyers started that season with former minor-league coach John Stevens. But after a 13-11-1 start they replaced him with Laviolette, who’d won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006.
History has nearly replicated itself. The Flyers ended last season with their former minor-league coach Scott Gordon, who coached the last 51 games as an interim after Dave Hakstol was fired, but Gordon returned to the minors last summer when the Flyers hired Vigneault, a two-time Stanely Cup finalist.
Like Laviolette, Vigneault carries an air of don’t-give-a-damn. Like Laviolette, Vigneault instilled a much-needed culture of accountability.
“Yeah,” said Giroux, who, like Konecny, was a 22-year-old third-year forward 10 years ago. “Like then, we’re playing with a lot of confidence. The year we went to the Finals we had to battle to the end of the year."
That’s because, like this season, they got hot after New Year’s Day.
Those Flyers were 19-19-3 on Jan. 3, 2010. They went 14-6-0 in their next 20 games.
These Flyers were 22-15-6 after an overtime loss at Carolina on Jan. 7, reeling in a four-game winless streak that capped a 1-4-1 road trip. The Capitals, then the best team in the NHL, loomed in Philadelphia the next night.
They beat the Caps, which began a 15-5-1 run that has vaulted the Flyers into second place in the Metropolitan Division. They cooled the scorching Rangers on Friday night, 5-2, ending their nine-game road winning streak and their run of nine wins in their last 10 games overall. They visit New York in a rematch Sunday at noon. They aren’t worried.
They have now beaten the Capitals twice since Jan. 8, and they’ve also downed the Bruins and the Blues, the top two teams in the NHL. They passed the spiraling Penguins on Friday night, and hold an of two games to one in the season series, which is relevant because the Penguins would be their opponent if the playoffs started today.
Not all of the parallels are exact. In particular, Pronger and Hayes lead in completely different manners. Pronger, then 35, led by intimidation and division. Hayes, now 27, leads by affirmation and inclusion.
“They’re definitely way different personality types, but yeah, they’re both big personalities. Hayesie keeps it lighter than Prongs did,” van Riesmdyk said.
Not that a lighter hand is a weaker hand: “It’s about being authentic. It doesn’t have to be a guy who’s more of a hard-ass type. [Hayes] is someone who makes the locker room go.”
The other difference lies in expectation.
This year’s team, inexactly constructed, aspired to little more than respectability. Not so 10 years ago. That team was painfully curated and pedigreed.
Pronger and fellow defenseman Kimmo Timonen, snipers Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter, and captain Mike Richards were supposed to contend for a top playoff seed. Instead, they slithered in under the playoff wire. They needed a shootout win on the back end of their home-and-home season-finale series against the Rangers to qualify for the postseason. Even so, no team wanted to face the Flyers.
They upset the No. 2 seed Devils and forced Jacques Lemaire into his first retirement. The Flyers’ unprecedented comeback from a 3-0 series deficit against the Bruins made history.
Their five-game win over the Canadiens turned Philadelphia back into a hockey town for a few weeks, and out of nowhere they were in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1997. There, it took a superior Chicago Blackhawks team six games to beat them.
That’s the most significant parallel. They’ve won a bucketful of games against the league’s better teams, and no team has an answer.
"We can be a dangerous team,” Giroux said.
He should know.
He’s been through this before.