When you’re winning like the Flyers, there has to be a reason. Some outlier. An X-factor.
Jake Voracek is the X-factor.
“I’m 30 years old,” he said. "But I think my game overall, defensively and offensively — I’ve never played better.”
He’s right. Not when he was an All-Star. Not when he scored more than a point per game. He’s the best version of himself here. Now. And right on time.
Voracek isn’t the only Flyer producing, but he’s the Flyer performing most beyond expectation, and it has less to do with scoring than with maturity. Second-year goalie Carter Hart has fulfilled every bit of promise so far. Second-line center Kevin Hayes has been a priceless addition. Sean Couturier has grown to be the team’s best two-way forward since Mike Richards. These all were expected developments.
Voracek elevating his game at the end of his 12th NHL season? Not so much.
Voracek, the first-line right wing, has 13 points during the Flyers’ nine-game winning streak. He has 10 assists in the last five games, the richest run of helpers in his 12-year career. His five-game surge put him on pace for 68 points, about his average for the previous six seasons -- but that offensive number isn’t nearly as important as this defensive indicator.
Voracek is plus-15, with 14 games left in the season. That would be a career-best plus-minus rating. It also would be a stunning turnaround for the player who ranked 30th-worst among all forwards last season, when he was minus-16; who ranked ninth-worst in 2016-17, at minus-24; and was minus-30 in the seven previous seasons combined.
So, is he prouder of the assists or rating?
“The second one. Especially after all the ---- I’ve been getting the last few years,” Voracek said, without hesitation. “I’m very happy about that.”
How did it happen? Simple. He’s an old, shaggy dog, but he finally learned a new trick.
“Experience is a big part of it,” Voracek said. “You learn that when you do every little thing right defensively, eventually you’re going to get the looks offensively. That’s what you learn.”
It’s not that his other coaches didn’t try to teach him. Voracek just needed a different teacher.
New coach Alain Vigneault convinced Voracek of what Peter Laviolette, Craig Berube, Dave Hakstol, and Scott Gordon could not.
“I explained to him -- like I did with all the veteran players on this team -- there’s a time to check, and there’s a time to go on the offense,” Vigneault said. “He’s done that well for us this year.”
He’s done it especially well since the Flyers began playing their best hockey. This is not coincidental.
Voracek was minus-3 in the Flyers’ first 21 games, in which the Flyers had 24 points. Voracek is plus-18 since Game 22. They have 65 points in those 47 games, and they have vaulted to the top of the Metropolitan Division, and they have done so because all five players prioritize defense at all times -- especially the new, improved Voracek.
“He’s not forcing plays,” Couturier said.
Couturier is Voracek’s center. He’s also a four-time top-10 finisher in Selke Trophy voting, awarded to the NHL’s top defensive forward. Couturier appreciates offense but worships defense. Coots converted Voracek.
“With the vision and skill set he has, it’s easy for him to make plays other guys can’t. But sometimes it’s risky. He’s doing a really good job at knowing when to take the risk, to take the chance to make plays," Couturier said. "He’s been responsible in that way.”
If anything, Voracek’s defensive conversion enhanced his offensive genius. Ever more determined at the defensive end, he now is ever more patient on offense.
Voracek gave the Flyers a two-goal lead early in the third period Wednesday at Washington by skating over the blue line by the right wall, freezing the defense for 2 full seconds, then hitting Ivan Provorov as the defenseman streaked down the left side and went on to beat goalie Braden Holtby.
Voracek set up the third-period winner Saturday against the Sabres when he drifted from the crease to the right circle, received a pass from left wing Claude Giroux, waited for Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe to hedge toward him, then snapped a pass back to Giroux, who scored.
The captain expected exactly that to happen.
“He’s good at finding the open ice for himself,” Giroux said, “and, because of that, he’s able to make those plays.”
Voracek is the exemplar for the selflessness that makes the Flyers both deep and dangerous. His 56 points rank third on the team, but he’s one of six Flyers with at least 40. He couldn’t care less about who scores when, as long as the other team doesn’t score when he’s on the ice.
“You just try to be smart. Try to be in the right position,” Voracek said.
Everything else just falls into place.
Voracek won’t come close to the 81 points he had in 2014-15, his only All-Star season. He won’t touch the career-high 85 points he collected in 2017-18. But if he continues to play like he’s playing, and if the team follows his example, he’ll have a good chance to win a playoff series for the first time in eight years.
“He’s willing to sacrifice points to make sure he’s not giving up as much -- to be reliable defensively,” Couturier said.
The points will come in waves, as they have the past 10 games, his passes finding their targets more often than not.