We told you this five months ago, when the Flyers punked the Capitals in Washington on March 4: The Flyers were a contender. Somehow, it remains true all this time later, after lockdown, and re-training camp, and introduction to life in Toronto’s NHL bubble. Somehow, the Flyers are virtually the same team: physical, selfless, defense-minded, willing to sacrifice their bodies and their statistics for the greater good of winning.
They were all of those things in Thursday’s 3-1 win over the Capitals in which the Caps fired a season-low 17 shots.
“Sometimes, when you have a layoff — even just a week, let alone four or five months — those are the little things that you really have to focus on,” said goaltender Brian Elliott. “I thought we did a really good job of that.”
They did a good job of that every time they won, before quarantine. The question was, could they resume ? Oh, yes.
They outplayed and beat the Bruins on Sunday, and the Bruins entered the restart far and away the top seed. They outplayed and beat the No. 5 seed Penguins in their exhibition game last week. They dominated the No. 3 seed Capitals.
The Flyers are for real. They can win the Stanley Cup. Now.
They’re deep, they’re focused, and they’re unflappable. Also, they have two good goaltenders; Elliott, who backs up bloodless, 21-year-old Carter Hart.
The Flyers entered the round robin as the No. 4 seed, and now they cannot finish worst than No. 2. If they beat the Lightning on Saturday and steal the top seed, there will be howls about how this format play to determine seeding was unfair. It is unfair; well, it is, and it isn’t. Because the Flyers are, in this moment, the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Arguably, they have been the best team in the East since their win Jan. 8 over the Capitals, which spurred the 21-6-1 run that includes wins over the Blues and Avalanche, the two best teams in the West; two wins over the Bruins; and, now, four wins over the Capitals. The Flyers have won 11 of their last 12 games.
Did the Bruins and Capitals look lethargic in the round robin? Yes. So what.
The Flyers beat the Capitals for the fourth time this season (4-0-1). They suffocated Alex Ovechkin, the greatest goal-scorer on the planet, who got off just two shots and remained goal-less and point-less in the teams’ five games this season, and they again did it on the backs of Selke Trophy finalist and top-line center Sean Couturier and Ivan Provorov, their best defenseman.
They did not waver from the defense-first style of first-year coach Alain Vigneault. Afterward, all four players who spoke — Couturier, goaltender Brian Elliott, playmaker and team leader Kevin Hayes, and Scott Laughton, who scored two goals — stressed the importance of defensive focus.
The other stuff — the magic, the chemistry, the commitment with which they played since Jan. 8 — it remains. Somehow, it all remains.
Hayes still finds the puck like a pig snuffing truffles, and his timing with Laughton and Travis Konecny remains eerie; he finished with three assists for the first time as a Flyer.
“I thought tonight,” he said, with a big shrug of his big shoulders, “even though we had a ton of offense, we did everything right defensively.”
Konecny, who led the team with 61 points in 66 games when COVID-19 ended the season, still looks like a breakout player in his first All Star season; his pass to Laughton that started the scoring was the sort of wondrous thing that cannot be taught. Vigneault is thrilled. Just ask him.
“I feel we’re coming along,” Vigneault said. “I don’t think that we’re quite there yet. I like that we’re trying to play the smart way.”
OK, he doesn’t sound thrilled, exactly, but what did you expect him to do? Leap in the air and click his heels?
Yes, his power play is 0-for-8, but his penalty kill is 7-for-7. Yes, it would be nice if he didn’t have to scratch $7 million left wing James van Riemsdyk, but rookie Joel Farabee “played well” in his place, Vigneault said. Yes, his top line of Couturier, Claude Giroux, and Jake Voracek has combined for one point in the restart, but he has four viable lines.
Alain Vigneault has a deep, dangerous, competent hockey club, and he knows it. He’s known it since early March.