With a 56-game schedule approved Sunday, the Flyers and teams in the new East Division will play one another eight times this season. They will learn their opponents’ tendencies and build an intense dislike for one another — even if fans are not allowed in buildings to incite the teams.
Eight games against one another, compared with the usual four games, can create a growing sense of animosity that is, well, healthy for the rivalries.
That’s one good thing to come out of another pandemic-altered season.
The Flyers and cross-state Pittsburgh Penguins have always had extra intensity in their games. Now, with teams playing only division opponents during a season that will start Jan. 13, the emotions will spread to other rivals.
It’s going to create “a lot of great games,” Flyers center Kevin Hayes said the other night. “A lot of carryover will occur within each game.”
The four divisions will have a new look and will use the names East, West, Central, and North for one season. Teams in three of the divisions will play one another eight times, while the Canadian teams, in the North, will meet each other nine or 10 times. The Flyers will be in a division with Pittsburgh, Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Washington.
Hayes, whose Flyers had the NHL’s sixth-best record last season and won their first playoff series since 2012, said the players are “excited to get back at it and create another winning culture. We have the right guys in the room to lead the way. And playing the same teams over and over again will bring out the best in our guys because the game plans are not going to change that much.”
Still, facing a team eight times is child’s play when compared with how the NHL looked just before the Flyers and five other teams joined the league in the Great Expansion of 1967-68.
Before the NHL doubled its size from six to 12 teams in 1967-68, the players knew a thing or two or 100 about their opponents. That’s because they played each other a staggering 14 times in a 70-game regular season. Fourteen.
Bernie Parent was a member of the Boston Bruins during those crazy schedules in the 1960s.
“I’m always looking at the positive side,” Parent said. “Back then, it forced you to concentrate on the mistakes you were making and to make adjustments the next time [you played that team], and things got better.”
Parent, who led the Flyers to Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 and became a Hall of Fame goaltender, thinks goalies and defensemen benefit the most when they play a team so many times.
“You talk to your defensemen and discuss how to position yourself in certain situations against that team, and it helps you be in the right position to make the save,” he said.
Playing devil’s advocate: But what about the forwards who learn the tendencies of the defense and the goaltender?
“I understand where you’re coming from,” Parent said, “but at the same time, I always told the defensemen, ‘Let’s play a style that is successful against those guys.’ And instead of us adjusting to those guys, let them adjust to us. If I give a [forward] about four inches on the left-hand side above my shoulder and the guy hits it, God bless him. I’ll go and hug him.”
Parent let out a hearty laugh, just like he did this week as he donned a Santa Claus suit and took photos with guests to help benefit the Ed Snider Youth Foundation.
“But most of the time, they’ll hit me with the shot or miss the net,” he added.
The conversation drifted to one of Parent’s favorite topics, Carter Hart, the current Flyers goalie. In his first full season, Hart, then 21, had the league’s eighth-best goals-against average, at 2.42.
“He’s a young kid and there’s no ceiling,” Parent said. “Every year as you gain more experience you get better. As a goalie, I learned there’s always room for improvement. They’re going to win a Cup with him. He’s smart and a heck of a goalie.”
And he should benefit from playing only division rivals. Hart has a 13-6-1 career record against the seven opponents on the Flyers’ schedule.