Matt Niskanen knows what it’s like to skate with an anvil hovering over him. Before Niskanen joined them in 2014, the Washington Capitals had finished first or second in their division six times over the previous seven years – and had never advanced beyond the playoffs’ second round. In his first three seasons with them, the Capitals twice won the Presidents’ Trophy, given to the team with the best record in the NHL … and still couldn’t get past the second round. They were a league-wide punch line, the consummate example of a team that could always be counted on to collapse when the games mattered most.
Then, in 2018, they won the Stanley Cup. Why weren’t they the same bunch of chokers anymore?
“We played a lot freer that year,” Niskanen – in his first season with the Flyers, still – was saying Wednesday. “I don’t think we had the same expectations because of the number of people we had lost from the previous year. Two years in a row, we won the Presidents’ Trophy by a mile, and those two years, we had pressure, and it affected guys negatively, I think. The next year, because of some of the veteran players we lost, we were a lot mentally freer. We won the division. We still had a really good team. We thought we could do it, obviously. But I don’t think the outside pressure was as high, and that was a benefit to a lot of guys.”
Too much pressure? Wilting under expectations? The Flyers haven’t had that problem lately. Before this season, before they snagged one of the top four spots in the Eastern Conference and a bye into the conference quarterfinals, they had reached the postseason just three times in seven years. Each of those times, it took them until the regular season’s final days just to qualify. And unlike 2010, when a deep and talented but underachieving group got into the playoffs on the season’s last day and rode that momentum to the Stanley Cup Final, those teams weren’t equipped to do much more than show up, take their spankings, and start their summer vacations. Which they did.
That recent history and the slapdash nature of the NHL’s COVID-19 tournament have the Flyers in an interesting position as the resumption of play approaches. Aside from the expected raggedness and imprecision over the first few games as the athletes play themselves back into shape, no one knows what these games will look like, which teams will excel and which will regress, or if this kinda-new season will in any way resemble the kinda-old one. Suppose a star player or two tests positive – even falsely – for the coronavirus. Suppose the four months away from the rink leads to more injuries, and to severer injuries. (It’s a safe bet there will be a higher number of hamstring/groin pulls/strains than usual.)
So those are worries, for every team. But the one thing the Flyers don’t have to worry about – compared to a few other teams, anyway – is the notion that they will face a heavy mental or emotional burden ahead of these playoffs. Their strong play this season was a breath of fresh, clean air, the franchise’s first in a long time.
If the 2017-18 Capitals loosened up and got younger by moving on from veterans such as Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, and Daniel Winnik, the 2019-20 Flyers benefited from adding proven players such as Niskanen, Kevin Hayes, and Justin Braun. These are not the Flyers of the mid-1990s, when any season with Eric Lindros and without a championship would be regarded as a failure, or the early 2000s, when Bob Clarke built teams so laden with aging veterans that each club seemed to have its own expiration date. They’re not the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning, who coasted to 62 victories and 128 points only to have the Columbus Blue Jackets sweep them in the playoffs’ first round. They’re not those Capitals teams from 2007 through 2017, from a decade of stick-squeezing and sphincter-tightening.
“We’re probably somewhere in between,” Niskanen said. “There’s a sense I get where we believe we can do something, but I don’t think there’s an outside cloud hanging over us where we have to win or bad things are going to happen to us. We’re in a great spot where we have the potential to make some noise, and who knows what can happen? We believe in each other. But there’s not an overbearing weight of pressure. That’s a nice, sweet spot to be in where we can see what we can do.
“There’s some benefit to it. Mentally, you just play free, and you play as hard as you can, and you play for each other. You’re not worried about anything except just trying to win. There are teams that, for some reason, the perception is this has to be their year, that they’ve got to win it now. That’s a lot to bear for players, and it takes a special, special group to handle that. You often see teams like that fail. That’s happened a number of times in recent years. Just look at the Presidents’ Trophy winners.”