Thanks to winning three of interim coach Scott Gordon’s first four games, the Flyers went into their holiday break feeling good about themselves.
When the season resumes Thursday in Florida, they get to face a Tampa Bay team that leads the NHL in wins (28), points (58), goals per game (4.08), goal differential (plus-48), and power-play success (28.9 percent).
In other words, Tampa (28-7-2) is the Stanley Cup favorite.
Thursday’s matchup will start a four-game road trip in which the Flyers will also visit the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, and Nashville Predators.
Because of their awful start, the Flyers have left themselves with little margin for error in the season’s last three-plus months. They are eight points out of a playoff spot.
There are some good signs, however. Consider:
The power play, which was in a hard-to-fathom 1-for-31 funk over 13 games, has scored goals in each of its last two contests. That’s the first time since Oct. 9-10 they have scored power-play goals in consecutive games.
Rookie Carter Hart (2.36 goals-against average in three games) and Michal Neuvirth, who was terrific in a 3-2 shootout win over the Rangers on Sunday, have stabilized an injured-plagued goalie situation. Neuvirth, who has played in just three games, finally appears healthy and ready to contribute.
The much-maligned penalty kill has been successful on 16 of its last 17 attempts over the last six games.
It’s a small sample size, but the Flyers (15-16-4) are playing a cleaner game, with fewer turnovers and more focus, since Gordon replaced Dave Hakstol. That has helped them register their last three wins even though they scored three goals or fewer in each game. Before that, they had one win all season when they scored three or fewer goals.
“I think a lot of guys got their confidence back and we’re rolling now, so it feels good. The last couple games, we’ve really played a team game and we’ve played fast,” said center Nolan Patrick, who hasn’t scored a goal in 18 games but gave the Flyers the win Sunday with a shootout tally.
“Our guys have done a great job of not cheating the game,” Gordon said, “and when you do that, you give yourself a chance to win every night. I told them ... that’s something that’s got to be our identity – making sure we bring it every night.”
As a group, defenseman Travis Sanheim said, “We’ve come together a little better and we’re putting together more of a 60-minute effort.”
Because of a busy schedule and the holiday break, the Flyers have had only one full practice under Gordon since he was appointed Dec. 17.
“It was a tough week for everybody,” Gordon said of his players. ”Not just physically, but mentally. And to come in, new coach, new goaltender, the whole routine was thrown out of whack – whether it was the pregame skate or anything we touched on system-wise, or different drills at practice. And yet they responded with six points out of eight and were very close to having eight-for-eight. That obviously is encouraging as a coach to get that kind of attitude and that kind of effort.”
A gargantuan effort will be needed to beat Tampa, which scored a 6-5 overtime win over the host Flyers and goalie Cal Pickard (six goals allowed on 26 shots) on Nov. 17. In that game, the Flyers overcame a 5-1 third-period deficit. Each team had three power-play goals in the game.
Travis Konecny had eight shots in that game, and he had two of the Flyers' four goals in a stunning 6:04 span that tied the game at 5-all late in the third period.
Tampa is allowing 2.86 goals per game (13th in the NHL), while the Flyers are surrendering 3.57 (29th). … The Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov is second in the league with 57 points. … The Flyers don’t play at the Wells Fargo Center again until Jan. 3 against Carolina. ... The Flyers have seven prospects competing in the World Juniors, led by center Morgan Frost (Canada), 19, who has 58 points (20 goals, 38 assists) for Sault Ste. Marie in in the Ontario Hockey League this season. Joel Farabee, Jay O’Brien, Noah Cates, and Jack St. Ivany are Flyers prospects competing for the U.S., while Samuel Ersson and Adam Ginning are competing for Sweden. Ersson, a goalie selected in the fifth round last June, has played impressively for Vasteras IK in Sweden, compiling a 14-3 record, a 1.81 GAA, and a .941 save percentage.