Scott Gordon loves his New England Patriots.
It’s one of the few flaws I can find in the guy 35 games into his tenure as the Philadelphia Flyers’ interim head coach.
But even that comes with a caveat, because his passion for his hometown football team has supplied just another tool in the impressive belt he has employed to fix your hometown hockey team.
"I’ll say to players throughout the year, ‘Who is Tom Brady’s favorite receiver?’ " Gordon was saying after practice Tuesday. "You know who it is?"
"Depends on the year," I said.
It was not the answer he was looking for.
“Doesn’t depend on the year,” he said. "It’s who’s open. And I only say that because I’ve heard that conversation through broadcasters. Why does the guy who got one catch in a game, why did he throw it to him that time instead of [Julian] Edelman all the time, or Randy Moss, or whoever it was that year? Obviously those are the guys who get open more often, but if they’re not, he finds that other option.
"You can only do that if you’re looking for all the options."
Entering yet another crucial showdown Wednesday with a Metropolitan Division team above them in the standings, the Flyers host the first-place Washington Capitals minus playmaking forward Jake Voracek (lower-body injury), and possibly without Nolan Patrick, who blocked a puck with the side of his head in Sunday’s 4-1 victory over the Islanders.
That gave the Flyers a 16-3-2 record under Gordon since a Jan. 14 victory over Minnesota, since a 4-8-2 early start under Gordon that left local fans singing "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," as they tapped their collective toes awaiting the end of the season when an earnest courtship of former Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville could begin.
Gordon has since muddled that emotion as he has tidied up the mess that used to muck up the front of the Flyers’ net.
"In the beginning of the season it seemed the puck bounced in front of the net, and every time it found their guy and back into the net," defenseman Robert Hagg said. "Now it feels like it bounces to our guys. Because there’s four or five guys in front of the net. That, to me, has been the biggest difference. "
It’s just one of a number of system changes that Gordon has installed over those 35 games, leaning heavily on video to offset the lack of practice time afforded him. The Flyers seek to box up the front of the net at the expense of allowing more room at the edges, hoping to limit the number and quality of shots.
"That’s something Gordo has really stressed," said Scott Laughton. "Having five guys around the net and not getting too spread out. So when they do get a chance, they’re not getting a second or third crack at it. I think we’ve done a good job at that."
They have also done a much better job of denying entry into their zone, lately employing a 1-3-1 forecheck that seeks to slow down faster teams like the Islanders and Canadiens. Islanders coach Barry Trotz praised the discipline the Flyers had in employing that against his team during the second half of Sunday’s game, although Gordon said Tuesday that the home team’s frustration after falling behind 4-0 contributed to that.
It helps, too, that Gordon took over a desperate and mentally beaten-down team willing to do almost anything. It helps that his goaltending, whether it was rookie Carter Hart or now Brian Elliott, has stabilized and at times stood out. But it has still been impressive to watch, as players move up and down the lineup almost by the game, defense pairings switch up almost as regularly, and secondary players step into primary roles due to injuries, a suspension, and a major trade.
And now, two critical injuries at a critical time of the season. If Patrick can’t go, Gordon said he would use just 11 forwards. Again.
"It’s a good challenge for a lot of guys to step up in a role," said Laughton. "It’s the same thing we had to do in Long Island. Guys have to play more minutes and play harder minutes against top guys. It will be a challenge, but if we play good team defense and work our way out of the zone, I think we’ll be all right."
That, of course, requires finding open receivers.
"Taking multiple snapshots," Gordon called it Tuesday, recalling a conversation he had with Hagg earlier in the day. "I think the important piece is the consistency with system play. If everybody’s in the right position, it shouldn’t matter who is on the ice. Obviously there is some chemistry that guys develop over the course of the year. But given that we’ve got some injuries, we’ve got to adjust on the fly here."