The defensive numbers tell a large part of the story of why the Flyers are chasing a division title and not making golf reservations.
The goaltending has been better, but so have the coverage and discipline in front of Carter Hart and Brian Elliott. But there’s another contribution that the Flyers’ defensemen are making. One that not many people could have foreseen.
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The Flyers have been leading the league all year in fewest shots allowed. It was 28.5 per game entering the week. It’s a stat the Flyers have never led the league in. Been second a few times, but never first.
They’re also leading the league in goals scored by their defensemen. Thought this might just be a quirk, so we enlisted the expertise of Chris “Bundy” Therien, the NBC Sports Philadelphia analyst who spent 11 years playing the position. Bundy knows defense.
“It’s not a fluke," Therien said. “Every team wants their defensemen to get up the ice, and the Flyers have those guys. Even guys like Justin Braun and Robert Hagg [can contribute]. It’s like getting scoring from a third or fourth line.”
The Flyers have gotten 42 goals from their blueliners, including 11 from Ivan Provorov and eight each from Matt Niskanen and Travis Sanheim.
Provorov’s seven power-play goals lead NHL defensemen. But while the PP is the easiest place to pick up goals, it’s notable that Flyers defensemen have scored 28 of their 42 goals at even strength, with Niskanen picking up a shorthanded tally a month ago in Detroit.
“I didn’t exactly know what to expect” from the defense, first-year coach Alain Vigneault said. “Provy, he’s a young D. Travis, same thing. [Phil] Myers also. But Nisky, I knew what we were going to get. I knew we were going to get second power-play minutes.”
Niskanen scored his fourth power-play goal of the season on Sunday, a modest number that set a career high for the 13-year veteran.
Just like fewest shots allowed, the Flyers have never led the league in total goals by their defensemen. They were second twice, the last time in 1991-92 when the immortal Steve Duchesne pumped in 18.
“Those are two really good things to be leading the league in at this time of the year,” Therien said.
This year’s defense is on pace for 53 goals, which would be just the second time in the last 25 years the Flyers have gotten 50 out of their blueliners. The other was two years ago when Provorov had a career-best 17 and Shayne Gostisbehere 13. Gostisbehere, his season plagued by a knee injury, has five goals in 41 games. Both are career lows.
The NHL’s shots-allowed database goes back to 1997-98. According to it, only two teams have led the league in both goals by defensemen and fewest shots allowed in the same season. The 2015-16 Predators reached the second round of the playoffs. The 2009-10 Blackhawks beat the Flyers to win the Stanley Cup.
“You’ve seen teams’ [defensemen] score a ton of goals,” Therien said. “But what are they giving up on the other end?”
One final variable to the shots-allowed statistic is that the Flyers are in the bottom three in blocked shots. It’s not as if the defensemen are canceling out shots taken by opponents. They’re simply not permitting them.
Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jake Voracek are the familiar faces who get the attention, but the retooled defense is pulling a Zamboni’s-worth of its weight, as well. The playoffs can’t get here soon enough for Therien, who made three deep postseason runs with the Flyers and likes what he’s seeing. The Flyers will take a season-best six-game winning streak into Washington on Wednesday.
“This is as good as I’ve seen this core group play in a long time," Therien said. “I wish there were [only] three or four games left.”
Some NHL trivia (since 1967-68):
* Most goals by any NHL team’s defensemen: 94, 1992-93 Capitals (Kevin Hatcher 34, Al Iafrate 25, Sylvain Cote 21 were the leaders). Flyers broadcaster Keith Jones, a winger on that team, had 12 goals that year.
* Most goals by a Flyers defense in a single season: 59 in 1991-92 (Steve Duchesne 18, Kerry Huffman 14, Mark Howe 7, Terry Carkner 4, Kjell Samuelsson 4, Garry Galley 3, Corey Foster 3, Brian Benning 2, Gord Murphy 2, Dan Kordic 1, Jiri Latal 1.) Can’t say I remember Corey Foster.
* Most goals in a season by a defenseman: 48, Paul Coffey in 1985-86. Coffey (twice), Bobby Orr and Dit Clapper are the only defensemen with 40 in a season. Dit happens.
* Most goals in a season by a Flyers defenseman: 24, Mark Howe in 1985-86. Bob Dailey (21 in 1977-78) and Howe (20 in 1982-83) round out the top 3.
* Most goals in a career by a defenseman: 410, Ray Bourque. He’s followed by Paul Coffey (396), Al MacInnis (340), Phil Housley (338), and Denis Potvin (310).
* Most goals in a career by a Flyers defenseman: 138, Mark Howe. He’s followed by Eric Desjardins (93), Tom Bladon (67), Behn Wilson (59), Bob Dailey (56), and Shayne Gostisbehere (51).
Thursday: vs. Carolina, 7 p.m. (NBCSP). 'Canes have lost three straight (one in overtime) since the Zamboni driver beat Toronto.
Saturday: vs. Buffalo, 7 p.m. (NBCSP). The Sabres also have lost three in a row and are a $20 cab ride away from the playoffs.
Tuesday, March 10: vs. Boston, 7 p.m. (NBCSP). Let’s see what the Bruins do in their two games this week against Tampa Bay before handing them the No. 1 seed in the East.
Thursday, March 12: at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. (NBCSP). The Flyers have hung with the Lightning, but have lost both meetings.
Tomorrow: vs. Flyers, 7 p.m. (NBCSN). Will be looking for revenge after the Flyers took 'em to the woodshed in their last meeting.
Thursday: at N.Y. Rangers, 7 p.m. Split their first two meetings, but haven’t played since November.
Saturday: at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. (NHLN). For those at the Flower Show, the Field House at 12th & Filbert is a decent spot to sneak away for an update. Chrysanthemums and cross checks. Sounds like a perfect Saturday to me.
Monday: at Buffalo, 7 p.m. Hammered the Sabres, 6-1, back in November, their only meeting thus far.
Thursday, March 12: at Detroit, 7 p.m. This should be another layup.
Today’s question was sent through Twitter to colleague Sam Carchidi by @reischy46.
Question: Sam, who do you see playing [goalie] on Wednesday. Big game, but do you want to play Hart that often coming back from injury?
Answer: Hart. He’s healthy and it will be the third night between games. Since returning from an abdominal strain, Hart is 7-1 with a 2.14 GAA and .923 save percentage.