Mind the Gap: Aggressive Defense Keys Flyers win over Los Angeles Kings
LOS ANGELES — A shade over three minutes remained on the clock and the Flyers were in full panic mode.
Three minutes seemed more like three hours.
They were clinging to a one-goal lead, one that seemed any-shot-now away from becoming a tie game. Steve Mason had been under siege for the better part of the second half of the game, ever since the Flyers were whistled back-to-back penalties midway through the second period.
They were already killing one inopportune penalty, inching closer toward full-strength and freedom.
Then R.J. Umberger flipped the puck out of play.
Confusion reigned, since the puck left the ice at the Flyers' bench. But there was no mistaking the delightful creak of the visitors penalty box door at Staples Center. An excitable 18,230 - the Kings' record 106th consecutive regular season sellout - roared with approval.
Braydon Coburn and Mark Streit pleaded with referee Justin St. Pierre.
They were already down a man. They were already on their heels. It isn't a delay-of-game penalty for a puck that enters the bench… right?
Wrong. NHL rule 63.2 clearly states a puck shot into the players' bench from the defending zone is not a penalty. However, a minor penalty will be assessed for a puck cleared over the glass behind the players' bench.
For a team that lost with 11.5 seconds left in regulation on Tuesday, had not won in 45 days on the road and endured questions about their coach being fired this week, crumbling against the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings would have been understandable. In fact, it would've been expected.
That the Flyers hung on for a 2-1 victory in Los Angeles did not only produce a collective sigh of relief among coaches, players and management.
It also changed the thinking, proof - for at least one day - that the Murphy's Law sideshow had come to an end.
"We needed a win like this, one we could battle through," Nick Schultz said. "We've had a lot of unfortunate bounces and unfortunate plays the last couple games. It feels nice to win a game."
As Claude Giroux said: "It's a relief to finally get two points."
The win snapped the Flyers' nine-game road losing streak, dating back to Oct. 22 in Pittsburgh. They were 1-8-2 in their previous 11 games before sweeping the season series with the Stanley Cup champs.
The Kings had not allowed a single goal in three of their previous four games.
"We seem to play better against better teams," Wayne Simmonds said. "It shows we can hang in there with the big boys. We know we can play better than we have this year. It's on all of us to go out there and do it."
As important as Saturday's end result was for the Flyers' psyche, it wouldn't have been possible without the first two periods. During the first half of the game, they strung together perhaps their best overall "team defense" sequence of the season.
The game itself was almost an identical mirror image of the Flyers' last trip to Staples Center some 10 months earlier. The Flyers were badly outshot in both games (38-16 on Saturday, 35-13 on Feb. 1) but relied on a compact defensive zone to assist Steve Mason.
Possible with help from back-pressuring forwards, the Flyers' defensemen were surprisingly aggressive at both blue lines. Their gap control between Los Angeles attackers was within a stick length.
Then, in front of Mason, the Flyers blocked 22 shots. It was just their fourth-highest total of the season, but it felt like more than that. Their season average is 13.8 blocks per game.
"We've been trying to work on that all year," Simmonds said. "We want to get back to the middle of the ice and fan out from there. If our first guy wasn't blocking it, our second or third guy was. We just played a harder and heavier game. We eliminated the mistakes we made in crucial parts of the game."
That is the defensive "structure" coach Craig Berube had been stressing over the past two weeks, as his team slid in the standings.
"The first half of the game, we did a great job in the neutral one and with our (high forward), not allowing them to come out with puck possession," Berube said. "I thought we battled hard, blocked a lot of shots. I thought the first half, we played really good hockey. Overall, the battle and competitiveness was there defensively."
Berube said on Friday the Flyers needed to learn to be comfortable winning 2-1 and 1-0 games. It isn't easy to be relaxed walking such a tight rope. The only way the slack will loosen, though, is by winning those type of games.
"We pulled a win out," Berube said. "It's one game. We've got to go play. Confidence is understanding structure, system, work ethic and competitiveness - all together. That comes with wins. That's (what) relieves pressure."
The Kings had not allowed a power play goal in five straight games (10-for-10) before Wayne Simmonds' second period goal against his former team … Claude Giroux scored his second even-strength goal of the season … The Flyers are now 8-1-1 at Staples Center since the building opened in 1999. They haven't lost in regulation in Los Angeles since 2003 … Former Flyers captain Mike Richards played just 13:24 and was barely noticeable in the game … The New York Post reported Saturday that the proposed sale of the Arizona Coyotes to Philadelphia businessman Andrew Barroway may be on the rocks.
On Twitter: @frank_seravalli