WHEN CRAIG Berube replaced Peter Laviolette three games into the 2013-14 season, the Flyers were a mess. After failing to make the playoffs in the lockout-shortened previous season, they had lost their first three games of the new season and looked absolutely awful doing so.
Paul Holmgren said it was a "gut" decision, canning a coach who had guided the team to a Stanley Cup finals appearance three seasons before. Owner Ed Snider said he had never seen his team have a worse preseason. And Berube, Laviolette's assistant promoted to the top job, promised discipline, better five-on-five play, and a more conscientious effort by players to defend their own goal than was the perceived philosophy of his predecessor.
Sixteen months have passed since that fateful day, and Laviolette returns to Philadelphia today with a first-place Nashville Predators team that possesses the following characteristics:
The players defend their net well. They play a mean five-on-five game. They are among the NHL's least penalized teams.
And the Flyers? They've allowed 33 more goals than Nashville and scored 22 fewer, and their five-on-five game has been so lopsidedly unfavorable recently - and really, for much of the last three seasons - that yesterday Berube finally broke up longtime linemates Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.
"Broken up," Giroux quipped. "Sounds pretty sad."
It is, a little, since the two have played together dating back to - well, Laviolette.
Voracek wasn't even quite sure which pairing was longer, the one with his longtime girlfriend or the one with Giroux.
"I think . . . it's my girlfriend," he said. "But 'G' was like my second girlfriend, so . . . "
Voracek will play with Sean Couturier and Matt Read. Giroux will center a line with Michael Raffl on the left and Wayne Simmonds returning to his more familiar right wing, something he was clearly excited about. The move is significant for a coach who had resisted it during the Flyers' modest points surge. Not winning streak, mind you, for their 3-2 shootout loss to Buffalo, the worst team in the league, was their fourth defeat in five games.
Equally alarming was that Buffalo outscored them, five-on-five, 2-1, continuing a very un-playoff-caliber-worthy trend. Before last night's games, the Flyers ranked 17th in five-on-five play with a 1.01 ratio. And while Giroux pointed out that meant they had still outscored foes at even strength, it underlines the lack of offensive support the role players have supplied this season.
Nashville is atop the league in that stat, with a healthy 1.39. Then again, the Predators are atop the league in points total, too, which begs the question, retroactive to 16 months ago:
Was it the coach, or the players? The system, or the effort?
Here's Berube back then: "I definitely feel like I can turn it around. Put some new systems in place . . . I have 100 percent belief in every player on this team."
Here's Berube yesterday: "We made big strides last year and there were some changes over the summer. But . . . I think we're becoming a more well-rounded team. Defensively and offensively. I still think that, with the defensive responsibilities we are demanding here, asking our players to play 200-foot hockey, we're still finding our way offensively. It's a hard thing to do, playing both ends of the ice. And it's a hard thing to teach and get across to players.
"We're still working on producing five-on-five without losing defensive responsibilities. It takes time to reverse it all and to get that whole game down. I think it's coming but we've still got work to do. We've got to find ways to score more five-on-five goals."
When Laviolette was fired, the lack of productivity from prized free-agent acquisition Vinny Lecavalier was one factor cited. Yesterday, Berube announced that Zac Rinaldo would replace Lecavalier on the fourth line for today's game against the Predators. Andrew MacDonald, who missed four games as a healthy scratch (one to attend his grandmother's funeral), will be reinserted on defense, with Luke Schenn sitting out.
Backup goaltender Rob Zepp got plenty of action at practice and will likely play one of the back-to-back home games this weekend. Craig Berube was noncommittal. Zepp said the injury that sidelined him at Lehigh Valley, thought to be a twist of his right ankle, won't affect his play . . . As part of the Make-a-Wish experience, Voracek and several Flyers skated around after practice with 11-year-old Tony Campisi, of Mechanicsburg, Pa. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Campisi will drive to today's game with Voracek, then enter as if he were one of the players. Then he and his family will witness warmups in the penalty box before heading to Voracek's luxury box. And after the game, they will meet with the Flyers in their dressing room. Oh, yeah, the only thing the kid asked for was to go to a game and sit in a luxury box. Voracek added the rest of it. Pure class.