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Flyers playing better, and smarter

A strong stretch of games, including a four-point weekend against quality teams, have them back in the playoff hunt.

Jakub Voracek celebrates with his teammates against the Washington Capitals. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Jakub Voracek celebrates with his teammates against the Washington Capitals. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

STRUGGLING dressing rooms in hockey are filled with words about hope and belief.

Probability and percentages? These are dirty words, to be replaced quickly by pledges of effort and faith in each other.

So when Jakub Voracek was asked about his team's chances upon his return from the NHL All-Star break and said he had done the math and the math wasn't good, it could easily have been perceived as a white flag.

"We've got, what 45 points?" he said then. "To me, we're going to need 94, 95 points."

There were 35 games left. It took crunching the numbers to believe it was possible. But if you heard the inflection, you realized that the candid Czech was doing anything but surrendering.

It was really a calling out.

And a call to arms.

"We can do it," he said. "We've just got to keep the momentum from that Pittsburgh game. Keep going. Don't stop."

The Flyers had just skated into the All-Star break with one of their most spirited efforts, a 3-2, fight-filled victory over a Penguins team far ahead of them in the standings. You hoped it meant something, but there had already been a few of these faux watermarks during the season, only to be followed by efforts that seemed sloppy and effortless, and at times maddeningly dumb. They beat good teams and lost to trash, won two, lost two, fell hopelessly behind in the standings and created a vibe that even their eternally optimistic 82-year-old owner, Ed Snider, admitted yesterday didn't promote faith.

And yet here we are, a dozen games later, the Flyers a bona fide playoff contender, benefactors of a horrifying collapse in Boston and their own self-discovery. Their penalty kill, which has killed them for much of the season, is now a strength. Their power play is lethal. They have gone from a team that looks to pick off passes at midice to one that prevents them from being executed farther back, from one too willing to swap chances and punches to one that plays a heady, cost-benefit game. Yesterday, Zac Rinaldo chose to keep his gloves on and get sucker-punched in the face rather than risk putting his team at a disadvantage.

Playing it safe? Not safe, said captain Claude Giroux, for safe puts you on your heels and allows others to dictate to you. Safe steals from your own self-confidence, and from confidence in your teammates.

"Play smart," he said. "Play for each other."

They've been saying this forever, of course. But it's exactly how it has looked over much of their 8-1-4, rise-from-the-dead stretch, and it is how it looked for much of this image-boosting, four-point weekend. The winning goal in yesterday's 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals was the result of a series of small efforts like that, Chris Vande Velde pushing a puck to Voracek near midice, Voracek carrying it safely into the zone along the boards, and finally defenseman Michael Del Zotto taking a calculated risk that the assist leader would be looking for a trailer on the play - which he was.

So where was this even 6 weeks ago?

"It's pretty easy to watch the games from upstairs,'' Voracek said. "I watched a couple games from the press box and it looks easier than it is on the ice. Sometimes when you try too hard you overwork things and you are not in the right positions. Especially defensively. When you try to recover for somebody else and you're not doing your job some. Then something else opens up.

"Now you look at how we're coming up the ice together, how good defensively we're playing lately. We all knew it was going to happen eventually. We were just hoping it was going to happen sooner than 35, 40 games left in the season."

It is happening, instead, at the precise time that recent playoff successes have forged their identities, each night's game an act of desperation with little room for safe play and even less for stupid. On Saturday, several Predators pinned their loss on an inability to match that desperation, and there were similar comments made by the Caps before they boarded their train home yesterday.

The Flyers are a dangerous team to them right now, with a chance to be even more dangerous a month from now.

And if they do? I teased Voracek that he and his desperation math could become part of Flyers folklore, the way Mark Messier's kind of guarantee is in New York. "Messier? Me?'' he said. "Yeah, I'm only missing about seven Cups and about 2,000 points.''

There's that darn math again, creeping into what is shaping up to be quite the compelling narrative of belief and self-discovery.

"I know it was hard for you guys to believe then that we were going to sneak into the playoffs," Voracek said. "And, I mean, we're not there yet. But we are pretty close. We've got 22 games left. We can't let up now."

On Twitter: @samdonnellon