Flyers' special teams face special test
Vancouver is in the top 15 in power-play goals and penalty killing, while Flyers are slumping in both areas.
VANCOUVER - About midway through every Flyers practice, there's a brief break while some players change their uniform color from that of their regular linemates to that of their special-teams unit.
Sunday's practice at the University of British Columbia was no different.
Maybe the emphasis and importance of that part of practice was elevated, though, because the recipe for why the Flyers are lacking in the scoring department - and in turn, the winning column - lies right in their special teams.
The team that ranked 25th in even-strength goals (149) last season made up for it with 60 goals on the power play, good for a tie for second in the league, just more than 40 percent of the Flyers' total goal output.
The Flyers, who take on the Vancouver Canucks Monday night, tied for second-to-last in the league with a two-goals-per-game average, have just 16 even-strength goals through their first 10 games. They've tacked on four power-play goals, equaling just 20 percent of their total output.
Their current scoring rate on the power play is just 12.5 percent, down from last season's 23.4 percent. Sure, the sample size isn't all that large just yet, but it's an alarming rate for a team that relied so much on power-play scoring last year.
The Flyers (4-4-2) have gone 0-for-10 on the power play in their last four games - a stretch that has produced a 1-2-1 record - since Claude Giroux beat Boston with an overtime power-play goal on Oct. 21.
The power-play unit, coached by assistant Joe Mullen, has largely been the same for the last few seasons. Wayne Simmonds, who plays the role of the big body in front of the net, was saying last week that teams might have started checking them a little differently.
"Obviously it hasn't been good enough," winger Jake Voracek said of the power-play unit after Sunday's practice. "We haven't made the difference in the game. It's an experienced group on that PP. We were, what, top five in the last four seasons? I mean, it's something we just have to pull through."
In Thursday's game against New Jersey, the Flyers started the third period in a tie game with a power play. They didn't score, and two minutes later the Devils put the game out of reach.
It also didn't help they allowed two goals while on the penalty kill.
"Specialty teams are a big part of the game, not only for scoring goals but also for getting the momentum," said defenseman Mark Streit, who quarterbacks the power-play unit on the blue line.
The Flyers' penalty kill, which ranks 23rd in the league, has surrendered a goal in five straight games. So the struggles in special teams aren't just offensively.
"There's a lot of things that are not clicking right now for us," general manager Ron Hextall said. "I think the special teams, we're losing that battle. That's a big one. That's a huge one. Even if you tie that battle, it usually gives you a lot better chance to win. If you win it, obviously you have a good chance to win. That's one that's hurting us right now."
"We need to correct it soon here."
Monday against Vancouver - a top-15 unit in each special-teams category - would be a good place to start.
The Flyers recalled winger Chris Conner from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Conner fills the maximum 23-man roster with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (lower-body injury) on injured reserve. Ron Hextall said Bellemare's timetable remains around two weeks, and he's not yet skating.
Conner, who signed a two-way deal on July 1, has four goals and four assists for eight points in eight games for the Phantoms. His $575,000 salary-cap hit was nearly all the Flyers could afford to call up, given their approximate $673,000 in space before the move.
Conner, 31, a 5-8 winger who has played mostly left wing this year, is a 10-year professional with NHL experience playing with Dallas, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Arizona and Washington. Last year he had 52 points in 61 games for the AHL's Hershey Bears. He had five points in 19 games while playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013-14.
It's unlikely he will play Monday, but his addition provides the Flyers with some depth for the road trip.
Sean Couturier (concussion) was not yet with the Flyers in Vancouver Sunday. Ron Hextall said he was hopeful Couturier could join the team Monday, but he's not yet ready to play . . . The Flyers begin a stretch of four games in six days across Western Canada with a matchup against the Canucks (5-2-4). The trip continues Tuesday in Edmonton before moving on to Calgary Thursday and Winnipeg Friday . . . Vincent Lecavalier and R.J. Umberger swapped lines in practice Sunday, with Lecavalier skating alongside Sam Gagner and Brayden Schenn while Umberger moved to the fourth line with Ryan White and Chris VandeVelde . . . Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Michael Raffl were reunited as a line in practice . . . Voracek's 10-game goal drought to open a season is one shy of his career worst of 11, which started his 2010-11 season in Columbus.