ALONG THE half boards, he twisted with the puck one way, then reversed, eluding a checker, feeding the crease, collecting it when it sprung loose again, pumping a precise shot into the top corner of the net.

Anyone with an even passing interest in Edmonton's Connor McDavid is familiar with this kind of dazzle. What made it different this time was that McDavid was the eluded, duped by a fourth-line center who embodies the difference between this edition of the Flyers and those of years past.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is not one of the new Flyers, technically not part of the influx of talent that has made them a better and more competitive even-strength team than they were a season ago, or in recent years. But the arrival of such players, guys like Travis Konecny and Nick Cousins and now, Taylor Leier, has reshuffled and reslotted roles, emboldening second-year coach Dave Hakstol to throw out his fourth line nearly every time Edmonton's explosive first line hit the ice in Thursday night's 6-5 Flyers victory.

So there was Bellemare taking the opening faceoff against McDavid and Edmonton's first line, and there he was again, spinning McDavid around to set up and score the second of three goals the Flyers scored in a 72-second span of the second period - his first goal of the year.

And there he was the very next shift, poking it from McDavid as the Oilers' 19-yar-old captain, in just his second season, attempted to maneuver past the 31-year-old Frenchman along his own blue line, as if handing him his business card.

"It was fun," he said.

Fun?

"Well, we won the game," Bellemare said. "So that's why it was fun. Everybody knows what kind of player he is. What kind of speed he brings to the table. I just tried to be as close as possible to him. Try to be annoying and cut off his speed when I can. I didn't make a big fool of myself. So that was good."

To be sure, McDavid had his victories, stealing the puck from Andrew MacDonald a few minutes after Bellemare scored his goal; later, setting up a shorthanded tying goal after eluding the Flyers' defenseman and Bellemare. To be sure, Bellemare was no shutdown ace Thursday night, although a rare Steve Mason off night, which harkened back to the start of this season, played a significant part in McDavid's goal and assist. What struck you, though, was the evenness in the one-on-one battles between the Flyers' checking center and McDavid, and what that could translate to come playoff time.

It struck you because it underlined what should be a qualitative difference between this Flyers team and the ones from the recent past. They are deep, deep enough to allow their skill players to be skill players, deep enough to use their fourth line to play one of the league's most prolific ones to a standstill, deep enough that five-on-five play is now something to look forward to, not shield your eyes from.

"Obviously it's a big boost in your confidence when the coach wants you playing against one of the best players in the world," Bellemare said. He speaks from a recent base of knowledge in that regard, playing an integral - and prolific role - for the surprising European team that grinded its way to the finals against Canada at the World Cup.

"At the Worlds, he was playing against so many good players," said Flyers captain Claude Giroux. "He's always been confident defensively. But he was our best player tonight."

The Oilers entered the game with the league's best road record, and played that way. Twice they took two-goal leads over the home team. Twice, the Flyers rallied back and eclipsed them, the winning goal scored when Michael Raffl stormed down the right boards inside of the final two minutes, swooped in, and almost one-handed a roof shot over Oilers goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.

Raffl's surge came immediately after Bellemare and his breathless linemates - Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov - climbed back onto the bench as McDavid did the same, pounding his stick against the boards as he exited. The goal meant a very short rest, too, since McDavid was back out there after a timeout, trying desperately to tie it up as Bellemare's group tried as desperately to tie them up.

In all, Bellemare was out there for 23 shifts, more than Giroux, as many as Jake Voracek, 18 minutes and 11 seconds. McDavid played 24 shifts. With 10 seconds left, after one last mad frenzy in front of his net, Bellemare finally got possession of the puck, within inches of where he had scored his second-period goal. He fluttered the puck up into the neutral zone, forcing Edmonton's retreat, effectively putting a punctuation mark on this spirited and wildly entertaining game.

"He went out and he did his job," said the man who gave him that job, Dave Hakstol. "And he did a great job . . .

"Shift after shift."

@samdonnellon

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