SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Flyers' goals-against average has floated between awful and "Do-you-think-we-should-call-that Bryzgalov guy?" for most of the season's first month.
The goaltenders unquestionably deserve lots of the blame, but right winger Wayne Simmonds pointed his finger elsewhere the other day.
"We were playing awful," Simmonds said about the rest of the team. "We were chasing on the outside, giving everything up on the inside. When you get Grade-A scoring opportunities against you time after time after time, there's only so much a goalie can do."
In recent games, the defense has tightened in front of Brian Elliott, and the 33-year-old goalie has looked more mobile as he gets back into shape following abdominal surgery last February and hip surgery after the season.
"He's getting sharper," general manager Ron Hextall said, mindful Elliott had a 2.20 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in his last five games before Saturday. "… He's certainly trending in the right direction."
The same can be said for the defense, which has improved since coach Dave Hakstol broke up the top pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere.
In their next five games, the Flyers went 3-2 and, excluding empty-netters, allowed just 2.2 goals per game (about half of their average before that stretch) when Elliott was in the nets behind pairings that mostly looked like this: Provorov and Robert Hagg; Gostisbehere and Christian Folin; and Radko Gudas and Travis Sanheim.
The Provorov-Gostisbehere pairing worked well last season but was unproductive early this year. Hagg is more defensive-minded than the puck-moving Gostisbehere, and putting him on the top unit has enabled Provorov to take more offensive chances. Provorov had goals in the first two games of the Flyers' current Western swing.
Hakstol likes what he has seen from all three pairs. As for the Gostisbehere-Folin duo, "I see the two of them building confidence together, building chemistry," he said. "It's nice to have the righty-lefty pair, as long as Ghost can make that adjustment offensively to being on the left side. You've got a heavy guy [Folin] who defends and does the two-way work, along with Ghost, and we all know his dynamic abilities."
Provorov, the team's best all-around defenseman, made some uncharacteristic stickhandling and coverage mistakes in the season's first few weeks, but his game has shown marked improvement since he was paired with Hagg.
"I thought Provy's game the other night was as good and as steady as we've seen him," Hakstol said, referring to the Flyers' trip-opening 3-2 win Tuesday in Anaheim, "and I think that absolutely goes hand in hand with the play of Hagger. The two of them are building together and they're both doing a pretty good job. When you're drawing those type minutes against good lines each and every shift, that puts some stress on you, not only defensively but in a two-way sense. Both of those guys have handled it pretty well."
The solidifying of the defense — and the forwards being more responsible with their backchecking — has helped ease the burden on Elliott. In the first two games of the trip, most of the opponents' shots were from the perimeter.
"We're just playing as a group of five on the ice," Elliott said. "We always say the cliche, but that's what it is. It's everybody working hard for each other, changing at the right times, putting each other in good spots when they come out on the ice. That just adds up over 60 minutes to chances and good defense, and that's what wins hockey games."
If the Flyers are going to improve on last season's 98-point total, that style of play needs to become commonplace.
"Our forwards are coming back and helping, and we're really working hard," Elliott said. "That's why five guys have to defend. It doesn't matter who's back there. If you're on an island, there's going to be mistakes, so when we help each other, support each other, and are five to 10 feet away from each other for a quick pass to get it out of your zone, that's what adds up to wins and good defense."
Despite his recent improvement, and the team's, Elliott's goals-against average (3.10) and save percentage (.893) were still below par heading into Saturday.
The numbers don't mean much to him when he watches the replays and dissects his performances.
"You look at the games on the iPad and you're never as good as you thought you were and you're never as bad as you thought you were," he said, "so it's really just breaking things down and trusting that if you keep playing the way you can, the wins will come — and that's the only stat that matters, right?"