WASHINGTON — Thirty-three games in 67 days for the Flyers, including a slew of back-to-back intra-division games, began Wednesday night in Washington. They are sure to jumble the standings and challenge both the Flyers' depth and mettle.
"It's basically our season," Sean Couturier said after Wednesday's morning skate. "We have a lot of games against divisional opponents. If you have a good record against your own division there's a good chance you'll be in a playoff spot."
That the Flyers are in a spot to challenge for a playoff spot was a mettle test all in itself, rallying from a 10- game losing streak in late November to posting a 16-6-1 record since.
A key factor in that surge, goaltender Brian Elliott, remains sidelined with a leg injury and his replacement, Michal Neuvirth, is coming off an illness and a poor performance in the 5-1 loss to Tampa Bay that immediately preceded the all-star break. Elliott is not with the team, and 25-year-old Alex Lyon is expected to get his first NHL start when the Flyers play in New Jersey Thursday night.
Not exactly the way you want to start out. But that's just the point, said Couturier.
"You can't think too far ahead," said the centerman, whose 26 goals leads the Flyers. "You might lose two in a row and feel you're out of the picture and then win two in a row and you're right back in it."
November's swoon emphasized that. But he didn't need to be taught it. Barely 25, Couturier has seen a lot of ups and downs in his seven seasons as a Flyer, been part of exhilarating runs to the playoffs and last year's quasi-collapse. He will not need to be reminded of this, nor will Claude Giroux, or Jake Voracek, or Wayne Simmonds. But assuredly, he will be one of the veteran voices preaching it to the younger players being infused into this team.
Flyers coach Dave Hakstol knew he was entering a whole new world when he left the University of North Dakota three years ago for the pros.
"The difficulty of consistency in those imperfect situations for players is the big challenge," Hakstol was saying after Wednesday's skate. "There's going to be nights where as a team you're not as healthy as you want to be. You're not as rested as you want to be. And you haven't had as much practice time as you want. You have to find a way to be good and efficient and go out and play a good team game. And I think that's maybe oversimplified, but that's real important as you go through a busy schedule the way every team in the league is going to go through over the next two months."
College schedules go from weekend to weekend. The American Hockey League too, rarely plays weekday games, although as rookie Robert Hagg noted Wednesday, those three-games-in-three-days affairs are primers for what he's about to experience at this level.
"It prepares you for how you've got to be as a pro," said the Flyers defenseman, who turns 23 in a week. "You might go out there and not feel great. But you've still got to do the job."
Hagg's job requires hitting people. A lot. He leads the NHL in hits with 171 and is second among rookies in average time on ice (18:45) — a pace that will be challenged over the next two months.
"I don't know," he answered when asked if 33 games in 67 days would grind him down. "We'll see, I guess. I don't think about it much, I just try to go out and play my game, which is physical.