The mask is off. Long before he let us see his tearful frustration over injury and elimination Sunday, Ivan Provorov decided it was time to let us in. Months before that final game, which he tried to play effectively despite a Grade 3 tear of an AC joint, Provorov had begun to embrace the role he once felt uneasy with, to share, to speak, to stand up and be accounted for.
"I can't really come in my first year and over talk the older guys and the guys who have been here for a long time,'' he was saying after meeting with the Flyers' brass Wednesday at Skate Zone in Voorhees, "but I think over time I'll definitely talk more and lead more in the locker room.''
The ledger after this season says much. His 17 goals were tied for most by a defenseman in the league. His 41 points were 11 more than he had as a careful-to-a-fault rookie. His minutes played, more than 30 in Game 5, averaged 24 for the regular season.
They were hard minutes, too, pitted against that night's best line, best power play. He never blinked. "I think he's like 35, really,'' Shayne Gostisbehere said Wednesday, echoing a recurring assessment he and his teammates have made almost since Provorov joined this team as a 19-year-old in 2016 and played all 82 regular-season games.
But he was only 35 on the ice. Inside the room, he was reluctant to offer much insight into his preparation, thought process, or his team's struggle with consistency. If he could, he shed his equipment quickly and receded to the large regions of the practice facility and Wells Fargo Center that are off-limits to the media.
As this season bumped its way through, that changed. He played all 82 games again this season and six in the playoffs, the last one with his left arm hanging off his shoulder by a thread, eventually going numb in that all-defining third period Sunday, when the defending Stanley Cup champions explained in no uncertain terms to their upstart neighbors what having another gear is all about.
The Flyers will get that gear someday soon. Provorov is a big reason I believe that, as are Travis Konecny and Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere, and even the kids down on the farm. You can feel this team shifting. So much like the Phillies before 2007, they are an evolving team learning how to win, figuring out what pieces simply need other pieces to emerge as winners, and what pieces need to be sold off or discarded for that to happen.
Remember when Pat Gillick traded away all-star outfielder Bobby Abreu in midsummer of 2006? "I always felt Bobby was a very, very good player,'' Gillick said years later on the eve of his Hall of Fame induction in 2011. "But I thought that Bobby kind of set the tone for the club a little bit. He is not really for me a high-energy player, and so consequently I think the guys on the club, from a respect standpoint kind of played to the level …
"And so consequently, I thought that probably we had to change the energy level. When we made that deal I was hoping that [Chase] Utley and [Jimmy] Rollins and [Shane] Victorino, their personality, would emerge … and that's kind of what happened."
Hockey players are notoriously loyal to each other, and so there was no roll call Wednesday when Provorov and his mates were asked what was needed to get over the hump. But the team's mercurial play, the mistakes of veterans being at the root of so many close losses – especially on defense – well, it all suggests this team needs a good offseason tinkering, and at least a shuffling of the veteran core.
Provorov began this year reluctant to offer much insight into his preparation, thought process, or his team's struggle with consistency. He ended it as one of the team's more honest leaders, sometimes brutally so. He blamed himself after Sunday's loss, not disclosing that he had no feeling in his left shoulder when the third period began.
"He's a warrior,'' Andrew MacDonald said. "Everyone in here knows it and respects the hell out of him."
I wrote the first day I met him that I thought he was future captain material. That day is not upon us, and the Flyers have made too many mistakes in that regard, giving the "C" to players who were still too much in search of themselves to lead a team of players older and younger. But Provorov's final game of this season — warts, tears, all of it — will serve as currency for him moving forward. He's a special player, for sure, but I think we are all going to find out in the years to come that he's pretty special as a person, too.