Subtle changes helped turn around Flyers' season and make hockey fun again
Buoyed by subtle changes and a jolt of confidence, the Flyers have climbed back into the playoff hunt with a stunning turnaround. Can they keep it up?
Stronger third periods. A tweak in the defensive system. More discipline and better scoring balance.
Oh, and quite simply, a return of confidence.
Put it all together and you have the reasons the Flyers made the NHL's biggest in-season turnaround in 12 years.
They became the fifth team in NHL history to lose 10 straight and then immediately win five in a row — and the first team to do it since San Jose in 2005. They take that winning streak into Saturday night's matchup against Dallas.
"We're getting bounces we weren't getting," goalie Brian Elliott said, "and I think we're working really hard to get those."
The biggest difference between the losing and winning streaks has been the Flyers' ability to finish off games.
They squandered many late leads during their skid, getting outscored by a 14-2 margin after the second period in those 10 games.
Conversely, they outscored opponents in the third period, 7-1, in the next five games — all wins.
"I think it's just us bearing down. We're realizing the situation and not trying to make the extra play when we don't have to," defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. "We're making the right decisions and playing with lots of confidence."
"When you're losing, everything comes like a snowball," said right winger Jake Voracek, one of the NHL's leading scorers. "We don't feel comfortable to go to the third period with a two-goal lead. Then we get scored on and it's like, 'Here we go again.' "
A streak-ending 5-2 win in Calgary eased the burden and started to make hockey fun again.
"When you get that one out of the way, you go into the third period believing you can shut it down and maybe score one more," Voracek said. "Mostly it's about confidence and the mindset of the players."
A 1-2-2 defensive alignment, which the Flyers starting using at the beginning of their winning streak, has clogged the neutral zone and reduced the number of odd-man rushes they allowed when playing a 1-3-1 left-wing lock.
"I think it's a more passive system," Gostisbehere said of the new look, which they tweaked with a brief two-man forecheck in Thursday's 2-1 win over Buffalo. "You don't assert yourself as much as with a weak-side lock. You're not as aggressive. You're sitting back and make the play come to you, so you feed off of their mistakes rather than having a breakdown in coverage and then you're screwed."
"Now if we make a mistake, we still have numbers back there," Voracek said. "I think that's the biggest difference. With a 1-3-1, if you make a mistake, it was dangerous and they had a scoring chance out of it."
The new system has also helped generate more offense.
"It's easier for our d-men to break out pucks, and our neutral zone is way better, with quick hitting and getting on their defenders," center Scott Laughton said. "We're just playing more simple hockey and getting behind their 'D.'"
The Flyers have also had much better discipline lately, whereas they were guilty of a slew of unnecessary penalties during their losing streak.
They allowed an average of four power plays per game during their skid but had given opponents just 1.6 per game in their last five matchups before Saturday.
"We've done a good job of checking with our feet and not our sticks," Elliott said.
It wasn't too long ago that fans were chanting for Dave Hakstol to be fired, but the third-year coach survived the 10-game losing streak and the team started winning when he slightly altered all four lines. The most significant move: dropping Voracek to the second line and putting Wayne Simmonds on the top unit.
It has given the lines more scoring balance, and Voracek's playmaking excellence and rugged board work have helped jump-start his new linemate, Michael Raffl.
"It's all about confidence; if a player is confident, he can play with anybody," Voracek said. "It's all about believing in yourself and believing in your linemates."
The Flyers believe in themselves, believe in their linemates, and believe they will be in the playoffs in the spring. It's a stunning transformation from where they stood before sweeping three games in western Canada and making hockey feel like a kid's game again.