It may not have been as easy as many thought — and the Flyers may not have looked their best in their opening-round series win over the Canadiens — but, a win is a win. And with that victory, they’ve earned the right to face the New York Islanders with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals on the line.
The Orange and Black capped off that series with a 3-2 win on Friday evening, and advanced despite being outscored in the series, 13-11.
And general manager Chuck Fletcher will be the first to admit that for much of the game, a game in which Philly was out-shot 33-17, Montreal actually looked like the better team. But, in that moment, Fletcher actually learned something about his team. They don’t have to be playing their best to beat a darn good hockey team. And that might be the scariest thing about this team.
“Let’s be honest, the first two periods after maybe the first four-five minutes through to the beginning of the third period, we were on our heels,” Fletcher admitted on Saturday. “They were coming. They were pressing. They were pushing. They were the better team. What I liked is not only that we were able to close it out, but we were able to close it out after really getting away from our game a little bit.
“Again, credit goes to Montreal, they pushed us. They pushed us out of our comfort zone and we had to get that back. Our gaps were better. We defended better. Our wall play was better. We were able to actually spend part of the period down in their end. I think we really defended well. There’s some confidence. I think we’ve been able to do that a lot of this season. When we needed it [Friday] night, the guys were able to deliver.”
For much of the series, the Flyers had to do without any scoring from their top five goal scorers during the regular season. Still, they found a way to win. They had a 22-year-old goalie (more on him in a bit) getting his first NHL playoff experience. And, still, they found a way to win, even after he was pulled in his second start and nearly pulled a second time. They struggled on special teams, and often looked like the lower-seeded team — not the other way around. Yet, they found a way to win.
But, as the level of competition continues to ratchet up throughout these Stanley Cup playoffs, the Flyers may need to turn it up even higher if they want to capture that Stanley Cup that has eluded them for the last 45 years.
“Yeah, I do [think we have another level],” Fletcher said. “We’ll probably have to find it if we want to continue to win games and move on. You have to give a lot of credit to the Montreal Canadiens. They played a very structured, very fast game. They put a lot of pressure on us. I think we put a lot of pressure on them at times too. There wasn’t a lot of free ice out there. We had to battle for everything we had. I do think we started to get a few more chances offensively as the series went on. I think our power play got a little better as the series went on.
“There’s no question, I think there’s another level we need to get to and that probably goes for every team that’s still playing.”
On Sunday, the head coach agreed with that sentiment.
AV: I do believe we have another level, another gear that we can get it. Mostly has to do with our ability to make plays with the puck. We have some real skilled players on our team.
— Charlie O’Connor (@charlieo_conn) August 23, 2020
After the Flyers’ first three round-robin games, it didn’t look like the Flyers could play much better. But now, following a 4-2 series win over the Canadiens in which the Flyers didn’t look as sharp as they had — due in large parts to a clash in style with Montreal — they certainly could turn it up a notch heading into the Isles series, a series in which they’re -134 favorites to win according to FanDuel, via TheLines.com. They have, however, seen their Stanley Cup odds dip a bit after an inconsistent opening series. After starting the playoffs tied for the best odds in the NHL at +600, they’ve seen a few teams past them and are now fifth in consensus odds at +622.
Still, just winning a playoff series, something that hadn’t done since 2012, is a boon for the organization, and possibly puts them ahead of where even they thought they would be coming into the year. Back then, most externally were expecting the Flyers to possibly compete for a wild card spot, not earn the top seed in the conference.
In many ways, their season already feels like a success, at least in terms of the expectations laid out at the start. But Fletcher doesn’t believe the team will take what they’ve accomplished for granted.
“It’s been a process to get to this point. A lot of work has been put in by the coaches and the players to come together and make us relevant again, to use your term. You only get so many chances in this business,” the Flyers GM said. “There’s 23 teams that are not playing and eight of us that still are. You always like to think you are going to get this far every year, but it’s tough.
“We got to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s a great learning experience on the one hand for a lot of our young players that haven’t played a lot of playoff hockey or haven’t played any playoff hockey until this year. Opportunities are not always there and we have a good one right now.”
“I think we’re a team now that has an identity,” Fletcher said. “A season ago, I don’t think we played the game the right way.”
But with a great mix of veteran players and up-and-coming talent, the Flyers (41-21-7, 89 points) could have turned a corner they were unable to during the Ron Hextall era, and it’s probably no surprise that their increased success has aligned with the arrival of head coach Alain Vigneault, a Coach of the Year finalist who has unquestionably been able to get the most out of his players in his first year at the helm.
Fletcher credits not just Vigneault, but the whole staff — Mike Therrien, Mike Yeo, Ian Laperriere, etc. — with help building a culture and identity that has directly led to success on the ice.
“I think we’re a team now that has an identity,” Fletcher said. “A season ago, I don’t think we played the game the right way. We didn’t defend well. We didn’t manage the puck well. We didn’t manage the game well. I think we have a much better defensive identity now than we did. The players understand what’s expected of them. They’ve bought into it. That’s very important. I don’t think we would be here if we weren’t able to accomplish some of those things.
“I think that in the first round with AV, I think you saw what a veteran coach can do. He did some really good things in game, moving players around, moving lines around and not afraid to make changes. Has a pretty good sense of the game within the game, if you will. Maybe how to push some buttons there. He’s a very successful veteran coach. I think he did a tremendous job in that first round along with his coaching staff.”
Now, it’s on to that Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the Isles (35-23-10, 80 points), one that Vigneault and the rest of the team will likely not take lightly despite the fact that the Islanders are the sixth seed in the East. Not only did New York just dispose of the Capitals in five games, but they also beat the Flyers all three times the two teams faced this season.
That matchup begins on Monday night in the Toronto bubble, but in the meantime, here’s a look at some more of what Fletcher had to say, from their upcoming series against the Islanders to the development of some of their younger stars … and even a look ahead to the offseason, which the Flyers are hoping won’t begin for another month or so.
On facing the Islanders…
Does that help having familiarity that every team kind of knows the other team they are facing, especially you guys know the Islanders very well?
FLETCHER: I think so. Look, this has been incredible hockey. I think you have to give all these players a lot of credit, taking four months off, a four-month pause. I think everybody’s a little different than what they were before the pause. Teams are different. We have seen teams that have played much better here than they were playing before the pause. There’s also some teams that aren’t here anymore that couldn’t get their game back to their level. There’s been unique challenges here. I think familiarity is certainly part of it. I think going back to the last question, I think the key is how you continue to adapt, evolve and get your game going. We have four games in five and half days starting Monday, so there’s not a lot of practice time. You are going to have to come in with the right mindset and make quick adjustments. Get your game to a high level very quickly.
When you look at the Islanders, are they far different now than they were the last time you saw them back in March?
Well, they’ve played us very well all year. I’ve been watching a lot of games here. Obviously we’re spending a lot of time over at Scotiabank watching as many games as we can. I think they’ve played as well as any team in our bubble here in Toronto. They’ve found their game very quickly. They play with purpose, structure and identity. They have some skill up front too. They have three lines that can score. They’re really a good hockey team. I can’t really speak to exactly where they were before the pause. Certainly they’re a team that has found their game really quickly and they’re playing very well. That’s a credit to their coaching staff and players.
On Carter Hart and other young Flyers…
How has the emergence of Carter Hart at such a young age accelerated maybe the timeline for contention?
It’s remarkable. He’s twenty-two years old and he’s out there giving us a chance to win every game. I’ve said this a few times about Carter. He’s obviously very talented and his track record speaks for itself. Maybe the most impressive thing about Carter is if he gives up a bad goal or a game doesn’t go as well as he wants it to, he just has this uncanny ability to bounce back. Really our team has taken on that persona, I would say the second half of the season as well. We’ll have a bad shift. We’ll have a bad period. We’ll have a bad game, but we find a way to get going again. Carter certainly has that mentality too. As he continues to grow, he’s going to give us a chance to be competitive here for a while.
What do you see from Travis Konecny’s play?
I think Travis is one of those players that has another level that he needs to get to. In terms of using his speed to create and getting more pucks to the net, I think he’s getting better, but there’s still another level he can get to. That line produced a lot of chances for us the last few games, so I think they’re starting to get going. Again, we’re going to need everybody, not just TK, but everybody to up their level as the stakes get higher.
What about the chemistry and playing style from the Myers-Sanheim pairing that you like and what has made everyone trust it so much as the season progressed, despite their age and experience?
I give a lot of credit to Mike Yeo and really the whole coaching staff. With young players, at some point you just have to trust them. You have to play them. They’re both big rangy defenders who could really skate. They both have great sticks. Obviously, they both can handle the puck and shoot the puck. They both have a tremendous upside and should have a bright future ahead of them. What they have shown the ability to do is to matchup and to defend, whether it’s their length, again their stick, their mobility, a combination of all that. They’ve had experience playing together in Lehigh Valley. I think they quickly earned the trust of our coaching staff. Without Matt Niskanen last night, if you look at it, we have a lot of young defensemen. Somebody has to play. They all stepped up and did a good job. It’s not easy closing out a series when you’re a young player and you don’t have that experience of having one playoff series in the NHL. To win that game without Matt Niskanen is a real confidence boost for not just Travis and Phil, but for all of them.
How did you feel about Ghost’s resiliency Friday night? Also, Provorov called him a leader in the locker room, what is the case with him being out of the lineup?
Ghost is really respected by his teammates and the coaching staff, really by all of us. He had a tough battle this year. Just lingering issues with his legs, his knee. He never felt right. He couldn’t get his game going. He didn’t same explosiveness in his skating and he’s a player with his style needs to have a little pop in his skating. A little explosiveness to beat people, to create the lanes to get pucks to the net and he didn’t have that. Obviously your confidence can dip and you feel like you’re chasing it all season. He’s looked really good since he’s been here. He’s skating the best that he’s skated since I’ve been with the Flyers. He’s making plays. I thought last night, he was outstanding and not just with the puck. He really created the one goal there by jumping up the ice on the rush and then pinching down on the wall. Had a really noticeable impact offensively. Almost scored a power play goal. I thought he was very good defensively. Had a good stick. Had a big open ice hit on Suzuki. He had to play the offside. He moved around. That’s not an easy thing to ask of a guy. Give him credit. Again, this is the best hockey he’s played since I’ve been with the Flyers and that’s exciting for our team when you can add a guy of that caliber.
On Oskar Lindblom…
What did that moment at center ice at practice the other day mean for you, for the team and for Oskar too?
For the team, it means everything. He’s obviously a very important hockey player for our team. Everybody knows what he went through. To have him back, to have him interacting with his teammates again, to have him around and now he’s skating with the group. He’s at breakfast with the team. He’s playing ping pong last night with the guys after the game. It’s just great. Things took a really bad turn for him in December. Here we are in August, he’s climbing back and getting his life and career going again. We’re just all very excited. Hopefully we can keep playing long enough so he can come back and join us this season.
On the safety of the NHL bubble…
Do you feel the players also deserve some credit for following the protocol that has resulted in no positive tests?
Yeah. The players deserve a tremendous amount of credit. Today’s Day 28 for us up here. We’ve played ten games. There’s a lot of structure. There’s a lot of rules you have to follow. You see guys walking around, they have their mask on. Everyone’s doing the right thing. Again, everyone’s away from their families for a while here and we’re doing this because we want to win. I think everybody’s taking that seriously and respecting the commitment everyone’s made to be here. I give them a lot of credit. The league has done a tremendous job. It’s just a great set-up here.
On the upcoming offseason…
What do you think this off-season especially when free agency opens up across the league?
It’s going to be interesting. Once you sign your own RFA’s and you look at the salary cap being flat for potentially two to three years, there’s not going to be a lot of liquidity in the system. It’s going to be interesting how free agents approach that and how teams approach that. You might some more hockey trades, you know dollar for dollar trades where teams need to improve our upgrade in certain areas and you don’t have the ability to maybe go into the UFA market. You’ll have to be creative in finding solutions with other teams. It’s going to be very interesting. Obviously every summer everyone is always looking to improve. I think you will see that again. Without the normal liquidity in the system, it’s going to force teams to be more creative.
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