It was just three games, but it might as well have been 30 with the way the Philadelphia Flyers had performed.
The start of the 2013-14 NHL season was a large enough sample for management to feel comfortable firing coach Peter Laviolette, who had also supervised “one of the worst training camps I've ever seen” according to owner Ed Snider, which isn’t usually an assessment that portends prolonged employment.
Enter longtime assistant coach, and head coach-in-waiting, Craig Berube who … well, seemed to fan the flames of suck for the next several games. Their first win of the season against the Florida Panthers preceded four straight losses.
The Flyers were 1-7-0. They were done, right?
Their 5-2 defeat of the New York Islanders’ porous goaltending on Saturday night made it six wins in seven games for Philly, with their lone loss coming in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets.
So what’s turned it around for the orange and black? Five factors:
1. Steve Mason
Even when the Flyers were pathetic, Mason wasn’t. It was the offense that was letting him down, not the other way around. Now the former Columbus Blue Jackets goaltending tease is 4-0-2 in his last six starts, giving up two goals or less in each of them. He may not be as adept at pummeling opposing goalies as his crease-mate, but he’s been better at stopping pucks all season: a 2.11 GAA and a .933 save percentage. For a Flyers goalie!
(Also, tempting as it is, let’s not give the Ray Emery assault on Braden Holtby credit for this turnaround just because it was the nadir of the Flyers’ season. In fact, the following happened around the same time, and is much more important …)
The Downie Effect
The Flyers’ reacquisition of Downie for Max Talbot was seen by some as the goons getting goonier, which of course misses what Downie’s meant to the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning since his dirty days in Philly.
The Flyers are 5-1-1 since the Oct. 31 trade. Downie has six points as a Flyer, igniting a line with Sean Couturier and, more importantly Matt Read, who has five goals in his last six games and four in his last two.
Oh, and Downie only has two minor penalties as a Flyer. Talbot has 8 PIMs with the Avs. Who’s the loose cannon again?
After 15 games without a goal, Giroux was a bust whose Canadian Olympic roster spot seemed at risk. But as the Flyers had heated up, so has Giroux: 8 points during their 6-0-1 roll, including three goals. He has two goals and two helpers on the power play during that stretch.
To the surprise of no one, the Flyers were averaging 1.5 goals per game during the 15 in which Giroux wasn’t scoring goals; now, they’re at 3.86 goals per game during this 7-game stretch.
Might Giroux have the last laugh about his much-mocked playoff guarantee?
The hasty firing of Laviolette gave Berube – who smartly wasn’t given the interim tag by Paul Holmgren – plenty of time to implement his system. It’s already become second nature and has made a difference, according to the players.
Players say the improvement has to do with getting Berube’s systems down to the point where they no longer have to think about what they’re going to do. It’s become intuitive.
That includes the 1-2-2 forecheck that the coaching staff refers to as a "1½," with the second man not over-committing, a third directly in front of the net, and a two-man forecheck in the neutral zone that stresses locking up the middle of the ice -- not the wall.
“It’s still hockey, it’s still high-paced,” Matt Read said. “Just try to get the second forechecker to be a little more [cautious] rather than just go-go. I think it’s becoming more of a habit rather than thinking about it. You notice it in games, we’re sustaining more pressure. Creating more turnovers in the neutral zone and playing better defense.”
It’s a system that shook the dour corrosion off the Flyers from the previous regime. As Vinny Lecavalier said recently: “We're working hard but we're smiling.”
And finally …
5. The Schedule
Face it: The Flyers had a nice stretch of winnable games during which to regain their footing.Which is a polite way of staying they've connected with the punching bags they've been given.
They’ve defeated the lottery-bound Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers; an Ottawa Senators team that’s a mess defensively (twice); one quality team in their arch rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins; and the struggling New York Islanders. Not exactly a collection of Western Conference juggernauts right there …
This isn’t meant to label the Flyers’ resurgence a sham, because they’ve dominated many of these games. But it’s a reminder that the Flyers, despite their terrible start, were never really out of this thing thanks to the underwhelming Eastern Conference and the Metroterrible, or, Metropolitan Division.
All they needed was a hot streak. And few teams are hotter than the Philadelphia Flyers at the moment.