Flyers’ turnaround sparked by lineup tweaks, stellar individual performances
Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images
By Charlie O’Connor (@THG_Charlie)
For a team that harbored Stanley Cup aspirations entering the 2012-2013 season, the Philadelphia Flyers’ most recent weekend was an unmitigated disaster.
After blowing a 3-1 first period lead against the division rival New Jersey Devils on Friday, the Flyers were outshot 12-2 in the first period of their Saturday night contest against the Montreal Canadiens en route to a 4-1 defeat. This was not the performance of a championship contender; in fact, it was not even up to the standards of a fringe playoff team.
What a difference three days can make.
Following a 7-0 thrashing of the New York Islanders on Presidents’ Day, Philadelphia concluded their six-game road trip with a thrilling 6-5 victory over their in-state rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Suddenly, a team that was playing at a lottery-level looks like a sure-fire playoff squad.
It took only some minor lineup adjustments and, of course, improved hockey from the team’s top-tier players to cause the abrupt turnaround.
Claude Giroux took the most obvious leap.
During a post-game interview after the Montreal loss, Giroux criticized both his and his team’s overall effort, and challenged teammates to adjust their mentality going forward. And after scoring only 26 seconds into Monday’s game against the Islanders, Giroux showed his actions would match his words. Giroux finished the contest with two goals and an assist, and added another two assists against the Penguins on Wednesday.
In addition to sheer force of will on the part of Giroux, coach Peter Laviolette’s line changes have helped the young captain to find his game.
Jakub Voracek, who along with Brayden Schenn has shined throughout the month of February, was moved to Giroux’s wing full-time for the New York contest. Voracek’s skating and puck possession ability has been a boon for Giroux, who too often this season has been forced to carry the puck into the opponent’s zone singlehandedly.
Voracek, whose puck moving ability is similar to that of former teammate (and former Giroux linemate) Jaromir Jagr, has allowed Giroux to focus more on generating offense once in the offensive zone, rather than struggling an entire shift to simply enter the zone.
The 23-year old Voracek has also thrived with first line minutes. Essentially promised a spot on the Giroux line in the offseason, Voracek found himself bouncing between the second and third lines to start the year after Brayden Schenn won the spot on Giroux’s wing to begin the season.
But after a disappointing January, Voracek has been nearly unstoppable in February, first developing chemistry with the also-demoted Schenn, and now Giroux. The team’s leading scorer, Voracek has 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 11 February games, including a four assist performance against the Islanders and a hat trick against the Penguins.
Another tweak in the lineup helped to spark a struggling figure on the Flyers’ back end: Braydon Coburn.
This season, Coburn has been forced to take on an expanded role with the departure of Matt Carle. On a nightly basis, Coburn has led the Flyers blue line in overall ice time, receiving even strength, penalty kill, and even power play minutes.
After an uneven but mostly solid start to the season while paired with Nicklas Grossmann, Coburn was given Bruno Gervais as his new partner soon after the injury to defenseman Andrej Meszaros.
What resulted was a horrific February for Coburn, as he watched both his basic and advanced statistics collapse. Prior to the Islanders game, Coburn was -6 during the month, and his Corsi Relative had dropped to a poor -7.1.
In an effort to reignite his struggling defensive anchor, Laviolette reunited Coburn with Grossmann prior to Monday’s game. Immediately, Coburn responded with his best game in weeks (22:24 minutes, +3), and followed up that performance with another strong game against Pittsburgh, logging 26:32 minutes spent mostly against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Laviolette had originally broken up the Coburn-Grossmann pairing in order to avoid a Kurtis Foster-Bruno Gervais combination receiving extended ice time. However, the return of Erik Gustafsson allowed Laviolette to reunite his shutdown pairing without fear of creating a third pairing liability.
Gustafsson has helped to stabilize the pairing. Replacing the plodding Foster, Gustafsson rejoined Philadelphia for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. Monday’s blowout victory let Laviolette give Gustafsson much-needed ice time (20:11 minutes) to readjust to the NHL game, and he has yet to receive less than 16:00 minutes of ice time this season. To a defense lacking speed, Gustafsson has provided a much needed infusion of speed and puck moving ability.
While the weekend may have been a debacle for the Flyers, their strong play against the Islanders and Penguins shows that the team still has the ability to compete. Their poor start to the shortened season will make a playoff run difficult, but the Philadelphia Flyers squad of the past two games certainly can earn a playoff spot. It will take additional shrewd maneuvers by Laviolette, and continued strong play from contributors like Giroux, Voracek, and Coburn, to achieve that goal.
But following two key wins, some optimism is finally justified.