Back in September, very few hockey publications had the Flyers projected to make the playoffs.
The reasons? Many.
No one was sure if Claude Giroux, coming off two sub-par seasons due to injury, could make it back to his previous high-caliber level.
The goaltending picture looked uncertain at best. Steve Mason had been allowed to walk and while his replacement, Brian Elliott, had a more impressive resume, he was also picked up off the scrap heap of free agency.
And let’s not forget how many rookies were battling for jobs, including defensemen Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim, plus forwards Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom and Taylor Leier, not to mention the return of the somewhat enigmatic Scott Laughton.
Yet now, with less than two weeks left in the season, the Flyers find themselves right in the thick of the playoff chase, holding the Eastern Conference first wild card spot heading into Tuesday night’s game at Dallas.
How did this happen?
Here are five reasons why:
- Coach Dave Hakstol’s decision to move Sean Couturier to first-line center and slide Giroux over to left wing.
Both Couturier and Giroux are having career years. Couturier has more than doubled his career-best in goals (from 15 to 31), he’s top 10 in plus-minus at plus-26 and he’s a favorite to win the Selke Trophy for best two-way forward.
Giroux seems to thrive on the left, with better shooting angles and slightly less defensive responsibility. He still has a shot at a 100-point season, is second in the NHL in faceoff percentage (slightly over 58 percent) and should get some consideration for the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP).
- The pairing of Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov.
It seemed a bit odd at first, putting two young guys together, both of them willing to take chances on the offensive side of the puck.
But these two players have smart hockey minds and know how to cover up each other’s mistakes. Ghost leads NHL defensemen in power-play goals (he’s been going neck-and-neck with Washington’s John Carlson for most power-play points). Provorov has turned his game up a notch, just set a record for most consecutive games (158) by a Flyer defenseman from the start of a career and is used in all crucial situations.
- Patchwork goaltending seems to work.
Elliott carried the freight for the first half of the season, at one point taking NHL star of week honors (second, third) in consecutive weeks.
Then, when he got hurt along with Michal Neuvirth, both veteran Petr Mrazek and rookie Alex Lyon have had their moments.
It’s been some marvelous platoon work and goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh deserves a good deal of recognition for his contribution.
- Veteran leadership from Wayne Simmonds, Andrew MacDonald, Valtteri Filppula and Jake Voracek.
These guys know the Flyers haven’t won a playoff series since 2012 and also know a lot of that falls on the shoulders of the veteran leadership group.
To their credit, these “older’’ players have kept things calm, especially when the team staggered through a 10-game (0-5-5) winless streak through November and early December.
Simmonds, for one, has toughed it out through some devastating injuries, including the loss of several teeth and a painful upper-body injury. The guy never complains. Just goes out and does the job.
Voracek is having another big season. His 61 assists are already a career high and he needed only one point in Dallas to tie a career high.
Filppula brings a Stanley Cup ring to the locker room. That’s all you need to know.
MacDonald has helped the careers of Gostisbehere, Provorov and Hagg immensely with his wisdom.
- Hakstol improving as he goes.
This is not your 2015-16 Dave Hakstol anymore.
Even though the Flyers made the playoffs his rookie season, Hakstol was still learning the NHL game on the fly.
After all, he’s the first coach in decades to make a jump from college to pro.
Hakstol’s perceived strong suit has always been working with young players (do Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie ring a bell?).
Now, with so many Phantoms making the jump to the Flyer roster, along with kids like Patrick making the transition right into the pros, Hakstol has been at his best.
His even disposition keeps the Flyers from getting too high when they win, too low when they lose.
Things didn’t look so rosy back in November. But now, when it counts, Hakstol has made believers of this team.
When the veteran goaltenders return, this team could be somewhat dangerous in the playoffs.