PHILADELPHIA – Penalty killing has been a Flyers’ bugaboo for years, especially this one, but the times they might be a-changin’.
Take the last two-plus minutes of Thursday night’s second period in a game against the Nashville Predators.
Leading 2-1, the Flyers were whistled for three straight penalties, leaving them two men short.
But fear not. With rookie goaltender Carter Hart shutting off the angles and the Flyers’ PK squad at its finest, the Flyers kept the Predators off the scoreboard.
The players in the penalty box (Wayne Simmonds, Radko Gudas and Andrew MacDonald) breathed a sigh of relief.
That was the turning point in a 2-1 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.
The win raised the records of both Hart and new coach Scott Gordon to 2-0.
In all, Hart stopped 31 of 32 Nashville shots and now has blocked a total of 51 of 54 shots (.944 save percentage).
The Flyers began the night ranked 30th on the penalty kill at 73.3 percent. However you wouldn’t know it from the way the Flyers battled to prevent the Predators from scoring.
In all, the Flyers killed off six Nashville power plays, including one with 2:45 to play. They played an aggressive style, challenging shooters and blocking passing lanes.
Shot blocking was key.
“It’s awesome,” Robert Hagg said. “When you block a shot and you hear 20,000 people screaming, even though you’re tired out there, you’re getting more energy out of it. There is a lot of thanks for those fans.’’
Hagg, who blocked three shots in the five-on-three alone, took a shot off his hand and he appeared to be in discomfort as he spoke after the game.
“It’s hurting,’’ he admitted, “but it’s worth it.
“Our PK hasn’t been the best during the season, but the last 10 games it’s been a lot better.’’
In fairness, the Flyers have been improving as the season has progressed.
In the first 21 games, the Flyers were only clicking at 68.5 percent.
Since then, 86.8 percent.
“In the last 10 games or so, we’ve been a lot better,’’ Hagg said. “It’s all about the small details. I think we’re putting more pressure on than we did 10 games ago. We’re trying to not let them set up inside the zone. But you need to block shots. We need to keep doing that to be successful.’’
The Flyers blocked a whopping 24 shots to only six for Nashville. Hagg and Travis Sanheim led the way with five blocks each.
Hart appreciated the effort, especially during the two-man down situation late in the second.
“I was just worrying about stopping the puck,’’ Hart said. “You’re looking for guys on their one-timers. But I thought we did a really good job of keeping their shots to the outside in the five on three. Got a lot of big blocks from ‘Sanny’ and “Hagger.’ I think that was the difference-maker tonight.
“Guys were sacrificing their bodies for the better of the team and that’s why we out on top.
The rookie netminder said he wasn’t as nervous as he was in his NHL debut in Tuesday night’s win over Detroit.
“It was night and day better,’’ Hart said. “I could feel it in warmups, I wasn’t as anxious. I was a bit overwhelmed on Tuesday so I had to bring things back to reality.’’
Philadelphia jumped on top once again with Jake Voracek providing the honors. He took a pass from Sean Couturier and beat goalie Pekka Rinne to the near post at 5:10.
The Flyers are now 8-2-2 when they score first.
“I saw Jake there, standing back door alone,’’ Couturier explained. “I tried to put it in the air for him and thank goodness it worked.’’
Nashville would tie the score at 4:04 of the second on a goal by Nick Bonino but Claude Giroux countered at 8:33 to make it 2-1 Flyers. Giroux scored from the right circle off the rush.
The Flyers employed a chip-and-chase style in the first period and produced 14 shots in that frame.
Giroux said the key to this win was the rejuventated penalty kill and Hart’s ability to stymie the Predators when shooting lanes did open up.
“We took some penalties but we did a good making sure we killed them,’’ Giroux said. “There was good energy in the building. Carter is playing well right now. He’s making some big saves to keep the momentum.
“The last 11 games or so the PK has been better. We’ve been able to kill some big penalties. It’s about everyone doing their job and not doing too much. Just trusting who you are on the ice with. We’re reading the play well, we’re trying to adapt to what the other team is doing.’’
Gordon said he hasn’t had to make a lot of changes to the penalty kill.
“It (killing the five on three) gave the whole building a lift,’’ he said. “You could feel the emotion in the crowd. That carries over into the bench. Players are sacrificing themselves to block shots. Just a tremendous effort.’’