It was early last March when the Flyers had all the makings of a sleek roadster motoring down the highway.
Suddenly there was a loud bang.
It was more than a flat tire. It was a worldwide health crisis. Everything, including a Flyers’ recent nine-game winning streak, came to a screeching stop.
When the National Hockey League resumed some four-plus months later, the Flyers were sort of stuck in neutral.
Although they did sweep the round-robin series (Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington) and beat Montreal for their first playoff series win since 2012, the Flyers never seemed to regain that fine-tuned level of play from pre-pandemic times.
Fast forward to this past week and the events unfolding feel vaguely familiar.
The Flyers were off to one of their fastest starts (8-3-2) in team history when word came down that three players had been placed in COVID-19 protocol.
As a result, four games have been postponed and the team’s practice rink has been closed until Monday.
Where it goes from there remains to be seen.
Now there are people wondering if the 10-day break from game action will have some impact on the Flyers.
Granted, the Flyers have put together that eye-catching record despite playing some rather technically unsound hockey. Coach Alain Vigneault continues to get after his players for better five-on-five play, quicker transitions and less time in the defensive zone.
But points in 10 out of 13 games might make you consider what the Flyers can produce when they are playing their best hockey.
Flyers/NBC national TV analyst Keith Jones agrees the gap in the compressed 56-game schedule could have some effect on the team, both from timing and line chemistry standpoints.
“It’s a major challenge, no doubt about it,’’ Jones said in a telephone conversation. “There’s no question it (a team’s timing) is affected. Hopefully your first opponent is also someone who’s been off for a while.
“It will be an advantage for an opponent who’s been playing through. A couple days off are OK but when you start getting into three or more, that’s when you can start to lose some of your edge.’’
If you put aside just one of the four games against red-hot Boston, in which the Flyers went 0-2-2, and the one stinker against Buffalo (a 6-1 bombing), the Flyers have been competitive in every other match.
According to Jones, there’s still room for improvement.
“They have to exit the defensive zone with speed together,’’ Jones said. “That’s the thing that made them effective last year prior to the pause. Their pace of play was impressive and that’s why they were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
“I don’t think they got back to that game after the pause. They need to get to that game again. Historically, I think Vigneault’s teams are very well conditioned. Obviously in these circumstances there’s a little bit of a wrench put into your plans. But once they get up to speed, they will dominate games.’’
Without question, Vigneault did not want to have to tap the brakes on this early getaway.
There are, however, some benefits to this stoppage for the Flyers.
“I don’t think they’ve played their best hockey just yet,’’ Jones said. “The fact that (Sean) Couturier returned (in a 7-4 win at Washington last Sunday), in my eyes, is a huge difference-maker.
“He probably could have used an extra week. I don’t think the added time off is going to hurt him. It actually might help him. When you look down the Flyers’ lineup, he is their most important player.’’
Jones also has been impressed with the play of James van Riemsdyk, off to arguably the fastest start of his career. He was named NHL East Division player of the month for January and his seven-game point streak has propelled him to the top of the Flyers scoring list in goals and points.
“It’s impressive because he had a lot of things on his agenda,’’ said Jones, mindful that JVR was on the NHL’s “return to play’’ committee and is also a new father. “I think he was ready to go from the start. We saw signs of this last year just prior to the pause.’’
With a healthy Couturier, continued excellence from van Riemsdyk and steady improvement from comeback players such as Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom, the Flyers should be in pretty good shape.
By now, like the rest of the NHL players, the Flyers were braced for this current adversity. Nearly every team has been impacted by the pandemic and they’ve learned to deal with it.
“I think that’s what the anticipation was before we got started,’’ Jones said. “Unless you’re in a bubble situation, it’s going to happen. I think the players have been ready for whatever comes their way.
“They’re just doing their part to try to get this season completed and playing the best hockey that they can play.’’
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