Perhaps a bit overlooked in this Flyers lost-in-the-wilderness of a season has been the energetic play of the team’s fourth line.
The trio of Patrick Brown, Zack MacEwen and Max Willman has been eating up important minutes in recent games and even chipping in with the occasional goal.
While at first glance their plus-minus numbers (Brown minus-10, Willman minus-13, MacEwen minus-14) might not look so great, consider bigger name players such as James van Riemsdyk (minus-28), Travis Konecny (minus-17) and Morgan Frost (minus-13) haven’t been exactly lighting it up either.
Heading into Tuesday night’s game at Minnesota, Willman is coming off goals in two straight games (Colorado, Nashville) and appears to have established himself in the NHL, at least for the last 16 games of this season.
Typical of Willman’s spirited play was the goal he registered against the Predators. Willman blocked a Matt Benning point shot, raced the length of the ice and fired a high shot over goaltender Juuse Saros’ shoulder.
A skill play like that showed everyone there might be more there than meets the eye.
“I’m just trying my best to play my game,’’ said the Barnstable, Massachusetts native. “Take care of my own end first. Be responsible down there. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, try to capitalize and make the most of it.’’
It’s been a long journey for the 27-year-old “rookie.’’ Because of an injury, he wound up playing a fifth red-shirt season at Brown University, a year with the ECHL Reading Royals and then two more with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. This season has been split between the Flyers (41 games) and the Phantoms (18 games).
“I just try my best to prove that I belong here,’’ he said. “Play here and stay in the lineup.’’
Willman was almost as surprised as anyone when he found out he had made the roster back in mid-October.
“A lot of emotions when I got the notice I was coming up and playing,’’ Willman said back then. “So that was pretty special. We actually had a game (at Lehigh Valley) that night. After the game (Flyers assistant general manager) Brent Flahr called me into his office and he said, ‘You’re going to go up and practice tomorrow. You can tell your parents to come down, you will be in Friday.’ I’m definitely just excited to get out there and play. Not too many nerves yet. I’m sure they will come later.’’
The Willman family flew down from Boston to experience the big game.
“They’re so excited and proud,’’ Willman said prior to his NHL debut. “I’m glad they can enjoy it with me.’’
It took awhile to get over the anxiety of those first couple shifts. Back in October, Willman talked about that.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,’’ said Willman, a former fifth-round pick by Buffalo in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. “I always tried to just play at that next level wherever I was. Maybe when I was in high school and NHL scouts were coming, I thought ‘that would be a cool idea’ but almost not really thinking anything of it. I think last year and the year before, more and more I was making that (the NHL) my goal. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of.’’
>Cates takes a number
Noah Cates, just signed to a new two-year pro contract, is set to make his debut against the Wild and will wear jersey No. 49. That just happens to be the same number Joel Farabee wore his rookie campaign. Farabee has since switched to No. 86, which left it open for Cates to take.
Cates recently played for Team USA in the Beijing Olympics. His University of Minnesota-Duluth college team was defeated in NCAA tournament play by the University of Denver, which is led in scoring by Flyers prospect Bobby Brink.