VOORHEES, N.J. – Maybe he wouldn’t have done this a year ago, so a few eyebrows were raised when coach John Tortorella called off Monday’s scheduled practice at the last minute.
It could be the Flyers’ bench boss saw that his players were dragging a bit when they walked in the door at the Flyers Training Center.
Understandable, given that the team had just finished three games in four days, including two trips to Long Island and a Thanksgiving holiday with family obligations thrown in for good measure.
Here’s the thing: A year back, Tortorella was still in the process of building trust with his players (and they with him). Now it looks and sounds like that trust is on solid footing, as that 11-9-1 mark and third-place division standing at the quarter mark of the season confirms.
A lot of folks didn’t think the Flyers would still be in the playoff picture this far along. Perhaps they didn’t factor in a better locker room situation. Unlike last year, when there were some “passengers,” everyone now seems to be working in the same direction.
Owen Tippett sees the difference a year can make.
“Sure, I think overall we’re a tighter group,” he said. “Everyone was in here early (in September), we had a lot of team events. I think we all got a chance to get to know each other. Ultimately I think it helped leading into the year, being closer to each guy and having that chemistry within the whole room.”
Guys are sticking up for each other and it shows.
“When you have a tight group like that, everyone is pulling in the same direction,” Tippett said. “It makes it fun coming to the rink every day. I get a sense the guys want to be here. I think it goes a long way when you can do those team-building things.”
Tortorella doesn’t always focus on the big picture. This early in the season it’s more of a day-to-day proposition.
“I didn’t have expectations,” Tortorella admitted. “My expectations are how we perform each and every day, whether it be practice, what we have coming up next. I’m just not too far off of that. Because I don’t think we’re in the position where we are as an organization to go about even thinking that way.
“We have so many things we need to watch and decide as we keep building this. That’s my focus. What do you foresee in another few months as far as ‘that player,’ does he fit? But the standings and expectations? No.”
One aspect of the game the Flyers have tangibly improved on is penalty killing. They were down around 26th in the NHL last season at 74 percent; currently they are 12th at 83 percent.
“As a group, the guys who are going seem to be working well together,” Travis Sanheim said. “When there’s a breakdown, other guys are helping out. The biggest thing is we’re reacting to the situation. We feel comfortable we can kill against the best power plays in the league.”
As for calling off practice, Tortorella “trusted his gut.”
“I watched them walk in, I just felt we didn’t need to go on the ice today,” Tortorella said. “We can move the blood tomorrow. I did not use science, I used my stomach.”
This might have been all part of a reset after the 3-1 loss to the Rangers on Friday. The Flyers weren’t quite ready for the Rangers’ speed and didn’t pay enough attention to having forwards get back on defense, hence a lot of odd-man rushes.
The Flyers looked at some video, then responded with a nice 1-0 shootout win at the Island on Saturday night.
“We needed to reset just when we don’t have the puck, which way we’re leaning,” Tortorella explained. “When we don’t have the puck, are we still leaning into the offensive side of it? We’re starting back. Something needs to click in your head, ‘I need to start back.’
“Because that split-second, you’re leaning that way instead of the offensive way. It gets you into position that you’re tracking (backchecking) the right way. We weren’t lazy against the Rangers. We were a second too late against a fast team that plays fast. And we chased, we weren’t above them.”
Even so, after allowing two goals in the first two minutes, the Flyers only allowed one goal the rest of the game.
“All we were doing was looking at the numbers on the backs of their jerseys,” the coach said. “Chasing them into our end zone. Just a small adjustment as far as leaning the wrong way. That’s anticipating versus cheating. I thought we cheated against the Rangers.”
Just 24 hours later they found a way to make the right corrections. That might not have happened last year.