VOORHEES, N.J. – One key reason why the Flyers are challenging for first place in the Metropolitan Division is easy to spot.
After 45 games, they’ve allowed only 121 goals, which is just a tick behind the division best for that category.
Although it’s a complete team statistic, much of it has to do with an improved back line.
The additions of Sean Walker, Mark Staal and most recently Jamie Drysdale, plus the promotion of Egor Zamula have had much to do with that.
But so has the improved play of veterans Travis Sanheim, Nick Seeler, Rasmus Ristolainen and second-year man Cam York.
The ability to form a cohesive five-man unit – and getting rid of those unwanted “gaps” – has had a lot to do with why since Nov. 4 the Flyers have allowed an opponent to score more than four goals in a game only twice.
York likes the way this group has formed a bond. Recently he was moved off the top pairing with Sanheim and put with Ristolainen but it doesn’t seem to bother him a bit.
“We’ve known how good our D-corps is at the beginning of the year despite how everyone said how bad we were going to be,” York said after Friday’s practice at the Flyers Training Center. “I think we’ve almost used that as fuel for the fire.
“We’re a confident group. We know what each other can do, what we’re capable of. We’re working really well together as a group.”
You hear a lot about defense units which allow their goaltenders a chance to see shots. It goes without saying the play of York & Co. has figured prominently in the Flyers’ four shutouts (Samuel Ersson three, Carter Hart one); plus, the Flyers are ranked sixth in the NHL in goals-against average (2.64) as of Friday.
The Flyers, led by the towering Ristolainen and the feisty Seeler, have done a good job of clearing out bodies in front.
“We’re really been working on boxing guys out,” York said. “Making sure they don’t get those second chances. Honestly, all year, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. It’s something that we’re going to have to continue to do really well.”
Zamula’s work on the power play has been a pleasant surprise. He’s led a unit which had scored in six of seven games through Friday. Staal has been invaluable as almost another assistant coach. Walker has been a sparkplug and Drysdale looks like the real deal.
Everyone appears to be chipping in.
“We’ve been getting contributions from everybody,” York said. “And I think that’s why we’ve had so much success so far. We’re going to need to have contributions from everybody for the rest of the year.
“Everybody has stepped up and everything is going really well for us right now.”
When defensemen work on the same wavelength, it’s almost a thing of hockey beauty. It’s rare that these guys miss a beat.
“We all read off each other really well,” York said. “I would say we’re all communicating. It just seems easier for everybody. We’ve been talking about staying in tandems, in groups of five out there.
“Teams aren’t getting much offense against us.”
>Benching was all about trust
Coach John Tortorella decided to bench veteran Cam Atkinson (26-game scoring slump) and Morgan Frost for the Jan. 4 game against Columbus.
Some saw it as a “benching.” The coach saw it as more of a reset for those players.
Since then, Frost has registered two goals/seven points in seven games and Atkinson has popped in three goals in his last three games.
“He (Tortorella) has been in the league forever,” York said. “He knows what he’s doing. I think, as players we trust him. We know that he has our backs. He cares about his players.
“Obviously they weren’t happy about sitting but they’ve been playing great ever since. Maybe it was the right thing. We’re going to need those two to be really good for us.”
Tortorella doesn’t make a big deal out of something like this. He’s been around the block long enough to know what works and what doesn’t.
>Neck guards still in use
Several months have gone by since Atkinson, Travis Konecny and Sanheim donned neck protection following the tragic death of former NHL player Adam Johnson.
Sanheim said he still wears his device and believes the NHL eventually will make it mandatory, the same way it does with eyeshields and helmets.
“I imagine as we go along here there are going to be more players using them,” Sanheim said. “One of the things holding it up is the demand (exceeding the supply). Once they’re more available, I think more guys are going to be using them.”
Right now, just two companies – Warroad and Daredevil – manufacture the contraptions made from polyethylene foam.
If necessary, the NHL could “grandfather” in a rule making neck protection mandatory for all new players entering the league. There are only seven NHL players left who don’t wear eye protection, including Nashville’s Ryan O’Reilly, Minnesota’s Zach Bogosian, Dallas’ Jamie Benn, the New York Islanders’ Matt Martin, Boston’s Milan Lucic and Toronto’s Jordie Benn, Ryan Reaves.
“I imagine Bauer and CCM will soon start to make neck protection as well,” Sanheim predicted.
“I think they (eventually) will be mandatory. It just makes a lot of sense. Safety I think is a key in this league. It doesn’t affect anyone’s play to have it. If we could save someone’s life, I think it would be a great decision.”
Konecny is among the league leaders in shorthanded goals (five, tied for the NHL lead). This success can be tied to Tortorella using him on the penalty kill for the first time last year.
“I love coaching the guy,” Tortorella said. “Because you never know what you’re going to get from him as far as what happens on the ice.
“But I know that the great engine that he has, the condition he comes into camp each year and what he does for this team is invaluable. He started penalty killing with this staff, never did it before. It’s mind-boggling (that he didn’t). That’s the first thing I wanted him to do (kill penalties) because he’s so unpredictable. That throws a power play off.”
It’s also a big reason why Konecny is going to his second NHL All-Star game in two weeks.