(The Zamboni prepares the ice at the Wells Fargo Center approximately an hour before game time.)
Most preseason predictions didn't have the Philadelphia Flyers making the playoffs this season. Rookie head coach Dave Hakstol was an unknown factor, having left the college ranks in North Dakota to work in a high-profile East Coast hockey town. His impressive collegiate career and demeanor convinced the Flyers' brass that he deserved a shot.
There's no way to know how a Craig Berube-coached team would have performed this year. Would the addition of Shayne Gostisbehere in the early part of the season and the increased masked differential that Michal Neuvirth offered, verses Ray Emery, have resulted in a similar playoff push reality this April? It's debatable. However, the very unusual move of removing 'Chief', while retaining his entire staff, to assist Hakstol's National Hockey League transition, can't be overlooked.
General manager Ron Hextall, who worked through his first year last season, evaluated everything and made a gutsy decision. An organization that has been known and harshly criticized for its loyalty, changed direction, replacing a Flyer with an outsider. Hextall's patient approach defies the on-ice demeanor that he exhibited when he embodied number 27 in and around the crease during a 13-year hockey career.
Philadelphia's short-term future may include a playoff appearance this spring, but even if it doesn't, depth within the lower levels is real. Similar to the 1980's teams, continued infusions of youth will repopulate the roster for cascading future seasons. And with that, it appears that the Flyers are building toward perpetual contention and therefore, a realistic chance at the ever-elusive third Stanley Cup ring.
Steve Mason started in goal, again. Andrew Hammond led the Senators, who were recently eliminated from playoff contention, as were all of the Canadian teams. That rare seasonal distinction, among non-United States teams, was last realized during the 1969-70 campaign.
This period wasn't flat, but the teams basically took turns appearing in each other's end of the ice, with little sustained high-percentage opportunities. Each goalie made a few decent saves, but the shot total (Flyers 10 - Senators 9) reflected an even frame and produced a double goose egg on the scoreboard.
Wayne Simmonds tipped Jake Voracek's intentionally aimed blue line shot past Hammond at 1:30 into the period. It was his twenty-seventh of the season. The power play goal gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead.
Then, on a another man-advantage, Sean Couturier poked in a puck that Brayden Schenn initially attempted to push past Ottawa's goal line. Assists went to Schenn and Simmonds. It was Coot's eleventh of the season.
Chris Neil was assessed with a 10-minute misconduct penalty (17:35) just prior to Mike Zibanejad blowing a shot past Mason's left pad, at close range, with 2:12 left in frame. His nineteenth goal was assisted by Mike Hoffman and Cody Ceci.
The Flyers headed into the final period of their last game of this season against the Senators with the thinnest of leads. The two-period result wasn't surprising, as these Eastern Conference occupants split their first two games earlier in the hockey year, both of which were played at the Canadian Tire Centre north of the border.
Simmonds scored his second power play goal of the game (and twenty-eighth overall) at 7:15, with assists to Voracek and Schenn. This important tally gave the Flyers breathing room, putting them up by two over the Sens. Ceci's earlier penalty enabled his team to fall into this 3-1 hole. Will Simmer break the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career? With five games to go, it's surely possible that he reaches that impressive mark.
Radko Gudas earned two-minute minor penalties (11:34) for interference and slashing during a scrum that saw Neil tagged with two minutes of roughing time. Hoffman subsequently scored his twenty-eighth of the season 12:28 on the ensuing power play, with assists to Erik Karlsson and Bobby Ryan. However, it wasn't enough as the Flyers held on to win 3-2. Ottawa's 36-35 shot advantage underscored the evenness of the battled that ensued.
The win pushed the Flyers (91) to within two points of the New York Islanders (93), who were shutout by the Pittsburgh Penguins (98 points). Philadelphia, the eighth-ranked team in the Eastern Conference, and New York (seventh-ranked) have five games remaining on their schedules. These longtime rivals play each other at the Wells Fargo Center in the last game of the season on April 10, which is a makeup of an earlier snowed-out contest.
After the horn sounded
Hakstol was his normal disciplined self in the post-game presser. With his daughter and a member of the Flyers' PR staff, Joe Seville, standing off to the side, the first-year head coach reviewed the game with the preciseness of a grizzled bench boss. Hextall's man clearly has implemented a team-wide style that plays shift-by-shift, period-by-period and game-by-game. A playoff berth is in the offing with ten possible points to gain. Detroit, ninth in the Conference, sits just outside Wild Card position, with 89 points and four games showing on its 2015-16 docket, and Boston, who lags just behind the Red Wings as of today.
When asked by the media about defending a one-goal lead late in a game, Hakstol said, “Mentality and the ability to stay aggressive and stay on your toes. That’s exactly what that shift says. We kept it in the offensive zone, we kept the clock winding without a whole lot of whistles as we went down the stretch. Because of that we were able to stay on our toes and stay aggressive and that’s exactly what Belley’s line did on that shift.”
Mason's play has been key to the Flyers' surge. After the game he said, “A lot of what I’m doing has to do with the guys in front. I think overall we’re playing real solid hockey and in turns makes my job a lot easier. We’re scoring goals at probably our best clip of the year too, so that also helps. We’re still in tight games, but we’re having the confidence for guys that they’re going to find the back of the net and that’s a nice thing for a goaltender to have, knowing that the guys are going to come through for you and more than anything like I said earlier it’s fun coming to the rink and expecting to play.”
Speaking about the playoff push, Giroux said, “I think we’ve been doing a good job. We were maybe what eight points off maybe two months ago. We told ourselves to focus on our game, how we play, and we’ve been doing that so I’m not too sure what the game was with Pittsburgh and the Islanders, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter to us, so we just have to be ready for next game.”
Philadelphia's relentless push since February has earned the organization kudos across the League. Their opportunity to play post-season hockey isn't an accident. No, Hextall, Hakstol, his coaching staff and the orange iced boys have earned a chance to shine. Next up is tomorrow's game against the Penguins in Pittsburgh.