Over the course of the team’s current four-game winning streak book-ending the NHL All-Star break, the Philadelphia Flyers have done something that has been elusive for them for much of the season: win games by a variety of different means.
Heading into the break, the Flyers won a 3-2 game against Pittsburgh that was emotional, penalty-laden and fight-filled.
They returned from the break one week later by coming back to win a 4-3 shootout game against Arizona. The Flyers trailed 2-0 early and pulled starting goaltender Ray Emery. Win number three was a fast-paced 5-2 win over Winnipeg.
On Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers found a way to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 1-0, in regulation. The Leafs outshot the Flyers, 30-18. The trio of Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux and Mark Streit were held off the scoresheet. The latter two also did not record a point against Winnipeg despite a slew of scoring opportunities.
Scoring chances were few and far between for the Flyers from the middle of Saturday’s first period onward. The team had to make a line-rush goal by Michael Del Zotto at 4:05 of the first period stand up the rest of the way.
On the goal, Wayne Simmonds collected the puck along the defensive half-boards and passed to Straka, starting the rush in stride. Gaining the offensive zone, Straka carried the puck to the outside on defenseman Cody Franson, opening a passing lane to Del Zotto as Franson chased.
Fighting off the back-checking Daniel Winnik, defenseman Del Zotto joined the rush. Del Zotto elevated his fifth goal of the season high to the long side against Toronto goaltender James Reimer (17 saves on 18 shots).
Shortly thereafter, the Flyers had a near-miss on the power play as an Andrew MacDonald shot skittered across the goal line but not over it before Reimer swept it to safety. At that juncture, the game looked as if it might develop into a blowout. Instead, the Flyers offense got bottled up by tight checking from Toronto. The Flyers could neither carry the puck into the zone nor put pucks behind the defense and establish a forecheck.
The one constant the Flyers have been able to rely on when he’s been healthy enough to be in the lineup: goaltender Steve Mason. On this night, he authored a 30-save shutout that included several spectacular saves and many others where Toronto had decent scoring opportunities but in which Mason put himself in perfect position to simply let the puck hit him in the chest protector and cover up or for the shot to die in his pads or glove with no follow-up chance.
Mason’s work for the night included a highlight-reel first period save on Nazem Kadri, moving laterally across the crease and stopping the puck under the right (glove side) arm. In the second period, he made a crucial pad save to deny a shorthanded scoring bid by Tyler Bozak.
The skaters in front of Mason deserved credit for the way they defended, too. Although more of the game was spent in the Philadelphia end of the ice than head coach Crag Berube or him wanted — failed clears were a frequent problem — the Flyers usually did a good job at keeping Toronto to the perimeter and boxing out in front to allow teammates to claim loose pucks.
The Flyers paid the price to block shots (21 in all, led by Nick Schultz’s seven blocks). The defensemen usually had bodies and sticks in the lanes. The forwards provided back pressure. There was good support along the boards and the slots were sealed off.
It may not have been the prettiest game from an advanced stats viewpoint. Mason certainly did a lot of heavy lifting whenever he needed to so on a night where anything less than perfection would have overtime or a loss. With the important exception of numerous failed clears leading to extended defensive zone time, the Flyers did a good job defending. They bent but didn’t break.
It is mighty tough to win 1-0 in the NHL, just as it is tough to rely on scoring four-plus goals to win. However, good teams find many different ways to win. The Flyers are a .500 team on the season because they have generally struggled to win on any night where the top power unit isn’t clicking and/or the team (usually courtesy of the top line) isn’t picking off a line-rush goal or two.
The Flyers have been a good club at home for the most part this season. There have been hiccups, but the team’s home record of 15-7-3 and goal differential of 73-59 (2.92 GFA, 2.36 GAA) with a 28.1 percent power play and 81.0 percent penalty kill (109.1 special teams index) are fine. Thirty-three of 50 possible points isn’t elite but it’s at least a wildcard-level pace.
The biggest reason why the Flyers are still nine point out of the last wildcard spot in the Eastern conference is that they have not been a good enough road club. If the Flyers were even just a statistical .500 team on the road — 26 of 52 possible points to date, rather than their current 18 of 52 — they would be right in the thick of the playoff chase instead of needing to play at an unsustainable pace.
Away from the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers have a 7-15-4 record. Philly has been outscored by a combined 87-65 (2.50 GFA, 3.35 GAA). They have an atrocious road special teams index of 87.3 due to a 69 percent penalty kill.
These are the things that have forged the common notion that the Flyers are simply a bad team. What they actually are is an average team with a few outstanding assets — Voracek, Giroux, Mason, the combined talents of the top power play unit including Simmonds and Streit — and their share of flaws. When the Flyers keep their feet moving and make a team-wide commitment to two-way play, they have the goaltending and enough offensive weapons to compensate for their weaknesses.
Mason, who played in his 100th regular season game as a Flyer and earned the 25th shutout of his 332-game NHL career, has been a rock of consistency ever since his arrival from Columbus at the 2012-13 trade deadline. His season .924 save percentage in 32 games is right in the same vicinity as his overall .921 save percentage in a Flyers uniform.
However, apart from a rough and winless month of October (3.83 GAA, .878 SV% in five outings) that was largely due to horrific defensive play in front of him, Mason has played the best hockey of his career this season. He’s done it despite dealing with wavering goal support, spotty team defense and playing through back and knee injuries that kept him out of the lineup for stints in late December and a chunk of January.
In 10 November outings, lack of offensive support doomed Mason to a 4-5-1 record but there was no quibbling with his .934 save percentage or 2.22 GAA for the month. In December, Mason went 2-3-4 but posted a 2.29 GAA and .919 save percentage. In the now-completed January schedule, he posted a ridiculously high .950 save percentage and ridiculously low 1.46 GAA in eight outings and six starts.
Saturday night’s game was a good night for career milestones by Flyers’ players. Apart from Mason’s 100th Flyers game and 25th career shutout, Voracek and Simmonds each hit the 500-game (regular season) mark in the NHL. In the first period, Voracek was slow to get up after getting checked from behind by Toronto’s Petter Granberg. Thankfully, it was not a very forceful hit. Voracek shook it off and skated on the ensuing two-minute power play.
Now that the Flyers own their first four-game winning streak of the 2014-15 season, the club faces another challenge. The club has struggled this season after a couple of extended schedule breaks, with the exception of the All-Star break the preceded the team’s last three wins. The Flyers will now have four idle nights until the Metropolitan Division leading New York Islanders come to town.
Looking ahead at the club’s February schedule, the Flyers have at least one day off between games until near the end of the month. What that likely means is that, as long Mason remains healthy enough to play, the Flyers will probably start him in each of the next seven games and possibly as much as 11 of the next 12. In other words, Mason could start every game but one in the month of February.
The Flyers will have a three-in-four from Feb. 19-22 as they have a Thursday night game at home against the Buffalo Sabres and then, after an off-night, host the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals. Before they get to that point, the Flyers will go on a four-game road trip (Washington, Montreal, Columbus and Buffalo) and then return home to host the Blue Jackets before the three-in-four. After the three-in-four, the month closes out with road games in Raleigh and Toronto before the Flyers host the New York Rangers on Feb. 28 at the Wells Fargo Center.
In terms of home-road breakdown, there is an even split of six home and six road matches in February. However, with four of the next five on the road, Philly needs to get things together on the road quickly no matter what happens in the Islanders’ game.