Funny thing about hockey. The right coach for today’s team is not necessarily the right coach for tomorrow’s team. Or yesterday’s team.
Not so long ago, Ken Hitchcock led the Flyers on a long playoff run, reaching the seventh game of the conference finals. He did so by molding an offense-oriented team into one more defensively responsible, but just a couple seasons later, that system collapsed amid an early playoff exit and some lopsided early season losses, the ugliest a 9-1 demolition to last night’s opponent, the Buffalo Sabres. And seven games and six losses in, he was fired.
In came John Stevens, a longtime minor league defenseman who had piloted the Flyers’ farm team to a Calder Cup championship. He preached hard work and effort over system. He, too, was well-received at first and after a mulligan season that included much changeover of the roster, he too led the team on a long playoff run, losing to Pittsburgh in the conference finals.
But the team again got bounced in their encore effort, and the following season, despite a 13-11-1 record, Stevens was fired and replaced by Peter Laviolette.
Unlike Hitchcock, Laviolette believed in a downhill, high-risk, high-reward approach. Once they got the hang of it, players loved it, earning a playoff spot via a shootout on the last day of the season, then rolling all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010.
Critical injuries to stars, the forced trades of two of his more productive players, and a goalie who arrived from somewhere between Mars and hell and, well, Lavy’s bravado never worked as well as it did that first season. And when a comatose training camp was followed by a comatose start of this season, he too was relieved.
After three games.
“It’s embarrassing to have your coach fired after three games,” Matt Read said after his two goals pushed the Flyers past the Sabres lst night at the Wells Fargo Center. “It’s not his fault. It’s the players’ fault.”
Ah, but is it? Did the players tune Laviolette out or did Laviolette lose some type of coaching edge? Would the Flyers be 5-0-1 in their last six games if the old coach had been given more time?
“I think to an extent the voice matters,” Read said. “But nothing has really changed in the lineups or the people in the locker room. I think maybe the change itself kicked us in the butt a little bit.”
That’s as hard to believe, given their recent scores, as it was to believe Laviolette had suddenly lost his Stanley Cup-winning edge. As last night’s first period underlined, the Flyers are still prone to some messy hockey at times, even against the dregs of their conference. But there is clearly an edge there that was missing a month ago, an edge that goes far beyond fighting and the foolish bravado that follows whistles. These days the Flyers gang up on loose or vulnerable pucks more than opponents, and thus resemble a team again.
In doing so, they have given credibility to the contention made at the time of the change, that Craig Berube’s career as a hard-nosed, checking forward and fighter masked an analytical mind. Trying extremely hard not to criticize the coach he was replacing that day, Berube said his team had the talent, just not the legs or the will. Yet.
I had doubts about that talent then, and if the goalie from Mars or hell was still between the pipes, I might still be having them. But Ilya Bryzgalov is not, replaced by as formidable a tandem as the Flyers have had since perhaps Pelle Lindbergh and Bob Froese. Too soon to say that I know, but as last night’s 4-1 victory over the Sabres underlined, you don’t lose a whole lot switching for a night from Steve Mason to Ray Emery.
But the real story here is the unproven rookie coach, who turned this moribund offensive bunch into one capable of firing a season-high 46 shots on Olympic goalie Ryan Miller last night — and one that has played itself right back into playoff contention in an incredibly short amount of time.
“They’re playing good hockey," Berube said after last night’s game. “There’s obviously things you can improve on."
True. Their first period was not exemplary. Their game, really, until they took a stranglehold in the third period, was choppy. They squandered a two-man advantage, made some harrowing neutral-zone turnovers, were bailed out by Emery on some ugly miscues in their own end.
But here’s the thing: The third period used to be their nightmare. Not just early this season, but for most of last. In this latest surge from the cellar, the Flyers have grabbed their opponent’s throat, not their own.
And that makes me think I might have underestimated the talent. Or the coach. Or both. Someone asked Berube last night if his team was beyond a relapse, if what we’re watching now is the team’s identity more than what we saw at the start.
Berube, smartly, said that was up to them. “There are going to be nights where you might not have the jump in your legs,” he said. “And that’s when you have to be real smart out there. It’s important not to turn pucks over, it’s important not to take chances, little things like that.
“It’s a work in progress. You’ve got to just keep building and building."
On Twitter: @samdonnellon