VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Flyers began their Western Canada trip with their confidence shaken and their frustration level bubbling from a 10-game losing streak.
They return home with a much different outlook thanks to their first three-game regulation-win sweep in Western Canada since 1996,
They won with new line combinations, a new 1-2-2 alignment that clogged the neutral zone and with the sudden emergence of winger Michael Raffl, who scored the winning goal in all three games.
They won because Jake Voracek, who took an NHL-high 31 assists into Friday, turned into the best playmaker on the planet, because the penalty kill made a revival and because the Ivan Provorov-led defense – which included rookies Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg, and Mark Alt in the last two victories – showed maturity beyond its years.
But mostly they won because 32-year-old goalie Brian Elliott covered up when there were defensive mistakes. Elliott went 3-0 during the trip and recorded his 200th career victory as the Flyers whipped Vancouver, 4-1, on Thursday. He had a ridiculous .954 save percentage in the three games.
“Can’t say enough about him,” captain Claude Giroux said.
In Thursday’s win at the Rogers Center, Elliott made 37 saves and kept the game scoreless when the Canucks swarmed the net in the first seven minutes. Vancouver had the game’s first nine shots, but Elliott stood tall and allowed the Flyers (11-11-7) to get their bearings.
“We were a little slow coming out of the gate, and they came out hard,” defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. “He made some crucial saves early that let us calm down. That’s the veteran goaltending presence that he brings.”
Of reaching the 200-win mark, which included several dominating seasons in St. Louis, Elliott said: “It’s pretty special for me. You get your first win, and you just try to stay in the league and play your game and try to win a Stanley Cup. But reaching milestones like that mean a lot, and hopefully I can go for another 100.”
Raffl, who earlier this season ended a 42-game pointless streak that dated back to last season, has five goals in his last eight games. He has scored a goal in all three games since he was put on the second line alongside Val Filppula and the blistering Voracek, who had seven assists on the thee-game trip.
“I’ve been working real hard the whole year,” said Raffl, who redirected Voracek’s shot (or pass) into the net to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead early in Thursday’s second period. “I had a tough stretch the first 20 games or so, but I had scoring chances. And as long as you get chances, you shouldn’t change much. All you need is one goal to get your confidence up a little bit, and that’s what’s happening right now.”
Unlike in their 10-game skid (0-5-5), the Flyers were much more defensively responsible in the latter stages of their games in Western Canada. They were outscored by a 14-2 margin after the second period during their streak. On their three-game trip, they held a 4-1 edge after the second period.
Coach Dave Hakstol downplayed the significance of the new 1-2-2 alignment. His players didn’t.
“We changed a couple things, and everybody’s bought into it,” said Giroux, who had a goal and an assist on Thursday. “That makes it a lot more fun.”
“Making some tweaks to our system really helped us dial in and refocus,” MacDonald said.
During the trip, the Flyers outscored Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver by a combined 13-5 despite being outshot, 108-80.
They are a solid 7-5-3 on the road. But if they want to be a serious playoff contender – they were six points out of a playoff spot entering Friday – the Flyers need to do an about-face at the Wells Fargo Center, where they have won just four of 14 games (4-6-4) and have lost six in a row.
On Tuesday against Auston Matthews and Toronto, the Flyers get their first chance to show their recent road success can translate on home ice.
Look for Alt, who played well in the two games he replaced the injured Brandon Manning (hand), to be a healthy scratch when Radko Gudas returns to the lineup Tuesday after serving a 10-game suspension. … Elliott has a 200-123-41 career record. … T.J. Brennan was loaned back to the Phantoms. … The Flyers’ much-maligned penalty kill has not allowed a power-play goal in their last four games, going 8 for 8.