The Flyers took five or more penalties in eight of their first 25 games this season. Back then, secondary scoring was a huge issue. Players like Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick saw limited ice time, a top defenseman such as Ivan Provorov played what Flyers coach Dave Hakstol likes to term "heavy minutes.'' A 10-game winless streak seemed to bury any hopes for a bounce-back season and inspired the usual demands for a coach firing, a housecleaning, even a review of the methods of upper management.
"I think there was a moment there, we hit a few speed bumps and you ponder things,'' said Dave Scott, the chairman and CEO of Comcast Spectacor, following a media event Wednesday to show the improvements made at the Flyers' training facility in Voorhees. "But we doubled down on Ron [Hextall, the general manager] and the system, and we're really pleased where we are.''
In the 34 games since, there have been only two games in which they took five or more penalties. Just four times in 2018 has it even eclipsed three. Lo and behold, the team has recorded one of the NHL's best records since ending a 10-game winless streak on Dec. 4, their 23-8-3 mark trailing only Boston and Vegas for the league's best over that stretch.
"For me, if you have to kill three or four minor penalties, you're at a little bit of risk but you can get the job done,'' Hakstol was saying after practice Wednesday. "But when you get in that five or six range, now you're draining the bench. You're taking guys out of rhythm who aren't killing penalties. There's a lot of things that domino off that. Not just the obvious negative of giving up opportunities against a good power play.''
Lo and behold, too, Konecny has played his way into first-line status, has become the sniper fans have been pining for eternally. Patrick has recovered from a shaky start, an early concussion and perhaps lingering effects of offseason core muscle surgery to become the second-line force anticipated from the start. Three forwards not on the first two lines have recorded 10 goals – Michael Raffl, Scott Laughton, and Valtteri Filppula. Tuesday's opponent, Montreal, had one such player.
"One thing we've been able to do is have each line contribute,'' Hakstol said. "Have each 'D' pairing contribute on a nightly basis. The more you're playing five-on-five, the more often you're going to get everybody involved in the game. That's a big part of it. If there aren't big time spans between shifts, I think you have a better chance to be in the game and really be in the fight.''
Over the last three games, the Flyers have not surrendered a single power play. In their current nine-game point streak, six of which have been victories, they have just twice eclipsed three penalties – the number Hakstol believes separates a game where five-on-five rhythms can be established. In that span, they have allowed four goals in 19 power plays, a 79 percent kill rate that has slightly improved what is still the league's 28th-ranked penalty kill (75 percent).
Most impressive is that they are doing this 60 games into the season, when tired legs usually create more stick penalties, not fewer.
"We haven't preached anything different,'' Hakstol said. "Everything tightens up a little this time of year and we've done a good job of eliminating those situations and those penalties. It's helped us win those games.''