Depending on what part of this season you play them, the Flyers are either the team you would love to see in the playoffs or one you would be glad to avoid.
For most of the two weeks prior to Saturday night, and really, including the first part of it, they were the former version, a team with a chaotic defense corps and suspect goaltending, a team that received most of its offense from four players, and was lacking in mental toughness. Seven losses in eight games had muted talk of first place in favor of a more panicky narrative.
Then came a third period in Carolina on Saturday night in which two players not in that top four – Val Filppula and Michael Raffl — scored in a four-goal outburst. Followed by Sunday’s 6-3 victory over first-place Washington, in which the Flyers stars’ of tomorrow had a day.
Oskar Lindblom’s first NHL goal; Travis Konecny’s gladiator efforts (two blocked shots, a high stick followed by a fight); Travis Sanheim’s steady hand on defense. Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov found the net too. Even enigmatic Jordan Weal dropped a nice hint, popping loose a puck from two Capitals players to facilitate Wayne Simmonds’ second goal, which provided a three-goal lead with less than six minutes remaining.
When it looks like this, it looks as if the Flyers could make some noise in the playoffs. When it looks like this, with players from all four lines contributing and the goalie kicking out a few too, they look like a team that can go places this spring. Heck, even Matt Read figured in this one, playing goalie with Radko Gudas to keep a puck that had flipped behind goaltender Petr Mrazek from entering the net.
But the brightest beacon was the 21-year-old Lindblom, whose first-ever NHL goal recovered a lost lead late in the first period and set the table for what followed. Lindblom’s chances since he joined the team 14 games ago has been somewhat of a bellwether for this team. He did everything right except push the puck into the net, including keeping his cool as his near-misses accompanied losses.
“I don’t remember the game last week, but he had a great opportunity off a rebound at net front,’’ Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said after Sunday’s victory. “That was the first time I saw a little bit of frustration creep in, where he let it show.’’
The coach kept telling him to do what he does. Go to the net. Be strong on pucks. Players, especially linemate Jake Voracek, did too. Teammates such as goalie Alex Lyon, whom he spent much of this season playing with at Lehigh Valley, even gave him some well-intentioned ribbing. “That’s what guys do,’’ Hakstol said, after disclosing that. “Otherwise things get a little bit too tight.’’
Oh, things were tight, all right. Lindblom and Nolan Patrick did some good work to set up Voracek with the second goal Saturday night. That was his first assist, and Hakstol thought it might have led to Sunday’s goal, a wrist shot on a rolling puck that found a tiny bit of space over Caps goaltender Philipp Grubauer’s right shoulder.
“I saw it the whole way,’’ said Lindblom. “And I don’t think I could understand that it went in at first. It was a great feeling. But it was also relief.
“I blacked out a little bit.’’
On the bench moments later, the top of his helmet was hit at least two dozen times. Some guys got in two. It wasn’t just Lindblom who felt relief. Imagine if, over the next nine games, the Flyers reestablish themselves as a team that can roll four lines of pressure at you. Imagine if, between Lyon and Mrazek, they get the kind of goaltending that Brian Elliott was giving them before his untimely injury. Imagine if Elliott can return to the lineup in that form in time for the playoffs.
Imagine if Patrick continues to make plays, win faceoffs, and put up points as a second-line center, Konecny and Simmonds continue to make that third line a force to be reckoned with. Imagine Weal finding his game again, something that he at least hinted at over this four-point weekend.
Then do you really want to see this team in the first round? Your veteran team feeling the grind of the 82-game schedule just as the Flyers’ kiddie corps begins to reap the rewards of its season-long trials?
In the dressing room afterward, Konecny showed no ill effects from his night. No ice on a leg that had taken two slap shots in two shifts. No cuts from the high stick he received from T.J. Oshie. No bandage on the hand he cut on Oshie’s helmet in the fight that followed.
Nice to be 21.
“Awesome,’’ Simmonds mumbled through a swollen mouth vacated of front teeth. “Great to see. I kept telling him, that’s what winners are made of. That’s the type of effort we’re going to need out of every single guy in this dressing room.’’