The ritual began as it always has. The practice shirt first, then the stockings, each rolled into a ball for an indifferent launch toward the laundry basket in the middle of the dressing room at the Flyers Skate Zone.
Swish. Another swish. And then a third.
“Do you usually hit everything like that?’’ Travis Konecny was asked.
“No,’’ said the Flyers’ second-year wing.
Right now, the 20-year-old could hit that laundry basket from the blue line. He has five goals and six assists since joining the dynamic first-line duo of Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux in late December. But if you think he’s been just a lucky passenger, well, you might be just a tad too locked in on the Eagles.
In consecutive games against Washington on Sunday and Detroit on Tuesday, Konecny scored the winning goal in the first overtime shift at precisely the same time (27 seconds). Before that, he had a goal and assist in the Flyers’ 3-1 victory over New Jersey, and threaded a sweet pass to Couturier for another overtime winner against Toronto last Thursday.
“Honestly, a play like that is just luck,’’ he said of Tuesday’s game-winner. “Honest to God, I was just coming back in my zone and the puck just happened to come back from the pile in my direction.’’
Yes, but here’s the thing: A month ago Konecny would not have been on the ice in the first minute of overtime; wouldn’t have been there in the final minute of it, either. A shootout? Be real. The most lasting impression he had left in the first 34 games of this season was of pucks sailing high and wide, mind-numbing turnovers from cross-ice neutral-zone passes, of speed without a strategy. A promising game was followed by a maddening one, a dynamic shift followed by a dumb one.
“The learning curve in this league is hard,’’ coach Dave Hakstol said. “And there’s no way around it. Young players have to learn to handle that and work their way through it. There’s no quick way to the top. He’s still a young player. And he’s worked hard. A lot of the stuff you don’t see is what happens behind the scenes with the coaches and the veterans in the back spending time with him. It’s a tough learning curve and there’s still a little ways to go on that curve. But he’s a hell of an important part of our team and he’s added a lot since he’s elevated his game over the last several months.’’
It’s really been a month. And one big elevation. When Hakstol flipped him to the first line and moved Wayne Simmonds to the third back on Dec. 23, Konecny had scored four times over his first 34 games and accumulated just 10 points. With a similar struggle for much of his rookie season, it was fair to wonder if the 2015 first-round pick had been overvalued. Konecny had rolled up 101 points in his final season in juniors, but the league is full of guys who couldn’t translate such productivity to the NHL level and instead settled into role players, or worse, settled in another country to play their hockey.
Konecny had some of those markings. He has made sins of omission and sins of overexuberance on the ice this season and last, and when the puck found his stick in scoring positions, it either sailed high and wide or was passed off to someone with a lesser opportunity.
But as Hakstol said, he has worked. And he has improved. As he pointed out, his opportunity Tuesday occurred while he was thinking defense. The pass to Couturier last Thursday was not only a great play, it was the right one.
“It’s a really hard league and you’ve got to learn the league,’’ Hakstol said. “Some guys have that scoring knack and are able to do it right away. But look at Coots. He’s a pure goal scorer now, and I’m sure he always was a goal scorer. It just takes a little time to figure it out.’’
It’s a great point. Couturier had four goals and 11 assists in 46 games when he was 20, and that productivity improved only incrementally in the four full seasons preceding this one. Shooting inaccuracy and a tendency to pass instead of shoot obscured somewhat the value of the defensive skills with which he entered the league and honed in the seasons that preceded what is, at age 25, his breakout one.
Konecny knows he is unlikely to maintain this recent pace, even if he maintains his first-line status. But he can continue to trigger trust — trust that the hard lessons of this hard league he is making look so easy lately are making their way into his hockey DNA.
“Being effective using my speed and creating turnovers,’’ he said of the part he can control. “Behind their goal line, pushing their ‘D’ out of our zone. Just little things like that I’ve been trying to focus on.
“Everything is just kind of coming together right now.’’