Maybe it’s their depth. Maybe it’s the infusion of youth and the admitted anxious competitiveness such an infusion has created among veterans. Who knows, maybe it’s even the team’s elevated use of sports science — even if Wayne Simmonds groused after his oxygen efficiency was tested during training camp, “I don’t need no damn machine to tell me I’m in great shape.’’
The Flyers have been faster than every team they have played this season. Significantly.
Fourth-liner Scott Laughton’s singular hustle play in the Flyers’ 8-2 victory Saturday over the Capitals, winning a race with Washington goaltender Philipp Grubauer after forcing Nicklas Backstrom’s turnover along the mid-ice boards along the left board, led to the Flyers’ second first-period goal. Jake Voracek’s entry into the zone with speed – after a sly fake and feed from Shayne Gostisbehere just beyond the blueline created a wide open net for Simmonds on the other side for their third goal. Sean Couturier chased down an errant pass from one side of the offensive zone to the other, spun, and fed Claude Giroux for a difficult tap-in as he trailed the play.
Washington’s speed and depth in the playoffs two seasons ago often led to long stretches of bottling up the Flyers in their own end. But salary-cap restrictions cost them defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner to free agency after last season, and forced the trade of 26-year-old Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils.
They have been replaced with the Capitals’ own infusion of youth and depth. Two rookies, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, made up the Capitals’ second defense pairing Saturday night. Called up that day to replace injured Matt Niskanen, Bowey looked like a child staring at the old missing-quarter trick on the Flyers’ third goal, even losing his stick as Voracek made the puck disappear and re-appear around him.
“It’s all uphill from here now,’’ Bowey, 22, said afterwards.
Make no mistake: With Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Brooks Orpik, and John Carlson, there is still plenty of pop in that lineup. But of that group, only Carlson and Kuznetsov are under the age of 29, and after a Friday-night game against the Devils in Newark, they played more like Pops than players with pop.
“The schedule probably caught up to us a little bit,’’ said Washington coach Barry Trotz, who added he was inclined to “just junk this game’’ rather than review it.
That might not be a wise idea if he wants to alter the results of the next matchup between the teams on the third weekend of January. The narrative that the Flyers turned a 5-2 second-period advantage into an 8-2 rout simply because the visitors were tired ignores that the shots on goal recorded by the home team in each period stayed remarkably consistent – 13, 11, 13.
Three of the four Flyers lines were represented in their six even-strength goals.
“You talk a little bit about an identity,’’ Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said afterwards, responding to a question. “It’s four lines, it’s six D, it’s everybody that is in the lineup just going out and doing their job. You ask if it’s sustainable? That’s the way we have to play. … We got in on a lot of pucks tonight and we were able to create puck possession and from there get some of our cycle game going.”
Jordan Weal had an assist Saturday night. Brandon Manning too. Couturier, out to prove he’s more than just a defensive shadow, had two more goals and an assist. Often assigned to keep an eye on Ovechkin, the oft-maligned Andrew MacDonald was a plus-2 as the Russian star recorded a minus-4.
And the big guns? They vowed after last season’s messy ending that it would motivate their summer and it sure seems to have. Voracek pushed his assist total to nine this season with three more Saturday. Giroux added two goals and three points too, and Gostisbehere had his second three assist goal already this season.
“I think guys were just tired of not making the playoffs,’’ said Giroux of the off-season commitment.
Simmonds echoed those sentiments, and again credited the infusion of youth – and the threat of a youth-infusion – with pushing the conditioning of the vets. The only guy in the room who seemed not to be drinking the Kool-Aid just yet was Voracek, having the most productive start to his career amid some fan disenchantment about his career arc that he is clearly aware of.
“There will be bumps in the road and we need to be able to handle those,’’ he said. “We can’t have those long stretches, 10, 11 games where we don’t get a point. We have to find a way to grind out some points when we hit those stretches.
“Those great teams that win the Stanley Cups, they find a way to win the games when they don’t deserve to win the games.’’