On the walls of the room where Dave Hakstol conducts postgame interviews are images from the Flyers’ fearsome past. Toothless grins, headlines about roughing up Russians – even the Time Magazine cover with the kind-hearted eyes of Bernie Parent peering through a marked-up facemask seems threatening.
You came into Philadelphia in the ’70s, or the ’80s, or even the second half of the ’90s, you expected to be hit, and hit hard. Before every playoff series, regardless of the relative meanness of the opposing team, visiting media focused on matching the Flyers’ toughness, of not being intimidated, of officials keeping things from getting out of hand.
And so on. And so on.
Well, here are some stats for you: After two periods in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, the Flyers were being out-hit on the scoresheet 25-11. It ended 31-18. Against Nashville last Thursday, the Flyers registered just 12 hits to the Predators’ 22. Against Florida, they were outhit 22-13.
And yet they are 5-3, with victories against playoff teams Washington, Anaheim and Edmonton, and two hard-fought one-goal losses to last year’s Stanley Cup runner-up, Nashville.
It’s too early to call their overall team speed intimidating, but it has clearly caught the attention of each team they have played so far. That speed has allowed forwards to jar loose pucks, for defensemen to pinch more often, and yes, for opponents to get in their licks as they try to slow them down.
“It’s kind of a trade-off,’’ veteran Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald was saying in the dressing room following Saturday’s matinee. “If you have the puck a lot and you’re grinding down low, the opposition is going to be hitting you. Likewise on the other end, if you’re breaking up chances and opportunities without having to chase them around, you don’t have to hit them as much. There’s obviously a time and place, but separating guys from the puck is very important. Having a good stick. Obviously, for myself, I’m not the most physical player, but you have to have a good stick and separate the puck and then let everyone come in and do their job.’’
Quick aside: MacDonald is often a target when hockey’s expanded use of metrics is applied. But there are no numbers to adequately appreciate the grit he showed after taking a puck to the lower part of a leg during a particularly frantic sequence of plays late in Saturday’s game. Barely able to regain his feet, barely able to move, he somehow held his ground in front of the net, eventually diving across the crease to clear a rebound that lay dangerously beyond Brian Elliott’s screened vision.
On Sunday, the Flyers announced MacDonald would miss the next four to six weeks with a lower-body injury.
“He makes a lot of those plays during a hockey game,’’ said Flyers coach Hakstol. “That one, obviously, is a highlight type of play. Not just to block the shot, but then to make a play after that as well, to stay out there and make a play at a critical time of a hockey game. Those are the kinds of things that give your bench a little bit of momentum and a bit of a lift.”
Over the last three games, MacDonald was credited with six blocked shots.
And one hit.
Before Sunday’s games, the Flyers ranked 25th in total team hits with 136. Of the six teams below them, only one, the Minnesota Wild, reached the playoffs last season. But only a handful of teams have blocked more shots, and while their Corsi for percentage in all situations – a purported measurement of puck possession — is smack in the middle of the NHL pack (49.6 percent) and slightly below last year’s mark (52 percent), other metrics from places like NaturalStatTrick.com confirm what your eyes tell you: The Flyers are creating better chances off the rush and taking more shots in the high-danger areas.
“When you have a lot of speed and you’re playing with the puck, you might not have to hit as much,’’ said MacDonald. “You’re stick-checking really well, you’re back-checking really well and there just aren’t as many opportunities.’’
“I think it’s more important these days to keep your speed, and get your stick on the puck,’’ said Sean Couturier, who seems in the process this season of morphing from a defensive center to an all-around threat. “I mean, obviously if you have the time to make a hit you do it, but sometimes just taking the passing lane away and limiting their ability to make a play, that’s the key, I think.
“We don’t want to slow the game down. You want to finish your hits when you can, but if you take yourself out of plays finishing hits, then you’re creating space to make a play for the opposing team.’’
So maybe we need to redo the interview room to reflect the more modern NHL, where maybe hits aren’t as intimidating as waves of fast skaters coming at you are.
Hold off on that, said Couturier. It is, after all, still October.
“It’s still part of the game,’’ he said. “Especially down the road, playoff hockey, when you’re playing the same team so many times back-to-back. It gets into guys’ heads, you’re going to get hit every time. It’s important then.’’