“From small things, mama, big things one day come.’’ – Bruce Springsteen
They met several times during last week’s road trip, Wayne Simmonds said. Just the Flyers’ players, emphasizing and re-emphasizing the small things that might have been missing during a 10-game victory drought.
For the fourth game in a row, those small things flipped that equation, resulting in a 4-2 victory over a Toronto team that had gone into Tuesday’s game coming off a 1-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
Yes, the Flyers outshot the Leafs, 39-22. But that’s just one of the numbers reflecting their commitment to the smaller things. Two of their goals can be traced to Sean Couturier’s faceoff wins, some of the cleanest you will ever see in a professional hockey game. That shot total can be traced to a greater commitment Tuesday and in those three road wins last week to just pushing the puck into the offensive zone once they cross the red line.
“We’ve been better in that area,’’ coach Dave Hakstol said. “But it’s not just pushing the puck into the zone. The first thing that has to happen is you have to read what’s around you. You have to know what the opportunity is. If you don’t have back pressure, if you have a little bit of time and space, you can make plays going up the ice. But so many teams now do an outstanding job of both having good gap between their defensemen and having back pressure. So you just have to live for the next play. You have to put it to an area where it’s not a turnover; where you have an opportunity to go and get it back.’’
Hakstol’s strategic contribution, despite his disclaimers, should be noted as well. Placing Simmonds on the first line and pairing Jake Voracek with Michael Raffl triggered a goal spree by Raffl and given the team some much-needed scoring balance. Tuesday’s tweak, dropping Travis Konecny to join Taylor Leier and Scott Laughton on the fourth line, produced Konecny’s tying third-period goal, a seeing-eye wrister that pinballed off a stack of bodies that included both Leier and Laughton.
But back to faceoffs, one of hockey’s underreported and underemphasized factors. Couturier won 7 of 9 Tuesday; Giroux, 7 of 10. Combined, that’s 14 of 19, and none was bigger than Couturier’s clean pull from Toronto’s Zack Hyman that teed up Giroux for the game’s first goal.
“A lot of times, we try that play,’’ Giroux said. “It never really works out.’’
Said Couturier: “I think every faceoff is pretty important. If you start the puck most of the game, it gets tiring for the other team, and you create a lot more things, too, when you have the puck.’’
Much later, pinned in its own zone with the score at 2-2, that line was forced to ice the puck. To the left of goaltender Brian Elliott, Couturier won another faceoff cleanly, this time from Connor Brown. Seconds later, after the puck had been moved just beyond the Flyers’ own blue line, Giroux made an unreal between-the-legs pass toward the middle of the ice that Couturier ran down and wristed over the shoulder of Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen for the game-winner.
It was Couturier’s 15th goal of the season, tying his career high, which was achieved while playing 82 games in 2014-15. Tuesday’s game was the Flyers’ 30th.
“I think I’m shooting the puck more,’’ the center said. “Having the mentality of just shooting through the goalie instead of picking the corner. You don’t always have that time — guys are getting a stick on you; pucks get tipped. This year, I’m trying to focus on just shooting the puck as quick as I can.’’
And yet his game-winner looked as though he picked a corner. The reality, he said, is that he was just trying to take a quality shot on a rolling puck with a defenseman bearing down on him.
Another small thing. Another big result.
“He’s just a really smart player,’’ Giroux said. “He gets open very well. … He’s playing some really good hockey.’’
This was at the end of about three minutes of singing the praises of his linemate.
“I’m done talking about Coots,’’ Giroux said finally, with a smile. “Enough!’’