After only four games in the NHL, first-year Philadelphia Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol has been able to do what former coaches Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube have not done in the last two years: guide the Flyers to a winning record through the first week of the season.
As anyone in Philadelphia knows, however, it’s a long season with inevitable adversities ahead. But based off a 2-1-1 record thus far, can we really expect this year’s team to sustain their high level of play?
Finally Flying Out of the Gate
While every team aspires to achieve a fast start to every season, collecting points out of the shoot was especially imperative for the Flyers. After registering only two points through the first four games of the past three seasons, Hakstol’s team not only wanted success out of the gate, but absolutely needed it.
GM Ron Hextall made his expectations known from the beginning of training camp, despite factors such as, employing a coach straight out of the college ranks, minor adjustments to last year’s roster, and dates with both team’s in last year’s Stanley Cup Final within the first four games.
“We don’t look at it like we’ve got a couple new players and a new coach so we’re going to get off to a tough start . . . no. We expect to get off to a good start,” said Hextall, per Philly.com‘s Jeff Neiburg, after the team’s first day of training camp. “We’re prepared. ‘Hak’ is very detailed, the players have paid attention. There’s a lot of good stuff going on.
“System-wise, does it take some time to start playing without thinking? Maybe a little bit, but Dave is very detailed.”
Despite opening the season on the road against Eastern Conference powerhouse Tampa Bay, the Flyers have gone onto collect five points, three in which were taken from the Lightning, and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Further, Philadelphia’s five points through four games are not only their most in three years, but are only one point shy of matching their six points amassed at the start of the 2011-12 season.
Best start (2-1-1) for the Flyers since 2011-12 (3-0-1)
— Tim Panaccio (@tpanotchCSN) October 15, 2015
A good portion of the team’s success can be attributed to Hakstol, whose even-keeled persona has appeared to rub off on a team that’s desperate to return to the playoffs.
“Control what we can control,” said Hakstol after Wednesday’s shutout win over Chicago, via Tim Panaccio of CSN Philly. “We have known we have a couple of days off coming up here. I think the rest will be good for us.
“I think the practice time will be good for us. It’s nice to be able to go into that with some small success and feel good about the way that we are working and the things we are doing.”
In addition to Hakstol’s influence, the Flyers’s 81 percent penalty kill percentage has not only played a considerable role in Philadelphia’s five points in the standings, but is a drastic turnaround from last season’s 77.1 percent penalty kill efficiency, even if the sample size is considerably smaller.
Writing for CSN Philly, Jordan Hall adds:
Considering where the penalty kill was last season, “very strong” would be an understatement. The Flyers ranked 27th in the NHL on the PK in 2014-15. It was an Achilles’ heel for a team that missed the playoffs and eventually saw its coach get fired shortly thereafter.
However, the penalty kill has been the backbone — along with (Michael) Neuvirth, of course — to two straight wins countering a pair of season-opening losses. In fact, you can say it’s been a vital reason for why the Flyers are finally not slogging through another slow start to a season.
While the Flyers’ 49.51 percent five-on-five SAT percentage to date is slightly better than last season’s 48.38 percent, signs of improvement are all around, from special teams to secondary scoring.
- After being hounded for inconsistency, Brayden Schenn stands atop the team scoring list with two goals and an assist.
- Defenseman Michael Del Zotto has continued to log major minutes, leading the team with an average time on ice of 23:45, while adding value on the penalty kill to boot.
- First-year Flyer Evgeny Medvedev seems to have adjusted to the North American style of play, as the former KHL defenseman is first among teammates appearing in all four games with a 54.05 percent five-on-five SAT percentage.
- The insertion of Sam Gagner into the lineup has also paid dividends, adding significant defensive contributions to his pair of points in as many games played.
- Captain Claude Giroux scored a home even-strength goal in the fourth game of the season against the Blackhawks, after scoring his first five-on-five goal last season on Mar. 25 (against Chicago as well).
- Sean Couturier’s 54.17 percent five-on-five zone start percentage is third among forwards, a drastic shift from last season’s 39.89 percent.
- Neuvirth’s consecutive shutouts marked the first shutout by a Flyers backup goalie since Rey Emery shutout the St. Louis Blues on Apr. 1, 2014. The Flyers are now only one shutout shy of matching their entire total from last season.
As Philadelphia continues to inject optimism into both the dressing room, and the fan base, are we to believe they’re for real? Better yet, how will they respond to the seasonal tests that’s almost guaranteed to come lurking around the corner?
As it turns out, it hasn’t taken long to get our first glimpse at the answer.
Last season, there was no magic pill to take, nor was there a galvanizing playoff guarantee from their captain. Adversity struck the Flyers in an array of ways: harassing their consistency, while infesting itself in injuries and defeats against the league’s bottom-dwelling teams.
With six players tied for second in individual points with two this year, it’s been a collective team effort to this point. But despite heading into a five-day break on the heels of back-to-back shutouts from the backup Neuvirth, it’s vital to see how the Flyers respond to the inevitable adversity that catches every team at some point of the season.
Early indications, however, suggests they’ll be up to the task.
After securing a point in the standings by taking the Bolts to overtime in the opener, it would only take the squad two games to hold a players only closed-door meeting.
#Flyers already having players-only meetings? Have all the players even reported for the season yet???
— Joe (@jcorrado19) October 11, 2015
The Flyers were blown out of the BB&T Center by the Florida Panthers in their second game as Steve Mason was chased from net after allowing four goals on six first period shots en route to a 7-1 throttling.
With Mason briefly leaving the team to tend to a family issue afterwards, the former Calder Trophy winner has yet to return to the crease, although missing a pair of games is hardly a season-defining obstacle.
“Last Saturday wasn’t easy for anybody but everybody took it for what it is,” said Hakstol, per Dave Isaac of the Courier Post. “Everybody dealt with it honestly and directly and that’s the way this group approaches their business on a day-to-day basis. It’s nice to be able to come back off of that type of result, go out, have a couple of great efforts, and have good results from them.”
Hakstol’s Flyers, of course, have since bounced back admirably by returning the favor to the Panthers in a 1-0 shutout win, as well as a 3-0 shutout win over the Blackhawks.
Writing for Broad Street Hockey, Charlie O’Connor gives further detail to Philadelphia’s bounce back under Hakstol:
So much of this can be credited to the adjustments made by Dave Hakstol in the neutral zone, as both the defense and the forwards have already bought into the new system. Not only are most of the defensemen stepping up in the neutral zone to cut off lanes and pressure puck carriers, the forwards are backchecking furiously to provide support. It’s incredible that the Flyers have taken to these adjustments so quickly, especially coming from a new coach with no professional experience.
Philadelphia’s early recovery, however, was achieved on home ice, where they were 23-11-7 last season. And with only two of their next six games to close out the month of October being held on the road, improving on their 10-20-11 road record from a season ago must remain a priority.
“There was not a whole lot of changes,” added defenseman Mark Streit, per Panaccio again. “I know it wasn’t successful last year, but there is a lot of positive in this room, especially the chemistry that the team we have and how bad we want to win.
“Sometimes, you mix up the whole chemistry and whole team and that doesn’t mean it’s going to be better. We realize as a team we need a better start.
“Our road record, as well. We focused in camp on this. This coach really worked with us and has a certain calmness. I believe this team has huge potential.”
Flyers can't complain. Had chance to win, went toe-to-toe with East favorite on the road. Take point and run.
— Ryan Bright (@philabright) October 9, 2015
That potential may continue to be showcased too, since Hakstol’s squad appears to catch a sort of break in the schedule.
Six of the Flyers’ next 10 games will be against teams who failed to make the playoffs last year, including a pair of dates against the Buffalo Sabres.
In the meantime, the Flyers are back to work at practice, while the fans deservedly bask in the early success.