Flyers

Michael Raffl rejuvenated playing with Flyers' dynamic fourth line

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Michael Raffl rejuvenated playing with Flyers' dynamic fourth line

VOORHEES, N.J. — Don't think for one minute Michael Raffl isn't having fun.

The fifth-year Flyers forward is without a single point through 15 games and sees the shortest ice time on the team at 10:14 a night, a career low.

For a guy that scored 21 goals in 2014-15 and was at times featured in a top-line role alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, remaining his jovial self would seem like a challenge.

Raffl, though, has no reason to slouch. The good-humored Austrian is simply having a different type of fun. He's now on the highly praised, new-look fourth line with Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier. At 28 years old, Raffl is an elder statesman of sorts among Laughton and Leier, both 23 years old.

"My back gets sore from carrying those two guys," Raffl said Tuesday as Laughton laughed sitting right next to his locker at Flyers Skate Zone. "It's been good with those four days off now."

Raffl and Laughton are tight off the ice, which makes for good chemistry on it.

"For sure, he's still a rookie," Raffl said. "I put him in his place. He's been a good helper."

What does Laughton like about playing with Raffl?

"Nothing," he said, still laughing with his locker buddy.

Yeah, Raffl is doing just fine — the new job hasn't squelched his enjoyment.

"I'm just joking, this is all fun," Raffl said. "It's been good. Stats haven't been there, but the team has been going very well. This is pretty much the best I've felt ever since I've been here, team-wise. There are not too many games this year where we absolutely had no chance in a game. I felt like we were there every single time and could have won every single game, so that has been fun."

Furthermore, Raffl finally has consistency in his role, even if the major stats portray it as a lesser one. Throughout his time with the Flyers, Raffl has bounced around from line to line and position to position.

This season, he's appeared in every game thus far and hasn't moved.

"I take pride in it," Raffl said. "I don't think I've ever played more than 50 games on a line, so it's been a good run so far."

Raffl, Laughton and Leier have become a fixture on the beloved fourth unit.

"I haven't played with anyone else yet, so I'm happy with it," Leier said. "The two linemates I have right now, they're both great players. Raf's got [284] games, and he's been with G and Voracek at times, so he's been through it, he knows what he's doing obviously. He's been a 20-goal scorer, and then Scotty, too, he's got over 100 games, and it's good to have a guy like that on your line."

And while Raffl doesn't get to boast goals and assists, he's done a lot in the smaller areas. The winger has been a plus player, his 21 hits are second among all Flyers forwards, and he's committed just two giveaways and one penalty.

"That's what your job is on the fourth line," Raffl said. "It's still nice to score goals and get points, don't get me wrong, but yeah, it is what it is.

"You've got to adjust your game if you play a role like that.

"Leiersy and Laughts, they're extremely simple to play with, there's no magic to it. You go out there and work hard, be hard on pucks. If you turn it over or lose it, those guys are so fast, they can backcheck and get the puck back. All three of us have been doing that, so it gives you confidence in the offensive zone to try different stuff. Honestly, it's been a lot of fun so far."

Much to the delight of head coach Dave Hakstol.

"He just fits the mold of that line," Hakstol said of Raffl. "All of those guys have worked well together. The other two guys kill penalties together, so that kind of inherently builds a little bit more chemistry. Right from Day 1 of camp, Raf and Laughts have shown that they've had pretty good chemistry together. They've spent a lot of time together and very little time apart since Day 1 of camp."

Meanwhile, Raffl will eventually score a goal again.

It'll just add to his new fun.

"I actually forgot how to celebrate," Raffl said.

Flyers have clear path to postseason but ...

Flyers have clear path to postseason but ...

It’s about to get real for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Real serious and potentially really hard. The Flyers have played the fewest divisional games of any team in the NHL.

That might be beneficial if the team located about 40 minutes off the shores of the Atlantic Ocean actually played in the Atlantic Division. The Flyers have hammered Atlantic teams this season: an 8-4-0 record including a win in Tampa and their most recent three-game series sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Whereas the Atlantic houses a collection of domesticated poodles and Pomeranians, the Metropolitan Division is more a breeding ground for vicious Dobermans and pit bulls.

And the Flyers are about to enter the teeth of that beast.

Dave Hakstol’s club plays 19 of their remaining 37 games against the rock-solid Metropolitan, the only 8-team division in hockey without a legitimate doormat or two. 

“It’s good or bad depending on whether you’re winning or not,” general manager Ron Hextall said.“It’s great taking points from other teams and adding to your total. It does put a higher importance on those games for sure. Every game is important, but certain games are just a little more important. Your lows can’t be too low. That’s the bottom line.

“They’re divisional games. They’re huge games for us, especially with how tight it is with that wild card spot,” center Sean Couturier said. “We’ve got to step up and be ready for the challenge.”

Unfortunately for the Flyers, their sore spot over their past two-plus seasons has been their play against the Metropolitan elites — the teams they’re typically chasing in the standings.

4-4-1 vs. Capitals
3-5-2 vs. Rangers
3-6-1 vs. Penguins
2-3-4 vs. Blue Jackets

Collectively, that’s a 12-18-8 record in the Dave Hakstol era with just a 4-9-6 mark on the road. Interestingly, defenseman Brandon Manning believes roster formation has been part of the reason behind the success of the Flyers' opponents.  

“Credit to them, I think they’ve done a good job of getting better every year,” Manning said. “You look at what Pittsburgh does with their turnover and still finding a way to win. Columbus is so much better and you look at Jersey, which hasn’t been the greatest team the past couple of years, but this year they have a really good hockey team. I think credit to those teams for finding a way to get better.” 

And if there’s a direct path to the postseason, then winning these crucial divisional games has to be the way to get there. Since the formation of the NHL’s current four-division alignment in 2013-14, the Metropolitan has sent 17 teams to the playoffs and only once has a team reached the postseason without a winning record within the division — the Pittsburgh Penguins finished 9-17-4 in the Metro in 2014-15. 

The Capitals, Rangers and Blue Jackets also have the luxury of rostering a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender in crucial divisional games, whereas, Hakstol will rely more on a platoon based on Elliott’s first-half workload and Neuvirth attempting to regain his early season form.  

“I haven’t studied the schedule that much in depth, but considering Moose started a stretch of 25 out of 30 games, that’s a real heavy workload,” Hakstol said. “I would expect the workload to be more spread out than that. We’ll find the best rhythm to be able and have both of them help our team.

“You need two goalies. I don’t care who you are,” Hextall said. “Look around the league. I said it before, there’s no Marty Brodeurs.”

Maybe not, but Saturday it all starts with Brodeur’s former team and with a back-to-back against the Devils and the Capitals this weekend. The Flyers' position within the division can change very drastically one direction or the other.

Pleasant surprises in a first for Flyers

Pleasant surprises in a first for Flyers

BOX SCORE

When asked what he thought about the current Flyers team prior to his retirement ceremony, Eric Lindros admitted he really didn’t know all that much regarding this year’s team. 

After Thursday night’s 3-2 win over Lindros’ hometown Maple Leafs (see observations), "Big E" and a sold-out Wells Fargo Center crowd learned something about the Flyers that no one in Philadelphia had been privy to.

The Flyers capped off their first win this season when trailing by two or more goals entering the third period. Interestingly, the only other third-period comeback that led to a victory was when they trailed this same Toronto team, 2-1, on Dec. 12. Prior to this game, the Flyers were 1-12-2 this season when trailing after two periods.

Certainly, the Flyers needed goal scoring, but more importantly, they also received a handful of momentum saves from goaltender Michal Neuvirth.

“Huge," Neuvirth said regarding his 29-save performance. “When we tied it, it was like, 'OK, here we go. You gotta be at your best right now.' So I was just focusing on the next shot. Just happy the way the guys responded in the third.”

Neuvirth had little, if any, margin of error after the Leafs scored twice in a 28-second span to grab a 2-0 advantage, but the Flyers' backup netminder provided a handful of momentum saves that allowed the Flyers to win in overtime.

• A minute after Wayne Simmonds tied the game at 2-2 with a shorthanded goal, Neuvirth stopped Auston Matthews and Connor Brown on back-to-back shots, including an impressive blocker save on Brown from up close.

• With 2:48 remaining in regulation, Neuvirth made the save of the game with the Leafs coming down on a 2-on-1. Neuvirth expected Nazem Kadri to shoot. Instead, he passed it to his left, forcing Neuvirth to make a full extension on Patrick Marleau, turning aside the shot with the tip of his right pad (see highlights).

• Neuvirth denied Matthews from in tight with another pad save just 10 seconds into overtime. That save created a 2-on-1 scoring chance resulting in Sean Couturier’s game-winning score. 

“At least three 10-bell saves by Neuvy. He was tremendous,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We generated a lot in the third period, but when you give up those chances against, Neuvy stole the show in my opinion and you need those saves sometimes to win games. For me, he was first star.”

Neuvirth and the rest of the Flyers needed an initial spark and 19-year-old rookie Nolan Patrick was surprisingly the one to provide it. After taking a shot that hit the side of the net and caromed behind it, Patrick chased down Mitch Marner, stole the puck and fired a quick shot on goaltender Frederik Andersen for his first goal in his last 25 games.

“I tried to forget how many games it was in a row without a goal and just keep playing,” Patrick said. “I thought I was playing some good hockey lately and I knew it would come.”

A minute and 52 seconds later, Simmonds tied the game at 2-2 with the Flyers' second shorthanded goal of the season, extending his point streak to six games.

Struggling to find the right overtime combinations, Hakstol elected to go with the trio of Couturier, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov to start the extra session. Couturier continued his magical run and now has 11 goals in his last 12 games, while also providing five game-winning goals in the Flyers' last 10 victories. 

“He’s hot. We keep calling him ‘Rocket,’" Simmonds said, referring to Hall of Famer Maurice “Rocket” Richard. “You just keep giving him the puck and he’s going to find the back of the net. When you’re hot, you want to keep giving it to a guy like that. Hopefully, he’s going to continue to score for us.”

More Couturier goals and more game-changing saves, and the Flyers will find themselves rocketing up the standings.