Will O'Neill makes long-awaited NHL debut in Flyers' win vs. Blues

Philadelphia Flyers

Will O'Neill makes long-awaited NHL debut in Flyers' win vs. Blues

For the majority of professional hockey players at the highest level, that first NHL game is the rest stop off the interstate. Sure, they’re looking forward to it, but it’s just the first stop to a final destination.

Thursday night in St. Louis — as Will O'Neill made his NHL debut in the Flyers' 2-0 win — at the corner of Clark and 14th Streets may as well have been the parking lot at Disney World for the 29-year-old, who leading up to the game, had heard and experienced just about every other player’s first NHL experience, except his own.

“I always believed in myself that I was a good player, that I could play at this level,” O’Neill said. “There were certainly times where it seemed I couldn’t really catch a break, but things happen for a reason. You keep on getting better as a player, an organization recognizes that and gives you a chance. That’s all you want.”

If O’Neill wasn’t Mr. Irrelevant of the 2006 NHL draft, he was pretty darn close. He was the fourth-to-last player taken in the seventh round, 210th overall or 188 picks after the Flyers had chosen Claude Giroux in the first round. Giroux walked on stage wearing the Flyers' sweater. O’Neill received a phone call back home in Massachusetts from the Atlanta Thrashers.    

When you’re Will O’Neill, it’s never about Will O’Neill. 

He has made it his responsibility to look out for his younger teammates, whether that meant giving guys who didn’t own a car a ride to the arena, or just covering the tab on an afternoon lunch. 

One of those guys was Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Jake Guentzel, who came to the AHL on an amateur tryout. Penguins coach Clark Donatelli thought it might help Guentzel to be situated next to O’Neill in the team dressing room. Perhaps, O'Neill could impart some of his wisdom, knowledge and experience on Guentzel.

This past June, Guentzel blew the doors off his entry into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he scored 13 goals. And if he hadn’t shared the ice with arguably one of the greatest players on the planet, Guentzel may have walked away with the Conn Smythe Trophy as Most Valuable Player of the postseason. Whatever Guentzel learned along the way, O’Neill was part of the process.     

However, O'Neill's caring, unselfish demeanor to give back doesn’t stop when he’s away from the rink. In the community, he frequents local schools and hospitals, dropping off toys, books and whatever else he can contribute, no matter where he’s gone. All of which explains why he’s been recognized and honored as the AHL’s Specialty Man of the Year for his outstanding contributions to the community for not one, but two different organizations.

When general manager Ron Hextall brought O’Neill into the Flyers organization on Day 1 of the free-agent frenzy in 2016, it certainly wasn’t intended to be a depth signing at the NHL level, but rather Hextall’s recognition of a player with strong character who could impart wisdom and guidance to one of the most talented group of prospects in the league.  

O’Neill was just happy he had a place and a role within the organization. Pursuing a different career even as he entered his late-20s never entered O'Neill’s mind. After all, his father, William, has been the head hockey coach at Salem State University for the past 36 years, so the idea of transitioning to a new job just doesn’t seem to resonate.

“I’ve always loved to play the game,” O’Neill said. “It’s great. I always thought you just keep on playing, keep on playing no matter where it takes me year to year. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I love to do. I love to watch it, I love to play it. It’s pretty much everything I know. You just want to keep on playing at the highest level as long as you possibly can.”

As you might expect, O'Neill wanted to share the greatest experience of his life with those who have been there every step of the way. His mom, Liz, along with sister, Rachel, arrived from Boston, and so did O'Neill's best friend, Peter O’Toole, who he grew up with in Salem and now works for an investment firm in Chicago. The only person missing was dad, who had a game of his own.

“It’s a great moment for Will. His belief is beyond reproach,” William O’Neill said from his office at Salem State. “I admire his dedication, his passion, and his perseverance is incredible. If you ever waver from that, you have no chance.”

But until Thursday night, O’Neill wasn’t exactly sure his game could hold up at the highest level, despite 346 games in the minors. 

“I’ve played in a lot of AHL games, and preseason games, it’s certainly different," O'Neill said. "You get there and you just need to get into the game, get your feet wet. You’ve played a lot, and just do what I always did.”

Of the six defensemen the Flyers dressed against the Blues, Brandon Manning, with his 150 games played, was the most experienced of the six and yet even he realized how quickly O’Neill blended in despite not having a single practice or morning skate to get acclimated. 

“Yeah, it’s pretty impressive,” Manning said. “He’s obviously been around, he’s obviously had some experiences, but you don’t know what to expect for your first game, and he came in and did a great job. When he was out there, he looked like he had been there before.”

Three shots on net, 9:25 of ice time, and just like the past 11 years from the day he was drafted, O’Neill was barely noticed. For an NHL defenseman in his debut, anonymity is the best way to go about it.

“Everyone was great,” O’Neill said. “They were trying to get me going, trying to pump me up and knowing they’ve all been through that at different parts of your life. I just took all of that in.” 

It's time to give Dave Hakstol credit

It's time to give Dave Hakstol credit

It wasn't long ago when some fans filled the Wells Fargo Center with chants to fire Dave Hakstol.

Back on Nov. 28, the displeasure was bubbling amid a confounding 10-game losing streak. The Flyers were wrapping up a 3-1 defeat to the Sharks as the skid apathetically hit nine.

That's when the boo birds came out in full flock.

The scene, so ugly, forced Ron Hextall into the Flyers' dressing room postgame to deliver what felt like a state of the union address in front of cameras and recorders. Over the next handful of days, on multiple occasions, the general manager had to defend his head coach's job security, and at times vehemently.

Oh, how things have changed.

Since Dec. 4, when the free fall was halted, the Flyers have gone 23-8-3 with 49 points, third most in the NHL behind only the Bruins and Golden Knights. Hakstol's bunch has climbed into playoff position, sitting in third place of the Metropolitan Division and only three games behind the first-place Capitals. 

When the losing streak was at its worst, the Flyers were in dead last of the eight-team Metro. At the time, things looked troubling.

But give credit where credit is due. 

Hakstol deserves plenty of it this season, especially for his constant maneuvering of personnel, which has proved wise time and time again.

First, it was shifting Claude Giroux from center to left wing during training camp. That was not an easy decision when asking a player as decorated as Giroux, on the verge of turning 30, to make a position change. The result has been a career resurgence for the Flyers' captain. After 58 points (14 goals, 44 assists) and a minus-15 rating in 82 games last season, Giroux has 70 points (20 goals, 50 assists), tied for the NHL's second most, and a plus-15 mark through 60 games this season.

Not only has the move behooved Giroux, but it has also allowed for Sean Couturier's anticipated breakout. With Hakstol entrusting the 25-year-old to be his first-line center, the do-it-all Couturier is blossoming into the team's most valuable player, already shattering his career highs in goals (29), assists (31) and points (60).

This was all before the curtain even opened for the 2017-18 season.

To date, Hakstol's adjustments have only continued throughout the season — and they've worked. 

Despite topflight production early from his first line of Giroux, Coutuier and Jakub Voracek, the Flyers struggled, so the third-year coach broke up the trio in order for more balance within the forwards group.

The split created room for Travis Konecny to eventually make his way onto the top unit — and so far, so good would be an understatement. The 20-year-old has discovered his first-round potential with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in as many games since Dec. 28, a stretch in which the Flyers are 16-6-2.

To squeeze out even more ability, Hakstol has plugged in Konecny on the first 3-on-3 overtime grouping. In their last six games decided in OT, the Flyers are 6-0.

Meanwhile, Voracek hasn't missed a beat since joining the second line as he leads the league in assists with 55, the defensive pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere has paid dividends, while the team is currently riding a historic stretch of discipline

And, most recently, the important choice of filling Wayne Simmonds' first-unit power-play role saw immediate results. Hakstol on Tuesday used No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick, who wasted little time rewarding his coach with a man-advantage goal on the team's first chance.

"Hak, first of all, is a very good coach," Hextall reaffirmed on Nov. 29. "He's as hard a working person as I've ever seen in the game.

"We're a young team, we have a lot of young kids coming and we're going to get better. We're going to play better than we're currently playing."

Hextall may be the most prudent general manager in the game.

He sure wasn't about to overreact 26 games into a season — and you can see why that's not his nature. What Hextall adamantly believed is what has transpired — the Flyers are improving under Hakstol.

There's no denying that. 

They were 8-11-7 and scoring 2.69 goals per game with a minus-9 differential (79-70) when the losing streak was at 10. They've been one of hockey's best teams since then with 3.24 goals per game and a plus-20 differential (110-90).

Look at the broader picture: Through 60 games last season, the Flyers were 28-25-7 with 63 points and a minus-29 goal differential (179-150). This season, at the same juncture, the Flyers are 31-19-10 with 72 points and a plus-11 goal differential (180-169).

With two new goalies and no Simmonds (upper-body injury) for two to three weeks, Hakstol has bigger decisions ahead, ones he'll have to get right with a postseason berth in the balance.

But he's already done a lot right — and it's time he gets a little credit for it.

Vegas feeling golden after moving atop NHL standings

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Vegas feeling golden after moving atop NHL standings

LAS VEGAS -- Alex Tuch scored the tiebreaking goal in the second period and the Vegas Golden Knights pulled away for a 7-3 victory over the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night.

With the win, the Golden Knights moved back atop the NHL standings with 84 points -- one ahead of Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay.

Ryan Carpenter, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Luca Sbisa, Erik Haula and Cody Eakin also scored for Vegas, which improved to 23-4-2 at home to set the record for home wins by a team in its inaugural season. It topped the previous mark set by the Gordie Howe-lead 1979-80 Whalers (22-12-6).

Tuch also had an assist and his first fight of the season, giving him the so-called Gordie Howe hat trick.

Marc-Andre Fleury, starting his ninth straight game, made 28 saves for the Golden Knights.

TJ Brodie, Dougie Hamilton and Matthew Tkachuk scored for Calgary, which was 8-2-1 in its previous 11 road games. David Rittich finished with 19 saves (see full recap).

Blackhawks need lengthy shootout for win over Sens 
CHICAGO -- Nick Schmaltz scored the deciding goal in the seventh round of the shootout to give Chicago a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night, just the Blackhawks' second victory in 11 games.

Schmaltz fired a wrist shot between the legs of Mike Condon after Patrick Kane and rookie Alex DeBrincat connected earlier in the tiebreaker. Matt Duchene and Mike Hoffman scored in the shootout for the Senators, who lost their second straight.

Kane scored his team-leading 23rd goal and set up Artem Anisimov's 16th in regulation for theBlackhawks. Anton Forsberg stopped 32 shots through overtime and five of seven in the shootout, including final stop on Mark Stone.

Duchene and Zack Smith scored for the Senators in regulation, Stone had two assists, and Condon finished with 36 saves through overtime.

Chicago's Joel Quenneville coached his 1,600th NHL game. Only Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour have coached more.

The Senators and last-place Blackhawks, two teams well out of playoff contention heading into the NHL's trade deadline on Monday, both played their first of three games in four nights (see full recap).

Miller helps streaking Ducks blank Stars
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Ryan Miller couldn't help but crack a smile when remembering the mess the Anaheim Ducks found themselves in.

After two Ducks players put the puck over the glass on back-to-back plays while already on the penalty kill in the third period, Miller just dug in and helped drag Anaheim to its longest winning streak of the season.

Miller stopped 41 shots for his 42nd career shutout as the Ducks beat the Dallas Stars 2-0 Wednesday night for their fourth straight win.

"We can laugh about it now, but when you watch those two float out of the rink you get a little anxious," said Miller, who picked up his third shutout of the season.

Ryan Getzlaf scored short-handed and Hampus Lindholm had a power-play goal for the Ducks, who took sole possession of third place in the Pacific Division.

It was the Ducks' second straight shutout, after Miller came on for the third period in relief of an injured John Gibson in a 2-0 win at Vegas on Monday (see full recap).