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Flyers' Radko Gudas set to return from suspension, but did he learn his lesson?

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Flyers' Radko Gudas set to return from suspension, but did he learn his lesson?

He plays the game as if he’s preparing to be attacked in a dark, damp alley, but once you get Radko Gudas away from the rink, the guy teammates call “Gudy” is good for a few laughs. He may have the most easygoing personality on the Flyers outside of Michael Raffl, and over the past three weeks, Gudas has been counted on for a little comic relief.

“I try and help the guys out as much as I can,” Gudas said recently. “Try to make guys laugh every once in awhile. We’ve had a pretty tough stretch. Everything’s not going our way so I’m trying to find anything that will help the guys get in better spirits.”

That may have been Gudas’ toughest job of all throughout the Flyers' 10-game winless streak. Now he resumes his role of team tough guy after serving a 10-game suspension — the longest of his six-year career — for his nasty slash to the back of Mathieu Perreault’s neck in Winnipeg. 

Unlike the NFL — where suspended players can’t be anywhere near the team or their workout facilities — Gudas has been skating and practicing as if he was preparing to play.

When the Flyers return to the practice rink Sunday, Gudas will be reinstated and eligible for the Tuesday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the opener of a five-game homestand.

“I’m looking forward to it — playing the next home game against Toronto — so I’ve got that date circled on my calendar. I’m looking forward to helping the boys out,” Gudas said. “Family kept me together. I think they helped me out a lot through this. Just giving me encouragement, being there for me.”

“We’ve missed him, for sure,” general manager Ron Hextall said. “I think it’s not an excuse. You've got him, you've got [Andrew MacDonald] out, it’s that veteran presence. Not only on the ice, but off the ice, and guys go back to the bench. The young guys were reeling a little bit here. Guys get their heads back on track with the veteran influence. It’s important. Of course, we miss Gudy.”

As strange as it may sound, Gudas provides a calming presence to some of the rookies. The question moving forward is who plays that role with Gudas when tensions start to run high? Two seasons ago, management met with Gudas after his overaggressive play was starting to become a detriment to the team.

Coming into Thursday’s game against the Canucks, Gudas was tied with Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds on the Flyers with 12 individual penalties taken. But if you measure that number by minutes played, Gudas leads the team by a long stretch, with one penalty for every 21.9 minutes he’s on the ice, including two major penalties.

“Radko hits hard. He hits as hard as anybody in the league,” Hextall said after Gudas received a major for boarding earlier this season in Ottawa. “His hits are impact hits.”

Gudas is also quickly learning the NHL hits back, and hitting Gudas where it hurts. As a result of his past two suspensions, Gudas has missed 16 games and has forfeited over $650,000. For a league looking to rid itself of its wild-west mentality pertaining to illegal hits to the head, there’s now a "Wanted" poster of Gudas nailed somewhere in its New York headquarters. However, the Flyers' defenseman believes he has a better understanding moving forward following a meeting with George Parros, head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I think it was pretty good to meet with each other,” Gudas said. “I found out what they want from me and what they would like to see differently in case anything like this happens. I got good feedback from him and I’m looking forward to adapting to these things and trying to be as best as I can for my team.”

Can the Flyers maintain their disciplined ways with Gudas returning to the lineup? In their recent three-game road trip, the Flyers stayed out of the box, killing off just two power plays in each of those three wins. Now comes Gudas with his own bull's-eye that opponents will be targeting, goading him to step over the line just one more time.

“He’s done a really good job over the last year,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I don’t think it will be something that will be in the back of his mind. I think it’s something he’s looked at, he’s evaluated. You have to take it and evaluate it for what it is, try and learn a little bit from it. You've got to park it and move forward, and that’s what he’ll do.”

The Flyers are starting to do some convincing with GM Chuck Fletcher

The Flyers are starting to do some convincing with GM Chuck Fletcher

There is something to be said for the Flyers playing better hockey.

Everyone begged and waited for progress. Finally, the Flyers are obliging.

They've won three straight games for just the second time this season, scoring 16 goals over the streak. They've won four of their last five after plodding through an eight-game losing skid in which they netted only 15 goals.

For the first time since New Year's Day, the Flyers are no longer in last place of the Metropolitan Division, thanks to a 5-2 win Saturday night over the Canadiens (see observations).

Rather inconveniently, the bye week is now here followed by the All-Star break, creating an eight-day hiatus for the Flyers. Which means general manager Chuck Fletcher will have ample time to sit on these good vibes and mull the bigger decisions ahead.

The problem for the Flyers, though, is this is not like years past. It's considerably too late and a small sample size of improvement won't change Fletcher's mind on 2018-19. Last season, the Flyers needed 98 points to squeak into the playoffs at Game 82. Over their final 34 games of this season, a 23-5-6 record (.765 points percentage) would get them to only 96 points.

If the Flyers can make anything of 2018-19, they'll be proving just about everyone wrong.

What the Flyers can convince Fletcher on is next season — how drastically to retool and how quickly things can turn around.

Upper management certainly isn't on board with a massive rebuild or restart. Flyers president Paul Holmgren and Comcast Spectacor chairman and CEO Dave Scott have already been through a process that became too stagnant for their liking.

Fletcher was brought in for progress. While this season spiraled into a lost cause, you can expect Fletcher is eyeing ways to make 2019-20 productive and meaningful, not another step back.

"We talked about the process and we think — all three of us believe — that this is a playoff team, a quality team," Fletcher said Dec. 5 at his introductory press conference, sitting between Holmgren and Scott. "We have to push it and get better immediately. But there's also the long term. You're trying to win in the present, you're trying to win in the long term. 

"There are obviously certain assets you're not going to sacrifice to win three extra games in one season. So, I think you have to be prudent about it, but they've given me full autonomy to make the hockey decisions I see fit. We talked about philosophy, and again, we all agree this is a good hockey team."

Fletcher is starting to see what could be next season, what can be used moving forward. 

Claude Giroux is still Claude Giroux.

Travis Konecny is beginning to find the back of the net like he did last season.

James van Riemsdyk has six markers in his last five games, playing like the 30-goal scorer the Flyers signed to a five-year, $35 million deal last July.

Nolan Patrick has looked like a No. 2 overall pick over his past three games, with highlight-reel skill, four goals and six points.

Shayne Gostisbehere is starting to display his offensive ability again.

And Carter Hart, at just 20 years old, is showing he can be the franchise goalie you build around.

For Fletcher, these developments are a positive. If only they came before the clock struck midnight on 2018-19, a season he had little chance to save.

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Flyers 5, Canadiens 2: Riding high into the bye week

Flyers 5, Canadiens 2: Riding high into the bye week

BOX SCORE

The Flyers will feel pretty good about themselves over an eight-day stretch of no game action.

That's because they're playing arguably their best hockey of the season entering the bye week and All-Star break, thanks to a 5-2 win Saturday night over the Canadiens at Bell Centre.

The Flyers (19-23-6) have tied their season-best winning streak of three games, a span in which they've scored 16 goals. They've also won four of their last five. Before doing so, the Flyers lost eight straight games, scoring just 15 goals during the skid.

The Canadiens (27-18-5) had a three-game winning streak snapped, while the Flyers, for the time being, are no longer in last place of the Metropolitan Division.

• Think Nolan Patrick's confidence is building? When the 20-year-old is feeling good about himself, he's a different player and it's showing right now.

Patrick scored a pair of goals, the second off some pretty stick-handling to give the Flyers a healthy 4-1 lead in the third period.

After going 24 straight games without a goal and just two points, the 2017 second overall pick has four goals and six points in his last three contests.

The Flyers have desperately needed his depth down the middle and they're starting to get it. Whether it's too late for the Flyers' hopes this season is the question.

• We're starting to see more and more why James van Riemsdyk scored 30-plus goals twice during his time in Toronto. His big frame coupled with superb skill at redirecting shots makes him a terror around the net.

A minute and a half after the Flyers took a 1-0 lead in the middle stanza, van Riemsdyk added to the advantage by deflecting home a Robert Hagg shot. 

The goal was van Riemsdyk's sixth in his last five games. It's no coincidence the Flyers have won four of those five games.

• Travis Konecny broke the ice with three minutes left in the second period on a nasty shot while falling to his knees. However, the play to set up the rebound opportunity was a real positive for Shayne Gostisbehere.

The 25-year-old defenseman has not been himself after a career year in 2017-18, but he created a give-and-go with Sean Couturier to get a shot on net. The Flyers had little going for them and to see Gostisbehere make a play from the blue line should only help his confidence.

Konecny actually misfired on a few shots from in close, so he realistically could have had the Flyers' third hat trick in as many games.

• Because he's a tough, grind-around-the-net kind of player, Wayne Simmonds doesn't get enough credit for his smarts and skill. He completed an excellent 2-on-1 with Patrick to hand the Flyers a commanding 3-0 lead in the third period. 

Simmonds was patient with the puck and didn't rush his decision, baiting Jeff Petry before feeding Patrick for the tally.

The 30-year-old is heating up and you can bet contending teams will be willing to cough up a hefty sum for Simmonds. His stock is rising right now.

Simmonds nearly had his 16th goal, too, clanging a shot off the post from in deep during the opening two minutes, a chance he buries nine times out of 10. He knew it as he was seen hitting himself in the head shortly after the play.

• Carter Hart came in 3-2-1 with a 2.69 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and an NHL-most 196 saves since Jan. 5. 

He was the team's best player during the opening period in which the Flyers were outshot 12-1. Hart kept the game scoreless, giving his team a chance.

He made 33 saves and has solidified his roster spot here in Philadelphia.

Interim head coach Scott Gordon said there's a chance Hart plays for AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley next weekend before the Flyers get back in the swing of things. Hart will have plenty of rest after playing seven of the last eight games. It can't hurt to get him a tune-up before the Flyers resume their schedule.

• With their bye week followed by the All-Star break, the Flyers don't play again until Monday, Jan. 28, when they host the Central Division-leading Jets (7 p.m./NBCSP).

Ten of the Flyers' next 15 games come at the Wells Fargo Center.

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