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Flyers in uncharted territory with lack of penalties

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Flyers in uncharted territory with lack of penalties

To the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s, today’s brand of hockey is simply unrecognizable, and perhaps to some, even unacceptable.

When the Flyers take the ice Thursday against the Blue Jackets, the clock will be ticking on one of the most un-Bully-esque streaks in franchise history. 

The Flyers have somehow managed to play their last 215 minutes and 14 seconds without having to kill off a single penalty — a stretch of hockey that extends to the second period of a game against the Devils on Feb. 13 when Sean Couturier was whistled for tripping. 

Not only is the box an uninhabited area for the Flyers recently, but it’s also uncharted territory. They’re just the second team in NHL history to exhibit that kind of discipline since the league began keeping penalty records in 1977-78.

If this somehow continues, the guys at Comcast-Spectacor’s premium seating division could be looking at a prime opportunity to add a luxury suite at ice level. Fast food restaurant chain Jack in the Box would be the perfect sponsor.

The Flyers' penalty kill has also improved slightly by virtue of not having to kill penalties, from 30th in the league to now ranked 28th, still holding steady at 75 percent, but more importantly, their commitment to steer clear of the sin bin now has them ranked seventh in the NHL in the number of times they’ve been shorthanded.

The reasons behind their whistle-free work ethic can be attributed to a number of areas. 

For one, the Flyers have made the necessary adjustments to the league’s new slashing penalty, where a stick anywhere near the hands has resulted in a two-minute minor. Secondly, the entire team, and especially rookie Nolan Patrick, who went through a tough stretch earlier this month, has been very mindful of not committing high-sticking, hooking and other lazy infractions when chasing down the puck carrier.  

“I don’t think we’ve dominated puck possession over the last couple of games,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “But when we haven’t had it, we’ve worked hard to get it back the right way. At this time of year, it’s moving your feet, trying to get above plays and trying to check the right way.”

Secondly, as the season enters the drive towards the playoffs, NHL referees have shown a tendency to allow players to decide the outcome and not enforce the game as tightly as they did over the first three months of the season. In the first 30 games, the Flyers were forced to kill off an average of 3.4 power play opportunities per game. Over their last 30 contests, the number has been reduced significantly to 2.33.

More importantly, Dave Hakstol’s team is better equipped this season to play more effectively 5-on-5 and in all even strength situations, which was a point of emphasis after missing the playoffs a year ago. The Flyers' goal differential this season is plus-11 at even strength, whereas last season it was a minus-19.

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job 5-on-5,” defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. “I think you have to realize that most of the game is going to be played 5-on-5 and at even strength, and you have to generate in those situations throughout the rest of the year and into the playoffs.”

Even if the Flyers can’t maintain this unimaginable penalty-free pace, they clearly have more success and their penalty kill is much more efficient when they’re forced to kill off just a handful of penalties, as the chart below illustrates.

PK Attempts   Record     Kill %
2 or fewer        18-8-1        87.5%

3-4                      9-9-5         68.0%

5 or more          4-2-4         75.0%

In the 27 games where the Flyers have killed two or fewer power play opportunities, the success rate is nearly 88 percent, and they’re winning 67 percent of their games. They’ve been able to extend their energy throughout the 60-plus minutes while rolling four lines more consistently.

“If you have to kill three or more minor penalties, you’re at a little bit of risk, but you can get the job done,” Hakstol said. “When you get in the five, six range now you’re draining the bench, you’re draining energy, and you’re taking guys out of rhythm who aren’t killing penalties. There’s a lot of things that domino off of that.”

All of which conserves energy and creates good habits as the Flyers inch closer towards the postseason.

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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