It wasn’t always pretty, but all that matters are the points at the end of the game.
And while the Flyers weren’t at their sharpest at all times last week, they still earned four crucial points in the standings with a 2-0 win over the New York Rangers on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden and a 2-1 win over the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center.
While not the busiest week the Flyers have faced this season, it still left us with plenty to talk about.
So let’s break down the week that was for the Flyers.
• A big reason why last week wasn’t the prettiest for the Flyers was their starts to both games. On Wednesday at MSG, they were thoroughly outplayed in the first period by the Rangers, who hit the first intermission with a 16-8 shot advantage. If not for Steve Mason (more on him in a bit), the Flyers should have been down something like 5-0. After talking about not doing it again in the next game against Toronto, the Flyers started slow against the Leafs the following evening. They took six minutes worth of penalties in Thursday’s first period and had numerous turnovers against a speedy, skilled and aggressive Leafs forecheck. But fortunately for them, the Leafs couldn’t capitalize and Wayne Simmonds took advantage of a breakaway opportunity. This core group of Flyers has been notorious for its slow starts to games. And these players know better than anyone that they’re playing with fire and risking a game getting away early when they start slow. At the break, the Flyers have a minus-14 goal differential in the first period. That’s got to change, because with all the parity in the East and as tight as the standings are, a bad first period can cost the Flyers a game and a spot or two in the standings.
• Mason was brilliant at The Garden on Wednesday evening, stopping all 34 Rangers shots for his first shutout of the season. They weren’t 34 ordinary saves, either. The Rangers were buzzing around the Flyers’ defense most of the night and tested Mason repeatedly. The acrobatic, sliding save Mason made on a Rick Nash one-timer in the first period was spectacular. It seems Mason has found his groove again in this up-and-down-season he’s having. He had 36 strong stops against the Islanders last Sunday and then followed it up with the shutout against the Rangers. And that’s good news for the Flyers, who will need Mason down the stretch to make the playoffs in the East, where it’s tough sledding.
• The fact that Mason seems to be in a groove made Dave Hakstol’s choice to start Michal Neuvirth against the Maple Leafs on Thursday an interesting one. Hakstol has started Mason (and Neuvirth, for that matter) on back-to-back nights before. And considering the Flyers had two days off before the game against the Rangers and had just had their bye week, one could make the argument that rest wouldn’t be an issue. Hakstol’s choice paid off, though, as Neuvirth was solid in net with 28 saves in a hard-fought victory. But with Neuvirth’s injury history and the way Mason has shown he’s capable of playing, Mason is still the Flyers’ guy in net.
• What more can we say about Simmonds? Just when you think you’ve seen it all from the guy, he continues to take his game to new heights. He was in his office on Wednesday night when he roofed the winner against the Rangers over Henrik Lundqvst’s shoulder in the third period. He followed that up Thursday against the Leafs with a lovely breakaway goal in the first period. He actually tried that backhand-forehand move on Lundqvist a couple weeks ago when the Rangers were here in town, but was robbed by King Henrik. No disrespect to Leafs backup Curtis McElhinney, but he’s no King Henrik. But back to Simmonds, who’s now up to a team-leading 21 goals on the season. Those 21 goals tie him for fifth in the entire league If we’re voting right now, Simmonds is the Flyers’ team MVP. No one was more deserving of the Flyers’ All-Star nod.
• As mentioned above, Thursday’s contest wasn’t the prettiest game between the Flyers and the Maple Leafs. But you still can’t help but be impressed with the young talent the Leafs possess. Auston Matthews is the headliner, for obvious reasons. At just 19 years old, he’s already one of the best players in the world and is tied for third in the league with Alex Ovechkin with 23 goals this season. That’s no fluke. But it’s not just Matthews. Mitch Marner, William Nylander (who scored the Leafs’ lone goal against the Flyers) and Morgan Reilly make up a core that will make the Leafs a problem to deal with for a long time. Heck, they’re already pushing for a playoff spot.
• The East standings change daily because of how tightly packed all the teams are under Washington, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Montreal and the Rangers. At the All-Star break, Ottawa has 58 points and Boston has 56 points to round out the top three Atlantic teams. But then the Flyers check in at 56 in the second wild-card spot, just seven points ahead of “last-place” Carolina, Buffalo, Detroit and New Jersey. If you count the last two spots in the Atlantic, we’re looking at 11 teams fighting for three playoff spots. Narrow it down, and the four remaining Metro teams are only eligible for the last wild-card spot. So there’s a very real chance a Metro team could have more points than the third-place Atlantic team and still miss the playoffs, a fatal flaw of this current NHL playoff system. This fun, nerve-wrecking playoff race is further proof that every point matters every night.
• I’m usually not one for All-Star Games. But I appreciate the NHL’s effort to reinvent its All-Star Game and make it lively and exciting for the audience. The 3-on-3 tournament with the best players in the world is great stuff. It’s a great offensive showcase, as it should be.