Don't look now, but after a horrible 1-7-0 start, the Philadelphia Flyers are 10-11-2 and back in the thick of the race in the NHL's Metropolitan Division. One reason for the team's turnaround is the improved play of their defensive corps which has helped spur the club's recent success.
The statistical difference is striking. During the season-opening eight game slump, Philadelphia's defensemen totaled just seven points are were a combined minus-17.
However, during the team's recent 6-0-1 streak, the defensemen have contributed more offensively and have played a better game in their own zone. The six starters have combined for one goal and 12 points and were a combined plus-34.
In their 1-7-0 start, the Flyers were outscored 24-11. In their recent 6-0-1 streak, the Flyers outscored their opponents 27-11.
One factor in Philadelphia's recent hot streak is that coach Craig Berube has finally settled on his top-six defensive pairings and the players are getting comfortable with each other and meshing well.
The duos are now Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen; Nicklas Grossmann and Mark Streit; and Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson. In recent games, both Andrej Meszaros and Hal Gill have been healthy scratches.
The Flyers are also more comfortable in Berube's system. Berube took over as coach after the team lost its first three games and fired Peter Laviolette. Since then, the new coach has made adjustments in the team's system, placing a bigger emphasis on defense. It's been 21 games since Berube took over behind the bench and the team now feels their coach's system is second nature.
"It took us a while to get 'Chief's' [Berube's] system," Gustafsson admitted to Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Now we don't have to think about it. We just do it."
Starting goaltender Steve Mason has also noticed a difference in the way his team is playing in its own zone. "We're keeping things simple," Mason told Carchidi. "In the beginning of the season, it seemed like we were making too many passes to get it out of our zone, and that created a lot of problems and some turnovers. But in recent games, things have become a lot cleaner, a lot crisper...and we're getting it out of the zone quicker."
Luke Schenn is also quick to praise the forwards for helping out in their own end. "It’s just being committed to playing [team] defense,” Schenn said to Rob Parent of the Delaware County Daily Times. “The forwards are backchecking hard and helping the D out. And it’s closing a little on guys a little quicker in the defensive zone and just making simple plays on them.”
When the situation is right, the defensemen are supposed to jump up and join the attack. The defensemen now know when to do that without taking unnecessary risks.
"In the old system I don’t think they were asking anything different," Coburn told Parent. "But we’re kind of reinforcing the idea of supporting the attack and really having that second wave of offense coming and supporting the rush."
So the Flyers have clawed their way back into the playoff picture at the quarter pole of the season, and the improved play of their defense is a big part of it. Now the question is, can they continue to play good hockey consistently?
"It was obviously a real ugly start and a huge hole to dig yourself out of," Luke Schenn told Parent. "But guys are playing a lot better lately. We’re still not in an ideal position, but at least we’re in the mix now and have the opportunity to fight for that playoff spot. It’s still real early in the year. A lot can happen. But just based on the way we started the season, it’s been a pretty good bounce back."