Through 12 games, the Philadelphia Flyers weren’t the worst team in the NHL, but they may have been the most embarrassing. They fired coach Peter Laviolette after an 0-3 start and were at 3-9-0 after a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of the Washington Capitals. That game memorably featured Flyers goaltender Ray Emery heroically bludgeoning an unwilling combatant in opposing goaltender Braden Holtby.
The Flyers didn’t instantly turn things around after that debacle in D.C.—they won the following night in New Jersey but lost two more games after that—but have ripped off an 8-3-1 stretch that has miraculously thrust them to within two points of a playoff spot in the laughably terrible Metropolitan Division.
There are two schools of thought explaining the Flyers’ turnaround.
1. Emery pummeling Holtby and the Flyers engaging in a line brawl with the Capitals after GM Paul Holmgren left the press box during the second intermission to visit the locker room and scream at his players. Now fully inspired through group violence, a once obviously bad team is playing with heart and grit and willing its way to victories in what is the most uplifting Philadelphia story since Rocky.
2. Anchored by goaltender Steve Mason playing way over his head, as the Flyers have spent the past three weeks racking up points against inferior competition thanks to the most wonderful schedule compiled since NBC’s Thursday night lineup that featured Seinfeld, Friends and ER in the late-'90s.
Of course, it’s the second school of thought that is the correct one.
It’s fair to call this run by the Flyers magical in that it involves a lot of smoke and mirrors and is an illusion worthy of a stage show in Las Vegas. Take a look at the opponents the Flyers have faced over the past 12 games.
|Philadelphia's recent (easy) schedule|
|Nov. 9||vs. Edmonton||W, 4-2||9-17-2|
|Nov. 12||at Ottawa||W, 5-0||10-13-4|
|Nov. 13||at Pittsburgh||W, 2-1||18-9-1|
|Nov. 15||at Winnipeg||L, 3-2 SO||13-12-4|
|Nov. 19||vs. Ottawa||W, 5-2||10-13-4|
|Nov. 21||vs. Buffalo||W, 4-1||6-20-2|
|Nov. 23||vs. N.Y. Islanders||W, 5-2||8-15-4|
|Nov. 25||at Florida||L, 3-1||7-15-5|
|Nov. 27||at Tampa Bay||L, 4-2||16-9-1|
|Nov. 29||vs. Winnipeg||W, 2-1||13-12-4|
|Nov. 30||at Nashville||W, 3-2 SO||13-11-3|
|Dec. 2||at Minnesota||L, 2-0||16-8-5|
Let's delve a little deeper into that schedule. Some facts and figures:
• The average record of those opponents is 12-12-3. That's not too bad, as it means the Flyers have essentially played a .500 team for 12 straight games.
• Of course, that's not how it works. The Flyers have played six teams above .500 over that time, which includes the Winnipeg Jets, who are one game over .500 right now, twice. Overall, the Flyers went 3-2-1 against those above .500 clubs. But...
• …one of those teams was the Nashville Predators, who were missing Shea Weber and Kevin Klein, two of the team's top-four defensemen. That's a pretty fortunate break for the third-worst offensive team in the league.
• The Flyers' eight wins during this run include five against teams with losing records. And not just losing records—the Oilers, Islanders and Sabres are three of the four worst teams in the overall standings. The Senators have the league's seventh-worst record, and the Flyers beat them twice.
Despite the mostly inferior competition, the Flyers have only slightly improved their five-on-five Fenwick close percentage, according to ExtraSkater.com. Before their game against Edmonton, the Flyers had a Fenwick close of 46.9; despite the 12-game hot streak, they've only improved that number to 47.8, which is just 23rd in the league. The Flyers played four games against teams behind them in Fenwick close and went 4-0. In their six games against teams with winning records, the Flyers only outshot the opposition once.
The primary reason the Flyers have strung together all these wins is goaltending, mainly the work of Mason. He is 6-1-1 in his last eight starts and has allowed a mere 14 goals and posted a .941 save percentage. That's a pretty amazing run for a goaltender who entered the season with a career .905 save percentage.
Backup goaltender Ray Emery is 2-2 with a .939 save percentage during this run, although he hasn't benefited from goal support.
It's not as though the Flyers have solved their offensive woes either. They're averaging 2.5 goals per game in their past 12 games, about half a goal more than their average on the season. But again, those numbers are skewed by scoring 23 goals in five games against the Oilers, Senators (twice), Sabres and Islanders.
Throw in the fact that the Flyers have a PDO of 1025 and play six of their next seven games against teams with winning records, and they appear destined to relocate the franchise to a little place called Regression, population Flyers.
Here are some stray thoughts about hockey:
• Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban is the reigning Norris Trophy winner, has 24 points in 28 games and has been a possession beast this season. Earlier this season, Canadiens coach Michel Therrien was using Subban minimally in close games late but took to praising him Monday night after a 3-2 win against the Devils. What does that all mean? Subban isn't in Team Canada's plans. According to the wired-in Bob McKenzie of TSN, Team Canada's management team doesn't trust Subban defensively, and he isn't likely to make the team. That seems outlandish, but as an American who will drape himself in the red, white and blue during the Olympics, I won't argue with the logic of not trusting Subban, no matter how insane it may be.
• The Kings and Ducks on Tuesday revealed their uniforms for their outdoor contest on Jan. 25, and, well, yeah. To call them terrible is an understatement. Here's how I imagine the meeting taking place when the uniforms were designed: "OK. For the Kings, I'm thinking, Hollywood! Los Angeles! Movies! The big screen! So what I want is a uniform with absolutely no color. I want to see something that screams black and white movies! Heck, silent black and white movies! I want no personality whatsoever in these jerseys. And the Ducks? I don't know. Traffic is bad in this area, so let's make the guys look like gigantic traffic cones you can see from space. Fans will be forking over money for these instantly!"
• According to the handsome and dashing Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com, the NHL will finally pay about $7 million owed to Wayne Gretzky. The debt stems from Gretzky's time as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes and the team filing for bankruptcy. Many will say this closes an ugly chapter for the NHL as a whole, at long last settling an embarrassing debt with the game's best player. Me? I'm just glad something has finally gone right in the life of Gretzky. After an NHL career in which he set almost every record imaginable, won 11 scoring titles, four Stanley Cups, married a supermodel and achieved international fame and fortune, he was able to catch a break and pick up an additional $7 million. Good for him.
• How has Zach Parise become one of the NHL's best players? Chocolate milk, of course. It's quite the upset that Dustin Byfuglien of the Winnipeg Jets isn't a spokesman for chocolate milk. But Parise extolling the benefits of chocolate milk for a pro athlete is right out of the pages of John Belushi promoting the consumption of little chocolate donuts for Olympic glory.
(If you’d like to ask a question for the weekly mailbag, you can reach me via email at email@example.com, fire your query at me via Twitter at @DaveLozo or leave a question in the comments section for next week.)
My question(s) for the bag skate: Who would your starting goalie be for each of the Olympic teams? Which three goalies would you take for Canada?
Hey! This is a good question. I won't do this for every country. I'll keep it to the big ones. And these are my choices, not my guesses as to who each country will take.
U.S. — Jonathan Quick
Canada — Carey Price
Finland — Tuukka Rask
Sweden — Henrik Lundqvist
Russia — Semyon Varlamov
Czech Republic — Ondrej Pavelec
Slovakia — Jaroslav Halak
Pretty standard stuff, I suppose. My other Canadian goalies would be Roberto Luongo and Josh Harding. The other Canadian candidates (Mike Smith, Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury, Corey Crawford) have been underwhelming, and sending Harding as the third goaltender would be a nice story. And he's been outstanding anyway.
Why do teams even bother replacing enforcers in their rosters? X comes out, Y comes in. If you see their hockeydb pages, they are travelling men...
Alberto (currently in St. John's, NL)
Well, Alberto, I could give you a 10,000-word answer about the culture of hockey and the need to police the game and enforcers and The Code and blah blah blah. What it comes down to is teams still feel the need to have toughness, and while that can exist in the form of non-fighters known for big hits (Niklas Kronwall) or the ability to play through pain (Patrice Bergeron), many coaches think face punchers serve a purpose.
And in a salary cap world, face punchers are extremely cheap and easily replaceable with other cheap face punchers. As the salary cap rises and fighting is slowly worked out of the game, the fighter's place in the game will be diminished.
And now for a Twitter question.
The Sharks can absolutely get to the Final this year. This team might be deeper than any of its previous squads that disappointed. A potential third line with Joe Pavelski and Martin Havlat would give matchup nightmares to any team. The Sharks have depth on defense and a goalie in Antti Niemi who has won a Stanley Cup.
The playoffs are all about matchups, and clearly the Los Angeles Kings have given the Sharks problems the past two seasons, but San Jose is absolutely a threat to win the Cup.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.