DENVER—It is not a swagger in which members of the Philadelphia Flyers walk these days. But neither is it a stagger, like it was just a couple months ago. It’s more like a respectable gait, which is something Flyers fans will take for the time being, after being an NHL punchline earlier this season.
The question is: Have the Flyers righted themselves enough to make the playoffs? Can they still become actual Eastern Conference title contenders?
Signs are encouraging on the former, still very questionable on the latter. Again, this is progress. From those terrible early days that saw their coach fired and more darts tossed the team’s way by the Philly media than at the ratty board on 50-cent beer night at a country saloon.
“No, it wasn’t too fun around here at the start of the season,” Flyers veteran Scott Hartnell told Bleacher Report, prior to a game Thursday night against Colorado. “But we found a way to stick together and things are coming along a lot better. We feel like we’re coming together as a team more and I think the results have shown it lately.”
Despite a tough 2-1 loss to the Avalanche Thursday, Philly entered the halfway mark of the season with a 20-17-4 record, good enough for eighth place in the East (its 44 points would be good enough only for 11th in the West, but who’s counting?).
A few things happened that got the Flyers back to respectability. Steve Mason became a good goaltender again, for one. Practically booed out of Columbus, Mason has played very well for the Flyers since being acquired. In 38 appearances, Mason has posted a 20-12-4 record and 2.28 goals-against average. A potential restricted free agent this summer, the Flyers have begun exploratory talks on a contract extension, according to the Philadelphia Daily News.
But, whoa there. Isn’t this the same organization that threw mad money at Ilya Bryzgalov and misjudged on about 20 other goalies? Isn’t it a little early to start declaring the Philly net a Masonic temple?
That will be for general manager Paul Holmgren to judge, but at least Homer still has a job. Some of the boo-birds in Philly have been calling for his scalp for a couple years now, after a disastrous lockout-shortened last season and a start to this one in which Peter Laviolette got the blame in the form of a pink slip.
Anyway, Claude Giroux’s return to the A-list has certainly helped too. Giroux’s summer and early season were, uh, not so good. There was that little incident with the exploding golf club in August on an Ontario course, which severed wrist tendons and required a six-week rehab. Giroux started the season on time, but didn’t score a goal his first 15 games.
Now? Puck’s goin’ in, to the tune of 17 points (six goals) in his last 11 games. The bewildering “Eh?” game of early season has firmly been replaced by Giroux’s “A” game.
“Confidence is a huge thing,” Giroux said, when asked the reason for his resurgence. “When you have the puck and no confidence, it’s hard to get it going. But when the team is playing well, it’s a lot easier to get it going. When I look up with the puck now, I see other guys with confidence, so that gives me some too and it just kind of builds from there.”
Giroux probably has placated the nerves of the Canadian Olympic committee, who figure to hand him one of the golden tickets to Sochi next month. He has all the hallmarks of a “special” offensive player; the extra second of patience, the head-on-a-swivel vision, the correct anticipation of where the puck’s going next.
“He’s their leader. When he goes, the Flyers go,” says NBC and Flyers Comcast analyst Keith Jones. “He’s got his game back.”
Guys such as power forward Wayne Simmonds and the old man Hartnell have staked claims on reasons for resurgence too. Simmonds’ goal against Colorado gave him eight in eight games.
Hartnell’s Sammy Hagar locks are shorn, but the rock’n’roll game is still there.
Craig “The Chief” Berube should get some pub here too. Taking over for Laviolette, he was first seen as just another house man in Ed Snider’s long chain of nepotistic coaching hires, but Berube has been his own man and thus gained the respect of the room.
“He’s got some good ideas,” said Jones, the plainspoken color man.
“He speaks in a calm, no-nonsense manner,” Hartnell said. “He doesn’t rant and rave.”
The problem with the Flyers rests with their six-man defensive corps. It’s overpaid for the most part. A little too old, a little too slow too, with Andrej Meszaros leading the way with his $4 million salary, not to mention Mark Streit who, at age 36, has a $5.25 million cap hit through the 2016-17 season.
Too many dollars paid to D-men too far advanced in years—that’s the Flyers’ big issue going forward.
But the way things are going, the Flyers look like a decent bet to slip into one of the top eight in the East. A hot playoff from Mason, a big postseason from Giroux and a few other good-looking forwards and, hey, stranger things have happened.
The fact that the playoffs are even in the conversation at all is victory enough for the Flyers right now.
“We’re going to be in the conversation I think,” Giroux says. “At this point in the season, that’s something we can feel good about.”
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL for The Denver Post since 1995. Follow him on Twitter at Adater