If you were to tell me at the start of this season that the Philadelphia Flyers would be in a playoff spot and talked about by hockey insiders as "The team nobody wants to face in the first round", I would've told you to put down the bleach and re-evaluate your life. Yet here we are, and this fan base couldn't be more thrilled. As of today, Philadelphia sits in the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the struggling Detroit Red Wings and with a game in hand.
The last time the Jets and Flyers saw each other was back on Nov 8th, when Philadelphia took the win 3-0 with a shutout by Michal Neuvirth. Since then, two things have happened: Mark Streit broke his **eggplant emoji** and The Ghost Bear era officially started.
And holy hanna has it been wild. Shayne Gostisbehere was a 3rd round pick in 2012. On a good day he comes in at 5'11, 185 lbs. He's small, but what he lacks in size he makes up for in just about every other category one would want in a franchise blueliner.
All but one of Gostisbehere's 16 goals this season have either tied the game or been a GWG. In 56 GP he has 41 Pts, which is 3 more than Aaron Ekblad when he won the Calder with 39 Pts in 81 GP. He's ranked 19th in scoring among defencemen with significantly less games played. When he's on the ice it's hard not to admire his skillset. The kid can skate, has a cannon of a shot, one hell of a hockey IQ and is a threat in all 3 zones. He is one of the Calder favourites, and there are rumours he's going to take home the #Number1HockeyBoy year end award.
While Ghost Bear has been the talk of the season's second half, lost in the Ghost mania has been the outstanding play of current #Number1HockeyBoy Steve Mason, not to mention breakout seasons from both Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier.
Four years ago, Steve Mason was Ondrej Pavelec's closets comparable. Now one of them is among the NHL's best in 5v5 Sv% at .935 this season, plus a .931 5v5 Sv% and .922 Overall Sv% since joining the Flyers. I don't have to tell you well-informed fans where the other guy is ranked.
Mason has been money in net for this team all year. When things are getting dicey, on more nights than not he has stood on his head to give the Flyers every chance to stay in the game. Mase was rumoured to have pulled something during the comeback win in Colorado, and between his recent work load and Neuvirth being out, it's quite possible we see Anthony Stolarz make his NHL debut tonight.
In 42 GP, Stolarz is 19-15-7 with a .916, numbers which earned him an AHL All-Star appearance this year. The guy they call Stolie the Goalie is a 2nd year pro, standing at 6 ft 6 and 232 lbs. His big frame and sound positional game helps to limit the options of the opposing shooters. Considering the roster the Winnipeg Jets will likely be icing, with the majority of their roster being shutdown due to season ending injuries, it will be interesting to see if Money Mase gets the night off.
Coming into the 2015-16 season, Brayden Schenn was on the outside looking in. In training camp he was on the team's "5th line" alongside rookies fighting for a spot. In November, Schenn was a healthy scratch and on pace for his worst season since joining the Flyers in 2012.
Schenn has been better since Jan 1st, not just on the scoresheet but up and down the ice in all 3 zones. He's hit a career high of 52 Pts in 72 GP. Schenn's playing with more confidence, opting to carry the puck more through the zone and create a high scoring chance vs the chip and chase of the past. He has upped his two-way game, and Charlie O'Connor from Broad Street Hockey did a really awesome job breaking down Schenn's improved play this year. Hakstol sent a message and it seems as if it has been received, which is paying off huge for the orange and black.
Sean Couturieurier, Steve Cooturiuer, Parmesan Crouton, he goes by many names and most Flyer fans love him no matter what he's called. On paper, 35 Pts in 56 GP is nothing special. As one Jets fan pointed out to me, "It took Couturier 5 years to reach Mark Scheifele's rookie scoring numbers" (which isn't 100% accurate, but thats none of my business).
Couturier has had his share of injuries this year, first a concussion by former Flyer Zac "for a 3rd round draft pick" Rinaldo, then a rumoured high ankle sprain in late January. Before the injuries, Couturier was producing at a rate on pace for 51 Pts over 82 GP, which is high end for a 2nd line C. Couturier is currently 45th in the NHL among forwards at 5v5 Pts per 60 at 2.02, plus a Corsi Rel of +4.2. Considering his role, that's not good, that's really good.
Couturier does so many things well that when he's not in the lineup it is really depressing, like my wife left me with 3 grown adult sons depressing. Without him in the lineup, the Flyers went 5-9-4. Since coming back on Feb 23rd, Philadelphia is 10-4-2 and Couturier has 11 Pts in 16 GP. Ron Hextall said in a recent interview how Couturier has become an integral piece of the team and their current success, and we love him for all his awesomeness.
Sean Couturier be like.... pic.twitter.com/RDJKNZ91Sf— Kat (@KitKat_P) March 25, 2016
This Flyers team has been coming on strong the second half of the season. It's not the run and gun team under Lavy, nor is it the mess that was trying to find its identity under Craig Berube. This team is structure; they suffocate the opponent in their own end, they're aggressive in the neutral zone and really hard on the puck.
Sean Couturier was asked about the team's recent play, and he pointed out how one of the biggest differences is that they trust each other to have one another's backs, that they know someone will be there to backcheck or cover if another gets out of position or pinches, that there is never any doubt. This team hugs after wins, they ball tap their captain in the high five line, and Jake Voracek trolls bloggers post-game on Twitter.
Since taking over in 2014, Flyers fans have never had to wonder "What Did Hextall Do Today". Hex spent no time getting down to business, laying the foundation for what he hopes will be a perennial Stanley Cup contender. He has identified his core, locked them down long-term, made calculated trades and acquired assets, all while cutting bait with players not part of the plan. He also brought in a coach with a record of developing young players into superstars.
With the foundation laid, the team has responded and is looking to make some noise with a playoff run, all while a "murderous row" (as Pierre McGuire calls them) of young talent waits in the wings to make the jump next season and build on what was accomplished this year. Ron in two years has turned this franchise around, from one of the most depressing to the most exciting. It has been a hell of a ride since 2010, but this team is becoming that team you hate yourself for cheering for because they've become so much fun to watch, and their fans have become some of the best, self-loathing, ridiculous crazies on Twitter.
Let's crack some cold ones, grab some snacks and get ready for some hockeying!
Yo, the Flyers (Nailed It).
Flyered Up Lines
Schenn - Giroux - Simmonds
Raffl - Couturier - Voracek
Read - Cousins - Gagner
VandeVelde - Pebbles - White
Schultz - Streit
MacDonald - Ghost Bear
Manning - Gudas
Catch the game tonight, 6:00 PM Central Time on CSN-PH, TSN3 and TSN 1290.