The 2014-15 Philadelphia Flyers - the team that simply refuses to die.
After losing this week to the Columbus Blue Jackets in regulation and the league-worst Buffalo Sabres in a shootout, it appeared that the Flyers' faint playoff hopes would be dashed by the end of the weekend. They were facing a dominant Nashville Predators squad and a Washington Capitals team that is a realistic Eastern Conference contender.
Instead, the Philadelphia Flyers find themselves two points out of a playoff spot. Miracle.
The most impressive part of this weekend was not even the "what," but the "how." Had the Flyers been outshot in both games and were simply bailed out by stellar goaltending performances, the wins would be easier to write off as simple flukes. But versus Nashville and again today, Philadelphia skated right with their opponent, outplaying both teams for extended stretches.
Fantastic power play execution helped the Flyers build a 2-0 lead. Claude Giroux opened the scoring with a snipe from the left circle, and Wayne Simmonds added a tally of his own with a midair swat of his own deflection. The lead would not hold, as Washington tied the game by the end of the second period, but the Flyers never faltered, resulting in a back-and-forth third period.
Truthfully, this was the type of contest that could have went either way. The Capitals generated quite a few quality chances in the third period, and it took some fantastic saves from Rob Zepp to keep the score tied. Finally, with less than five minutes remaining, Michael Del Zotto took a long pass from Jakub Voracek and beat Braden Holtby to the far side, giving the Flyers a lead that they would not relinquish.
After this weekend, it's tough to imagine that Philadelphia will be out of playoff contention by the trade deadline, so GM Ron Hextall will have some tough decisions to make. They're still going to need a fair amount of help to get in, but if the team can sustain its play from this weekend for the next month and a half, they would have a realistic chance.
A few more observations from the game today:
- The newly-formed Michael Raffl-Claude Giroux-Wayne Simmonds line has been a resounding success. For the second straight day, the Flyers' new top line generated scoring chance after scoring chance, as Simmonds has provided an improved forecheck and Raffl has taken on a more prevalent role in terms of controlled offensive zone entries in the absence of Jakub Voracek. They may not have scored today, but they were the team's most effective line overall.
- Due to Braydon Coburn's repeated injuries, the Flyers had never really tested a Michael Del Zotto-Coburn defensive pair this season. Finally, we're getting to see the combination of puck mover with stay-at-home stalwart, and early returns are very positive. This looks like a tandem with real potential. Hopefully a late injury suffered by Coburn doesn't prove to be serious, as I'd love to see a bit more of these guys together.
- Ryan White may be this season's biggest surprise. It's still early in his Flyers career, but he has been nothing but incredibly impressive, combining physicality with hockey sense to create space for his linemates. Some have noted that his game has a little Adam Hall to it, who was an underrated contributor last season on the PK and in very difficult 5v5 minutes.
- Unfortunately, White was saddled with R.J. Umberger, who was back to his early season waste-of-space self today. It was really sad to see White and Brayden Schenn (who did have a costly turnover today but is clearly the most skilled player on the current third line) continue to set up Umberger in dangerous positions just to watch him flub the puck away.
- The decision to start Rob Zepp in the second game of a back-to-back was questionable to say the least, but it paid dividends for Craig Berube today. Not much Zepp could have done to stop Tom Wilson's goal, and Joel Ward's game-tying tally was more an improbable, perfectly-placed shot than a real mistake by the Flyers goalie. And far from showing signs of fatigue, he was the Flyers' best player in the third period.
- Sean Couturier fought through a first period knee injury caused by Matt Niskanen to put together a solid game, particularly on the penalty kill. Still would like to see a little bit more offense from that line with the addition of Jakub Voracek, but so far they've continued to play their usual low-event style. Considering the success of Giroux's new line, however, I'd still like to see the new Couturier line kept together for a bit longer to see if they can figure it out.
- The Flyers penalty kill was absolutely on point today. Nicklas Backstrom is the league's only center who can make a case as a better PP pivot than Claude Giroux, and Alexander Ovechkin is obviously Alexander Ovechkin, but the Flyers still did a number on the Capitals' power play. Pressure from the forwards in the neutral zone was making it very difficult for Washington to even get set up in the offensive zone.
- If the Flyers decide not to be "sellers" at the trade deadline and instead go all out to make the playoffs, they're still going to have to move a defenseman or two in order to get Kimmo Timonen back in the lineup. The two names mentioned most often have been Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann. If the Flyers keep Timonen, I imagine they would retain Coburn as well, considering the duo's historical success as a pairing. That would leave Grossmann, who maybe could be moved just as the San Jose Sharks traded Douglas Murray in 2013 despite being in the thick of a playoff chase. We can only hope.