SUNRISE, Fla. — It’s not prudent to read too much into the first period of the first game after a lengthy break. But considering the way they went into the break, on an ugly five-game regulation losing streak, there probably weren’t too many willing to give the Philadelphia Flyers the benefit of the doubt.
After an abysmal first 20 minutes at Amerant Bank Arena on Tuesday, in which they were out of position, slow to loose pucks and unable to prevent passes to the most dangerous parts of the ice, the Flyers responded to play the kind of game that they frequently showcased before that losing streak as they came from behind to defeat the Panthers, 2-1. Travis Konecny and Noah Cates were the scorers, and Samuel Ersson, now the undisputed No. 1 goalie, stopped 20 shots.
Only 11 of those Florida shots, though, came in the final two periods. Perhaps most impressively from the Flyers’ standpoint is that Florida, trailing by a goal after Cates’ marker at 2:36 of the third, managed just one shot over the final 15 minutes of regulation — a 47-foot wrister by Aaron Ekblad that Ersson easily stopped. It was the polar opposite of what the first period looked like, when the Panthers took a 1-0 lead on a Carter Verhaeghe power-play goal and at one point had a 19-4 edge in shot attempts while peppering Ersson from all angles.
Cutting down on those prime scoring chances against was one of coach John Tortorella’s primary areas of focus for the two days of practice in South Florida on Sunday and Monday. That was something that plainly got away from them during the five-game losing streak, as they allowed 27 goals over that span (24, not counting empty-netters).
Tortorella expressed confidence that the Flyers quickly would be able to find their defensive game coming out of the break, and, in two high-energy practice sessions, stressed protecting the middle of the ice and killing plays behind their own net. There was also some video detailing that part of the game that had eluded them.
Why was he confident? It was the hectic nature of their schedule that was most to blame for that sudden looseness, in his view. January saw the Flyers play 14 games in a 27-day span, so practice time was at a minimum. In fact, the Flyers had just two team practices (not counting morning skates) in the final three weeks before the break.
“I do believe the lack of practice time, and just the grind of the January month, caught up to us,” Tortorella said. “If that’s an excuse, so be it. Not now. This is a sprint now, and we should be refreshed and ready to go and play our game.”
Travis Sanheim, who was among the defensemen who looked out of sorts during the losing streak, said, “It’s definitely hard to fix on the go. Sometimes, when you’re not making the right reads, you start second-guessing yourself and it starts to snowball. One bad read turns into a couple, and it kind of gets away from you.”
On Tuesday, it took just one intermission for them to reestablish the defensive-zone structure that had been missing since a 5-1 win over the Stars on Jan. 18. It was a remarkable about-face, especially considering the first period looked like an extension of what was happening prior to the break.
How did they do it?
“(The Panthers) like to rim a lot of pucks from one side to the other and try to find a guy in the middle, and I think we just stayed (together) as a five-man unit,” said Joel Farabee, who deftly set up Konecny for the tying goal in the second period. “Didn’t really let guys get loose in front, and kind of defeated their offense a bit and (that) gave us the puck more.”
Said Tortorella: “The whole overall play, as far as our determination away from the puck, was just night and day from the first 20 (minutes) to the last 40. We have a good team. We have a team that’s willing. We just have to make sure we have the right mindset that we can play with these teams, and take a chance.”
That “take a chance” message is something that Tortorella has continually stressed to his team — they have to play a kind of reckless style to be effective, because they’re not going to out-skill very many teams.
That wasn’t happening in the first period.
“I thought we looked so safe and almost paralyzed in the first period,” Tortorella said. “We have no chance if we play that way.”
Cates echoed that, in explaining what Tortorella’s message was after that awful first period, in which Ersson kept them in the game.
“He just said, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just do it hard,” Cates aid. “That’s a nice green light from the coach to (help us) find our game.”
The Flyers have a prime opportunity to stay in a rhythm now, too. Tuesday’s game was the first of only 10 in February, with no back-to-backs until the first two days of March. Sure, there are some tough games on the horizon — including a meeting with the Jets at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday — but they’ve already shown enough times this season that they can beat the so-called elite teams as long as they stick to what they do best, and are energized enough to do it.
“January was pretty much every other night, and plus some back to backs, so we certainly didn’t have very many practices, if any,” Nick Seeler said. “This month, I think, will be good for us, just to get back into good practice habits, and that will lead into the game.”
Said Tortorella: “The key for us is within the games, and then game to game, sustain our personality. That’s our battle.”
Beating a Panthers team that entered with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, which was 8-1-1 when tied after two periods, and had won four in a row going into the break, suggests the Flyers are prepared to face that battle head-on.
“Huge coming out of the break and getting this start (for) the second half of the season,” Ersson said.
(Photo: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)