Flyers playing sound defensively again, just in time for final playoff push

PHILADELPHIA — The suggestion made to Philadelphia Flyers forward Scott Laughton after their 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday — that there aren’t any moral victories this time of year for a team in a dogfight to make the playoffs — was immediately acknowledged by the 29-year-old forward.

But that didn’t mean Laughton, or any of the other Flyers, was overly upset about the result. After all, the Flyers probably deserved a better fate, and had Panthers backup goalie Anthony Stolarz played like a mere mortal (and Flyers goalie Felix Sandstrom played like he was truly worthy of being in the NHL), the final score likely would have been much different.

“It’s tough to swallow, but you continue to roll like that for the last 10 games, you’re going to be on the positive side of it more than the negative,” Laughton said.

He’s right. The Flyers have impressively and maybe even surprisingly cleaned up their defensive play after losing defenseman Sean Walker in a trade, and Nick Seeler, Jamie Drysdale and Rasmus Ristolainen to injury.

For a brief stretch, it looked like their defense might have cost them a place in the Stanley Cup playoffs, an aim the organization has now prioritized. The Flyers gave up a touchdown to the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 9 in a 7-0 loss, and after beating the worst team in the league, San Jose, 3-2, gave up six goals apiece in losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.

In their last four games, though, all against teams with Stanley Cup aspirations, they’ve been worlds better. They held the Maple Leafs scoreless through two periods on March 14 before hanging on to a 4-3 win, surrendered two goals to Carolina on March 16 before the Hurricanes won in three-on-three overtime, and then kept the powerful Bruins mostly at bay in a rousing 3-2 triumph at home on Saturday.



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On Sunday, the Flyers had to tip their cap to Stolarz, who finished with 32 saves. For long stretches, the Flyers pressured the Panthers in the offensive zone — a big part of why they held them to just 15 shots on goal.

But even in the defensive zone, when the Panthers had possession, the Flyers were generally responsible. The Panthers were credited with just six high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick, but went on to comfortably win mostly due to Sandstrom’s leakiness.

Further, in their last four games, the Flyers have a 57.4 expected goals share, sixth in the league over that span. That’s a credit to the coaching staff, but also to the players who have been thrust into key roles like newly acquired veteran Erik Johnson, youngster Egor Zamula and rookies Ronnie Attard and Adam Ginning.

Attard and Ginning — both of whom spent the entirety of this season before the trade deadline with AHL Lehigh Valley — have held their own. Over the last four games, in fact, they are the Flyers’ top two defensemen in terms of shot attempt share, with Attard at 59.4 percent and Ginning at 58.8 percent. Yes, the pair has been starting most of its shifts in the offensive or neutral zones, but they’ve been on the ice for just one goal against at five-on-five over the last four games — Carter Verhaeghe’s third-period marker on Sunday. Verhaeghe did beat Ginning at the blue line on the play, but his shot should have been routinely stopped by Sandstrom.

Before the Panthers game, Ginning spoke about how he’s feeling more and more comfortable as he gains experience.

“I feel like everyone is so locked in on what they’re trying to do here and that makes it easier for me to fall into a good place and play good minutes when I’m on the ice,” he said. “I’m a defensive guy. I want to play defense. I want to play physical. That’s what they want from me, and that’s what I want to bring to the team.”

Tortorella, after Saturday’s win over Boston, said: “The young kids, I don’t see any nerves. Mistakes are made — mistakes made by their D, too. But they go back out there and play.”

That was particularly evident in a sequence in the third period on Saturday against Boston. In a 1-1 game with six and a half minutes to go, Ginning failed on a clearing attempt, and the puck was immediately gathered in by Jake DeBrusk, who had Flyer-killer David Pastrnak beside him on a two-on-one with only Ginning defending. Pastrnak dashed toward the front of the net in anticipation of a pass from DeBrusk, but Ginning kept his composure and closed on DeBrusk and the puck before he could get it to one of the most dangerous goal scorers in the NHL.

Ginning said: “I tried to just get it out of the zone and didn’t. (DeBrusk) came back. Mistakes are going to happen, but as long as you work hard to stop them from being too big, then that’s OK. I tried to come back, and I interrupted the play.”

It’s more than just the defensemen who are part of the turnaround, though. Everyone on the ice has been doing their part to play a more structured game, something that required some time due to the significant change in personnel over the last few weeks.

Johnson suggested after Saturday’s game that everyone is just a little more connected than they were previously.

“Breakouts are a little cleaner. If we’re not breaking the puck out sharp, I think we’re creating a battle, whether it’s low or maybe high up in the zone,” Johnson said. “If we start spreading the puck, I think that’s when teams have gotten those bang-bang opportunities on us. So for us, I think we’ve been real good at our breakouts, keeping the puck on the strong side, and finding ways to get the puck out with speed to our guys.

“It’s a five-man job there. It’s the forwards that are really supporting us when we’re making those plays. We try to play fast and crisp and not slow it down and use our young legs and team speed and for that reason, I think we’ve had some success.”

They’ll be tested again on Tuesday in their first of two visits to Madison Square Garden. The New York Rangers have already beaten the Flyers twice at Wells Fargo Center, 3-1 on Nov. 24 and 2-1 on Feb. 24. They’re ninth in the NHL with 3.35 goals per game and are still trying to lock down the Metropolitan Division title.

If the Flyers keep playing the way they have for the past week, though, they’ll be in the game. And after that, their schedule eases up, with just two of their final nine against teams currently in playoff position.

That’s probably why Laughton wasn’t panicking after Sunday’s loss.

“Our game from this week to maybe two weeks ago is a lot better than it’s been,” Laughton said.

(Photo of Erik Johnson: Eric Hartline / USA Today)

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