Flyers showing growth in pair of wins over Stanley Cup contenders

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PHILADELPHIA — John Tortorella gets mail. And we’re not referring to emails here, either — these are real, hand-written letters, postage stamps and all, and they’re apparently delivered to his desk at the Flyers’ training facility every day.

The primary reason he goes through it is that he doesn’t want to miss a young fan’s request for an autograph, or advice, from the 65-year-old coach of five NHL teams. But there are other letters from other fans of other ages, who sometimes have advice of their own.

And some of those letters he’s grown tired of reading.

“Stop sending me letters about tanking,” Tortorella said. “Because it’s not going to happen. And I know people want that high draft pick next year in the draft. ‘You’re not winning a Stanley Cup, so just lose the games.’ It’s not going to happen. It’s so wrong. And it’s the worst way you can develop players.”

Those fans pining for a tank job are surely frustrated a little more than a month into the 2023-24 season. The Flyers have strung together four straight wins heading into Sunday’s late afternoon game with Columbus, and at 9-7-1 are in the mix in a Metropolitan Division that, other than the surging Rangers, looks a little more wide open now than many presumed it would be before the season began.

And while it’s still too early to think about the playoffs, it’s not too early to suggest that there has been some real growth with the group as a whole when compared to some previous seasons.

The Flyers’ two wins in Carolina on Thursday, 3-1, and at home on Saturday against Vegas, 4-3 in overtime, are arguably their two most impressive of the season. Not only did they get past two teams that many believe can win the Stanley Cup, but the way they handled certain situations within those games is exactly what the Flyers’ brain trust is looking for, and ultimately believes will lead to growth in the young players on the roster who are around to take part in and witness them first hand.

In Carolina, the Flyers jumped out to a 3-0 advantage before Stefan Noesen’s goal midway through the second period cut into it, giving the Hurricanes the momentum. Nick Seeler’s hooking minor 14 seconds after the goal could have made things even worse for the visitors.

But they killed off the penalty, survived a few waves of attack from Carolina, and made it to the second intermission with a two-goal cushion still intact.

“If (Carolina scores) another one I’m not sure what happens in the third period,” Tortorella said. “I think momentum swings are something that we’re going to have to learn to handle. Keep the momentum on our side as best we can when it’s there, and how do you stop other teams from ramping it up on you? I think that’s a huge point for us this year to work at. I think we passed the test against Carolina.”

Another test was passed on Saturday. Tortorella rightly predicted there would be even more momentum swings in the Vegas game, and he was right. The Flyers again jumped out to a multiple-goal lead, 2-0 this time, and after Vegas made it 2-1 on a William Karlsson marker four minutes into the second period, they had a chance to take control again after Chandler Stephenson’s five-minute major for cross-checking Garnet Hathaway in the face. They failed, though, and the Golden Knights tied it shortly after the penalty expired on a spinning backhander from Jonathan Marchessault.

Enter Sean Walker, whose seeing-eye floater from the point 25 seconds after Marchessault’s goal gave the Flyers the lead back. And even though Marchessault would tie the game again late in the second period on the power play after the Flyers got into penalty trouble, the Flyers kept their composure in the third period to force overtime, where Sean Couturier provided the win.

“It’s going to happen. It’s hockey. There’s going to be momentum swings,” Couturier said. “It’s how you respond to the lows. It was 3-3 coming into the second (intermission) against the top team in the league. We liked our position. We just needed to keep playing the same way, and we did. We got rewarded with that extra point.”

Tortorella said: “We struggle on the five-minute power play, they come down and score. I thought we answered it (with Walker’s) goal. Then we take a bunch of penalties. Just not sure where it’s going to be come the third period. I just said, it’s a really good opportunity for us to handle this.”

Having Carter Hart helps, as the goalie stopped all 10 shots he saw in the third period, including a beauty on Karlsson on a Vegas power play less than four minutes into the final frame.

But it’s early in games that Hart has done his best work, including on Saturday when he saw an Ivan Barbashev breakaway in the second minute and a Brett Howden partial breakaway moments later and swatted away both. He finished with 28 saves and is now 6-3-0 on the season.

“That’s two games in a row he’s let us get settled,” Tortorella said. “He’s been outstanding.”

It’s been mentioned often that the Flyers have been among the NHL’s best teams in the first period — they now have a league-leading 24 first-period goals ahead of Saturday night’s action. What probably hasn’t been mentioned enough is that Hart has been just as good in the opening 20 minutes. Excluding the game he got hurt in on Nov. 1, he’s stopped 89 of 94 shots he’s seen in the first period for a .940 save percentage.

The Flyers are now 9-2-0 when leading after the first period, and 9-1-0 when scoring first.

“Our starts have been better,” Scott Laughton said. “This year we’re not chasing as many games and I think that definitely helps when you’re not chasing the game.”

It adds up to not just winning games, but winning games in a productive way. The trick now, of course, will be to maintain it. After all, the Flyers were 7-3-2 last season before losing 10 straight. The season before that, in 2021-22, they were 8-4-2 before they, yes, lost 10 straight then, too.

“We’ve gotten off to good starts in the past two or three years and kind of fallen off a cliff,” Laughton said.

But …

“The way we’re playing this year is different from the last couple years, just our pace and playing with the puck. You can’t look too far ahead, but you win a couple games, you definitely look at the standings and see what’s going on.”

Regardless of their position in standings, there are building blocks being put into place that wouldn’t be possible if losses continually mounted.

“There is still a priority to teach young players how to win, and what’s expected to help us win,” Tortorella said. “So you have developing, versus winning — that’s something we’re going to juggle all year long. Don’t think we’re going to forget about winning.”

(Photo: Kyle Ross / USA Today)

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