PHILADELPHIA – Long before Tom Wilson decided to turn into the Polar Express and try to send Brayden Schenn to the North Pole with a blinding hit that sent the Flyers forward face first into the end boards, the team was playing really well.
Long before the Flyers scored a pair of power play goals on the ensuing major penalty to Wilson, they were dominating the Capitals.
It may be convenient to point out those moments as a turning point in the Flyers 5-2 win against the Caps, a win that earned them three of a possible four points in a home-and-home set with their new/old division rivals, but it wouldn’t tell the full story.
It wouldn’t tell how the Flyers controlled the puck for stretched at a time. It wouldn’t tell how Schenn’s line, with Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds were systematically wearing down the capitals with physical play in what was a very physical game.
It also wouldn’t tell how the Flyers overcame a couple of early gaffes – and two separate deficits – to defeat the Capitals in a very important December game.
Because the Flyers learned from the loss to the Caps Sunday. Coughing up a three-goal lead late in the third period was unacceptable. More so because the Flyers just needed to stick with what was working and not try anything different.
It was evident that lesson was learned Tuesday.
“ I think when you, especially the last game when they came back and tied it up.. I think we learned from that,” said captain Claude Giroux, who had an assist Tuesday. “We can’t be comfortable against any team. Especially against guys who can put the puck into the net easily. I think we learned the hard way and I think we can take it and keep that experience with us.”
They certainly did.
Down 2-1 early in the second period, the Flyers didn’t let a couple of bad breaks drag them down and continued to dictate the tempo of the game.
Whether it was the relentless forecheck supplied by the Schenn line, or puck possession wizardry put on display by Giroux and Jake Voracek, who scored twice, the Flyers were putting unending pressure on the Caps defense and throwing a lot at goalie Braden Holtby, who did his part to keep the Capitals in the game despite allowing five goals.
The way the Flyers and Caps played, you could sense a growing animosity, you could tell the game was going to have a bit of an edge to it right away, you knew this was a game where good rivalries are formed, and distaste is stored away until you meet again in a couple months.
The NHL should consider scheduling more of these home-and-home sets among divisional opponents, because it breeds a better brand of hockey.
“Personally I like playing back to back games against the same team,” Giroux said. “It’s a little rivalry. Obviously there were a couple hits here and there and a couple fights. I think the fans, especially in Philly, they enjoyed that in tonight’s game.”
They were enjoying a lot of it – from Voracek’s first goal, to Adam Hall pulling an upset in a fight with Aaron Volpatti, to Matt Read’s team-leading tenth goal of the season that was the result of some gritty work by both him and Steve Downie to keep the play alive.
“We talked about in here but we knew we couldn’t let [what happened Sunday] happen again,” Read said. “We had to come out flying and do the simple things and the smart things and make sure we come out with two points.”
The outcome would hang in the balance for a bit – until Wilson was whistled for a charging major, a fighting major and a game misconduct after plastering Schenn into the end wall.
Wilson caught Schenn square on the shoulder, but took several strides and “wound up” his arms to get greater drive into the hit.
Schenn crumbled to the ice in a heap and struggled to get to his feet. He eventually made it off the ice under his own power, but never returned to the game with what the team called an upper-body injury.
On the ensuing power play, Mark Streit scored what ultimately would be the game-winning goal on a blast from the point and Voracek netted a second goal to make it 4-2.
Of course the third period loomed, and the Flyers have lost five third period leads already this season.
But rather than have a repeat of Sunday, the Flyers buckled down, limited Washington’s chances, and put the game away with fine individual effort by Wayne Simmonds to score the fifth goal and snap a personal 10-game goal drought.
“It was good,” Simmonds said. “We executed our game plan in the third period. We wanted to keep pucks out of the middle of the ice. That team [Capitals] scores in bunches, and kept it out of the middle of the ice. We were successful.”
Successful enough to once again reach faux .500 (15-15-4, 34 points) and move within a point of Carolina for third place (and a playoff position) in the Metropolitan Division and within three points of Toronto for the final wild card playoff spot – with two games in hand on the Maple Leafs.
“We just need to find a way to be consistent,” said Giroux. “Now that we’re at .500 we have to stay and start going forward from here. Everybody on this team likes each other and now we’re having a great time. And I think when you have a great time with the guys and respect them and want to play for them, that’s when you start playing better.”
Or, like they say on that train from the popular kid’s Christmas movie – Believe.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers
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