Full speed ahead
The Philadelphia Flyers are off to a torrid start, playing aggressive puck pursuit hockey all over the ice and in every situation, no matter the time of game or score.
The best way to describe the Flyers thus far is relentless. And it certainly is one of the best examples of less being more -- more or less -- in recent memory.
Consider that the line of Mark Recchi-Jeremy Roenick-Tony Amonte is the hottest in the NHL and that Roenick has a career-best eight-game point streak and they are accomplishing this by playing fewer minutes than ever before. All three are playing three or more minutes less per night than their career averages. Yet, here they are, leading the Flyers to a six-game winning streak and a nine-game home undefeated mark.
The operative word her is leading -- not carrying. While that line's production has been prodigious, they are merely a part of a very well balanced, highly skilled and experienced hockey club. Keith Primeau plays between Sami Kapanen and Simon Gagne on the checking line. Aside from playing against the opposition's top offensive players, all that trio managed to do the last two games was ignite the offense and score the game-winning goal both nights -- Gagne in overtime one night and Kapanen in the third period two nights later.
And that doesn't even account for the third line where Justin Williams and Michal Handzus spend more time on the ice than either Recchi or Amonte. Yes, Roenick plays more than any other Flyer forward, but you get the point -- throw line designations out the window with this team. The Flyers are deep and versatile and as a result, very difficult to play against. What stands out more than anything is the pace at which they play each and every shift. It is mach speed with a purpose. Coach Ken Hitchcock harped on his team's play without the puck last year and with that foundation in place, he has shifted his emphasis to speed and support when his team has the puck.
More accurately, his players have executed beautifully, while Hitchcock has managed his players' minutes expertly. Case in point, Roenick's line. Hitchcock wants them to play all out, all the time -- no conserving energy for later on in games. To that end, he has them on the ice less, but playing aggressively every time they hit the ice. The effect is that Roenick and Amonte haven't looked this fast since they were teammates in Chicago 10 years ago. Both have always been best when going straight ahead, or as Hitchcock put it, "playing with a little recklessness".
In Amonte's case, Hitchcock took it a step further by saying that consciously or not; he was playing to far away from the net. To his credit, Amonte sat with the coach and reviewed reams of footage and saw how the game has changed and what he needs to do to be effective. No longer is a mad dash down the wing going to culminate with a big booming slap shot as it did in his younger days. Goals today are the result of hard work below the hash marks in the offensive zone. The straight-ahead energy is still valuable, but only if it leads to pressure on the puck if the opponent is in possession, or support for a teammate if the Flyers are in control.
Right now, the Flyers are in full control, with Roenick, Amonte and the rest of the Flyers punching the clock nightly and pushing the pace unmercifully, while Hitchcock watches the clock closely and pushes all the right buttons.