Before Lecavalier was out even two weeks and consistent production coming almost exclusively from the third line of Matt Read, Sean Couturier, and Steve Downie, there was a genuine concern as to where offense would originate.
Both Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek were in the process of coming out of elongated scoring slumps, but Scott Hartnell was still in the throes of offensive difficulties. Michael Raffl was toiling on the fourth line with Adam Hall and Zac Rinaldo, splitting time with Jay Rosehill on the left wing depending on the toughness level of their opponent. Raffl continued to work relentlessly, waiting for an opportunity for an expanded role.
ďI was working really hard to get another chance and do the best I can,Ē the 25-year-old Austrian rookie said recently.
Following a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks on December 11, the continued stagnation of the top line of Hartnell, Giroux, and Voracek caused head coach Craig Berube to move Raffl to the left wing spot on the first unit.
It's a maneuver that paid immediate dividends, leading to a 4-1-1 mark for the Orange-and-Black since that time.
"Itís a lot more fun than at the start of the year," Giroux said of the recent offensive outburst. "I think we have more chemistry going and we are controlling the play a little bit better. Thatís what we need to do and Raffl is playing great for us. Heís moving everywhere, heís fast, heís got a good stick, and heís fun to play with."
"That's nice of him, I really appreciate it," Raffl said when informed about Giroux's compliments. "It's fun to play with him, he's always there to support you all over the ice, so it makes my job a lot easier as well."
According to the architect of the good fortune, the various skills each line member possesses contribute to the overall success of the trio.
"They all kind of bring a little bit of a different element," said Berube. "The speed factor of Jake and the hands of Giroux, and Raffl, just strong on the puck. But they all skate and thatís the key. Jake does a good job of skating the puck and Raffl is good on the wall on our end and does a lot little things well. He's strong with the puck. They just have good chemistry."
That chemistry has led to some pretty impressive numbers during the past half-dozen outings, combining for 10 goals and 28 points during the span:
Giroux got off to an awful start to the campaign, posting no goals and contributing just seven assists in his initial 15 games. While the captain had been at nearly a point-per-game clip since that time, he's been white hot since Berube shook up his lines. Giroux has registered five goals and 12 points in the last six contests with Raffl aboard, scoring goals in four of those six outings. He is currently riding a career-best seven-game points stretch in which he has five goals and 13 points, and now has 10 goals and 33 points in 37 games in his ongoing quest for a spot on Team Canada in the February Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Voracek had similarly struggled early on, battling a back ailment suffered late in the pre-season when hooked down by New Jersey Devils' defender Bryce Salvador and crashing back-first into the goal post. But like Giorux he has also been producing at a blistering pace since the line juggling, putting up four goals and 11 points during the six-game span. In the process, Voracek also extended his point-scoring streak to a career-high eight games (6-7-13).
Raffl, who had managed a goal and four points in his first 19 games this year, has one goal and five points in his last six since joining Giroux and Voracek.
The success of the top line has had a sort of trickle down affect, one that has translated into another line that has also started to develop something of a rapport.
With Lecavalier still out of the lineup, Berube placed Hartnell on the left side of Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. It's a line that wouldn't appear to be weighted properly, as the general lack of speed and the similar one-dimensional aspect of each player would seem to be damning.
Even though it took a little longer to produce, they've actually gelled fairly well over the last four contests.
Simmonds had back-to-back two-goal games heading into the holiday break, posting five goals and seven points in a four-game point-scoring streak. Heís now tied with Giroux and Read for the Philly goal-scoring lead with 10 for the year, and sits in third in team scoring just three points behind Voracek.
Schenn hasn't scored a goal in his last 15 outings but has recorded a pair of assists over the last four, while Hartnell has three helpers during that time.
"I thought they were real good because all three of them worked hard together," Berube cited following a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild on December 23. "In order for that line to be successful they all need to work and play a power game, and I thought they did that tonight."
The offensive explosion has been evident from everyone's vantage point, but maybe it hasn't been appreciated as much as anyone more than goaltender Steve Mason. In his first full year between the pipes in Philadelphia, Mason has been the clear cut team MVP and had to be nearly perfect for a squad that had been able to muster more than two goals in a single game just one time in their first 15 outings, a stretch in which they posted just 22 goals in support of their netminders.
"It feels unbelievable," Mason said of the support he received following a thrilling 5-4 come-from-behind victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets -- his former teammates -- on December 19. "I went around the room and thanked everybody, and G (Giroux) said 'you donít always have to be the one thatís winning us games.'"
It has to be something of a blessing for the goalies to know that they can also be bailed out from time-to-time if they sometimes havenít brought their ĎA gamesí, much the same way they have done so frequently in keeping their teammates in games they had no business having a chance to win.
When Downie went down with an injury, Lecavalier returned and took his spot on the third line with Couturier and Read. The interchangeability of the group through difficult times has been a huge plus, but the 21 goals they've scored in the last five contests shows they're on the right track offensively. Having won their last nine home games, the team is actually sitting in a playoff position with a 17-16-4 record nearing the end of the calendar year.
Raffl's direct influence on Giroux and Voracek and the additional benefits on team chemistry have been patently obvious, giving the club three viable scoring lines as of late. He's going to try to make his new-found role last for as long as he can as the Flyers head out west to begin a crucial six-game road trip.
"It's nice to play with those guys, it's a challenge every day but I really enjoy it," Raffl said after the win over Minnesota. "I'm trying to stay on that line as long as possible."
David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.