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January 10, 2014 | 10:24am ET
Berube's adjustments have Flyers climbing
By David Strehle, TheFourthPeriod.com

PHILADELPHIA, PA -- Having taken over for the fired Peter Laviolette just three games into the regular season, Philadelphia Flyers head coach Craig Berube wasn't afforded the usual time to evaluate his personnel from the vantage point a bench boss normally has as they head into a new season.

Serving as one of Laviolette's assistants, Berube didn't have the luxuries of a full training camp and preseason schedule with which to implement a dedicated system of play, or to work on other things such as the forward line combinations and defensive pairings.

On the heels of three losses under Laviolette in which Philadelphia was held to a single goal in each, the Flyers went 4-7-1 in their next 11 -- scoring just 19 times -- as Berube went through a bit of trial and error in an attempt to find the right chemistry.

He also had some improvisation along the way in the wake of some injury problems, but those injuries have paved the way for experimentation with line juggling. The resulting rejuvenation to the non-existent offensive attack early in the season has been a much-welcomed change.

The top line of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, and Jake Voracek hadn't been producing for some time, going all the way back through the preseason. All three were mired in prolonged slumps to start the year, with both Giroux (hand) and Voracek (back) nursing injuries suffered prior to the start of the year. With Hartnell already not being the fleetest of foot, Giroux's inability to firmly grip the stick, and Voracek's mobility and overall effectiveness hampered, the trio's efforts to put the puck in the opposing net amounted to nothing more than an exercise in futility.

As the club's well-documented struggles stretched into November, the Flyers had managed a league-worst 22 goals in those 15 outings (1.47 goals per game). It's no coincidence they were saddled with a 4-10-1 record and at the absolute bottom of the NHL's overall standings, and it was obvious that adjustments were necessary.

With rumors swirling through South Philly like the howling winds of a nor'easter, the shoe seemed all but ready to drop on a major trade. GM Paul Holmgren wisely opted instead to pull off a minor deal with the Colorado Avalanche, swapping Max Talbot in exchange for Steve Downie.

In his second tour of duty with the Flyers, the winger was placed on the right side with Sean Couturier and Matt Read. That line immediately caught fire and carried the team as they began the long journey back from the recesses of the league's cellar.

While the top line continued to struggle newcomer Vincent Lecavalier had developed a certain amount of familiarity with Brayden Schenn on the second line which included Wayne Simmonds, but Berube's creativity was put to the test when the former-Tampa Bay Lightning captain went down with a back ailment.

The coach placed 25-year-old offseason free agent signee Michael Raffl into the left wing spot on the top line, and moved Hartnell to the left side of the second line with Schenn sliding to the center position.

The results have been nothing short of amazing.

The Flyers have scored 95 goals in their last 29 outings for a 3.28 goals per game average to lift Philadelphia's totals for the year to 117 markers in 44 contests, and a much more respectable 2.66 goals per game. Even with the awful offensive start to the campaign -- and a goal total through 15 games that was the lowest in the league in over 50 years -- Philly's resurgent attack has now averaged a better goals per game count for the season than three of their division rivals (Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, and New Jersey Devils).

Not surprisingly, Philly's record in the last 29 games is 19-7-3, and the 41 points accumulated in that timeframe is fifth-best in the NHL during that stretch.

The top line of Raffl-Giroux-Voracek has been excellent. The difference in the healthy versions of Giroux and Voracek -- who each recently went on nine-game point-scoring streaks -- from earlier in the year is like night and day. Giroux has recorded 13 goals and 32 points in the last 29 contests to again take his spot as the team's scoring leader, and Voracek has been producing at an almost point per game clip as well with nine goals and 26 points in the last 29 games. Raffl's speed, passing abilities, and physicality have been the perfect complements to the club's dynamic duo. While his contributions don't always translate onto the score sheet, he has still managed all three goals and 10 of his 12 points for the year within the last 14 games he has played.

For as well as the first line has been playing, the line of Hartnell-Schenn-Simmonds has been the Flyers' hottest trio as of late. Simmonds had gone goalless in 10 straight games, but has notched nine in the past 11 contests. Included in that stretch were three consecutive two-goal outputs, as Simmonds became the first Flyer with three straight multi-goal games since Reggie Leach turned the trick back in 1981. Schenn had also slumped -- having not scored a goal in 16 games -- but has lit the lamp in four of the last six outings. Even Hartnell, who hadn't gotten untracked offensively since breaking his foot at the beginning of last year, has been on a roll. The 31-year-old left winger didn't post a point against the Montreal Canadiens in Wednesday's 3-1 victory, but tallied four goals and nine points during an eight-game point streak leading into that tilt.

Berube also has the team's defensemen active in the offensive attack, as the corps chipped in collectively with 10 goals in a recent 12-contest span.

Perhaps one of the best signs moving forward has been Philadelphia's renewed ability to overcome deficits. This was a trademark quality two seasons ago, when no lead was safe against the Orange-and-Black.

That ingredient was absent for much of last year, and was just about non-existent for the first quarter of the current campaign. But the never-say-die spirit has been prevelant once again, as the Flyers have overcome third period-deficits to win games six times since December 4.

"We're winning a lot of different ways," Berube said following the triumph over Montreal. "Tonight we got the lead and did what we had to do to win the game. I didn't think we gave them a whole lot. In the (New) Jersey game (3-2 overtime win Tuesday) we got down 1-0, but battled back. I can go back to the Phoenix game (5-3 win January 4) where we were down, but we battled back."

In addition to the offensive balance, the Flyers' penalty-killing has been excellent. They killed off all four man advantages against Montreal Wednesday, making it six consecutive games in which the PK was perfect, killing off 19 straight over that span. The unit is now seventh-best in the NHL with an 84.6% kill rate.

"(Assistant coach Ian) Laperriere handles the PK," said Berube, who was in charge of the club's penalty-killing during his time as assistant coach. "He does a real good job of scouting the other team and taking away their options, taking away their strengths."

When it comes down to it, it's the player's execution of Laperriere's game plan on the ice that makes it all happen, and the coach recognized their hard work.

"The players are doing a great job," he said of the unit's dogged determination. "Penalty killing is about everybody on the ice being more committed than the power play; blocking shots, clearing pucks, goalies making big saves, so they’re all on the same page. They do a real good job."

Mason had similar sentiments, and appreciates the unit's efforts with the amount of times his team has had to skate shorthanded.

"We take a lot of penalties, so it’s obviously a huge part of our game," the netminder explained. "The guys that we have are on the kill are extremely competitive and sacrifice themselves blocking shots, especially our defensemen. They’re a huge reason why we’re having success right now."

“We’re just sticking to the system and working hard," said Raffl, one of the forwards who has excelled on the unit. "That’s the key on the PK I think. We know what they are trying to do and we try to have good sticks, be in position all the time."

With Philly clicking on all cylinders, the brash confidence being exuded bares little resemblance to the tentativeness that crippled the club in the early stages of the year.

"I think they’re confident guys right now and believe they can win," the coach said, noting his club is still finding ways to get the job done even on nights when they aren't in top form. "They’re not always going to play their best hockey, but we’re squeezing wins out."

"It doesn’t matter if we’re down a goal or up a goal, we’re sticking to the system," Raffl said. "We’ve got enough good players to score goals to come back, or to play good enough defense to bring it home."

“I think earlier in the year we were finding ways to lose games, now we’re finding ways to win games," added Couturier. "Even if we’re down a goal or two, we’re still confident we can come back and score some goals. When we’re up a goal or two, we’re confident that we can close out the game. Our goalie makes big saves and it just takes a little play to turn the momentum around. We’re confident right now in our games that we can shift that momentum anytime.”

It's hard to imagine but Berube has Philadelphia in second place in the Metro with a 23-17-4 record, three points ahead of the Rangers (and holding a game in hand on N.Y.). They're 10-2-1 in their last 13 overall, having won 10 in a row at home for the first time in a decade and winning four of the last five road contests to go above the .500 mark away from home for the first time all season (11-10-4). The Flyers also blew past the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs in the wild card race as they continue their ascent up the ladder of league standings.

It just took the team a bit of time before they fully bought into the coach's system. With their snowballing success, the club's brimming confidence should be proof-positive that they believe in the message Berube is preaching.

When he was asked if there was a time earlier in the year when he had contemplated where he thought the Flyers would be by this point of the season, the coach said he never really thinks that far ahead.

"I didn’t really think about that, to be honest with you," Berube said. "I took it day-by-day, and I still do. I’m a game-by-game guy. This one is over, and we prepare for Saturday (Tampa Bay at the Wells Fargo Center). I’m pleased with where we are but on the other hand, there are a lot of games left and you’ve got to keep pushing. It's (Metropolitan Division) tight and there are teams right on our tail. Any way you look at it, the division is tight so you have to keep winning."

David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.


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