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Carchidi Column: Are the Flyers Better Than We Thought?

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Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
Sean Couturier, shown in a file photo, completely shut down Edmonton's Connor McDavid in the Flyers' 4-1 win on Thursday. Photo: AP.

Are the Philadelphia Flyers, a team I predicted would finish with 83 points, better than most of us thought?

Or is their 3-1 start, including an impressive 4-1 win Thursday over Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, just a tease like early last season.

A year ago, you might recall, the Flyers started the season 7-3-2, then lost 10 straight and their season fell off a cliff. They finished with just 75 points (31-38-13).

There is a major difference, however, in the Flyers’ lineup this season: Veteran forwards Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson are back after missing 2022-23 because of injuries.

And they were the players who keyed the dismantling of the visiting Oilers, who are expected to be strong Stanley Cup contenders.

The Flyers played most of Thursday’s game with just five defensemen because of a second-period injury to Marc Staal.

McDavid Shut Down

So, naturally, the shorthanded Flyers did the unthinkable: Not only did they dominate the Oilers, but they completely frustrated the great McDavid.

In 18:01 of action, McDavid had zero shots.

Repeat: Zero.

That happens, oh, about as often as it snows in October.

In 82 games last season, it happened just once. It has happened only five times in the last four seasons. That means it probably won’t happen again until the 2024-25 season.

Credit Couturier for denying McDavid the puck and being in his face most of the night.

“He played every shift against  him except one, and they scored,” coach John Tortorella said.

Eye-Opening Performances

Couturier, who also contributed two assists and is plus-7 in the young season, returned this year after missing 22 months because of two back surgeries. Thursday was his best game of the young season. The same can be said for Atkinson, who was sidelined all of last season after having neck surgery. He had two goals in Thursday’s victory.

Tortorella said both forwards are getting “more comfortable” with each game.

“I think they accepted their responsibilities to play against two of the best players in the league,” Tortorella said, referring to McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who was limited to two shots and didn’t produce any points. “They did a really good job.”

So did the defense, including Cam York (career-high 26:30, plus-1), Travis Sanheim (27:03, plus-2), Sean Walker (22:34, plus-1), and Nick Seeler (18:01, plus-2). And Carter Hart stood tall when needed. Tortorella also praised the backchecking forwards.

The Flyers gave Edmonton just two power-play opportunities, and their defensemen blocked 19 shots, including four each by York and Seeler.

“I thought we did a really good job playing with discipline,” Tortorella said. “Coming back and scoring that shorthanded goal was important. It put us back on our toes a little bit.”

Walker scored the shorty, the first of his career. Fittingly, the play started when Couturier took the puck away from McDavid in the Flyers’ defensive end. The Philadelphia Flyers had just a 2-1 lead before Walker scored the game-changing goal with a  snipe from the left circle.

Strong finish

Philly also showed a killer instinct, a characteristic that wasn’t displayed last year. Instead of sitting on their 3-1 lead, they went on the attack in the third period and outshot the disinterested Oilers, 16-4.

A big part of the third-period domination was the play of Couturier’s line, which included Atkinson and Owen Tippett (two assists), against McDavid and Co.

“There’s only so much you can do when he’s on the ice,” said Atkinson, whose team  has a tough challenge in Dallas on Saturday night. “It’s situational awareness. When he’s on the ice, you have to swing with him at all costs, because when he gets the puck with speed, no one can touch him. So we kind of talked as a line that whenever he’s swinging, someone needs to pick him up at all times, and I think we did a good job of that.”

Actually, they did a great job. So great, in fact, that people are starting to wonder if the Flyers are better than we thought because of the impact Atkinson and Couturier are making.

Yes, the sample size is very small. And, yes, the defense, which is allowing just 2.00 goals per game, still has lots of questions. And, yes, the power play needs to start producing.

But the energetic Flyers have at least given their fans hope, and in what has been called a massive rebuild, that’s more than you can ask of them.

Sam Carchidi writes a weekly column for Philly Hockey Now. He and Jeff Hare are working on a TV series on the Flyers’ glory days, tentatively called Bullies: A Love Story. Carchidi can be reached at samcarchidi55@gmail.com.

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