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Carchidi Column: No One Saw This Aspect of Flyers’ Game Coming

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Travis Sanheim. Philadelphia Flyers. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Travis Sanheim has embraced his role as the Philadelphia Flyers' new No. 1 defenseman and has led the team's surprising defensive revival. Photo: AP.

On paper, the Philadelphia Flyers looked like they would be a defensive disaster before the season.

Their projected top pairing — Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen — would be a No. 2 grouping on most NHL teams.

They had several rookies and youngsters in the mix, veteran Marc Staal was well past his prime, and newcomer Sean Walker was a nondescript addition.

So, naturally, the defense has been the best part of the Flyers’ game thus far, carrying them to an impressive 4-2-1 start, which has them in second place in the Metropolitan Division.

The defense might still stumble, but in a small sample size, it has surprisingly become a strength.

The Flyers are allowing just 2.57 goals per game, placing them ninth in the 32-team league. They are 3-1-1 against Western Conference contenders Vancouver, Edmonton, Dallas, Vegas and Minnesota.

In addition, the Flyers’ penalty kill, which was atrocious last season, has gone 13 for 13 in the last five games.

What in the name of Ed Van Impe is going on here?!

Sanheim Shows the Way

Sanheim, who had a poor season last year and was nearly traded to St. Louis in the offseason,  has become the unquestioned leader, the backbone, of the defense’s revival. He has eight points and is plus-2 over seven games while playing on his “off” (right) side.

“I’m up his ass all year long last year,” coach John Tortorella said after Sanheim had three points in the Flyers’ 6-2 mauling of Minnesota on Thursday. “He’s in trade talks, all that stuff. His skill level hasn’t changed. His skating hasn’t changed. What has changed in his mindset. He has shown us right from Day One that he’s going to take control. He has done it to this point. Again, I’m happy for him. I know last year was a miserable year for him. I’m happy for him, the way he’s handled himself.”

Sanheim, 27, has embraced his role as the team’s new No. 1 defenseman, replacing the traded Ivan Provorov. He put on weight (he’s up to 222 pounds) and worked hard in the weight room in the summer.

He called the team’s solid defensive start a team effort.

“I think we’re just sticking with what Torts and Shawsy want from us,” said Sanheim, referring to Tortorella and associate coach Brad Shaw. “We’re having good gaps and trying to stay connected the best we can. We’re creating a lot of turnovers, and our forwards are doing a great job of coming back on the backcheck. They’re allowing us to stay up, and it’s just making it a lot easier for us to transition and go the other way.”

Don’t Overlook Hart

Oh, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ defensive excellence — Carter Hart has been a big part of it, compiling a 2.18 goals-against average and  .924 save percentage —  has happened with veterans Ristolainen and Staal injured and watching from the press box.

Go figure.

In their latest win against defensive-challenged Minnesota, they shut down Kirill “The Thrill” Kaprizov and Co. with a lineup that included journeyman defenseman Louie Belpedio, 27, who played his first-ever game with the Flyers and just the fifth game of his NHL career.

Belpedio was a steady presence and it made you wonder why it took him so long to crack an NHL lineup.

He played really well,” Tortorella said. “He played with poise. The thing you like about him, he’s such a competitor.”

Again, it’s a small sample size and things can go south in a hurry. That said, it’s encouraging to see Sanheim blossom and look like the type of player the Flyers envisioned when Ron Hextall drafted him in the first round in 2014. It’s also encouraging to see Cam York, drafted 14th overall by Chuck Fletcher in 2019, playing well as Sanheim’s partner.

More encouragement: Egor Zamula (plus-5), 23, looks like he deserves to be here for the long haul; Nick Seeler (team-leading plus-6, team-high 14 blocks) has provided toughness and solid play; and Walker (two shorthanded goals), a throw-in as part of the Provorov trade, has exceeded expectations.

Put it all together and you have the biggest surprise of the Flyers’ impressive start, one they hope to continue Saturday afternoon against Anaheim.

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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