Lun. Abr 15th, 2024

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Joel Farabee didn’t understand the negativity.

As he walked into Philadelphia Flyers training camp last September, he saw a locker room that had become even more tight-knit over the summer. He saw key players like center Sean Couturier, now their captain, and winger Cam Atkinson finally healthy again. He saw a coach in John Tortorella who demanded effort every game — the last guy you’d expect to lord over a last-place season.

Yet the Flyers had been effectively counted out in preseason predictions. Their .457 points percentage in 2022-23 was seen as a harbinger of rough seasons to come. And it wasn’t coming just from media or fans: Team management had candidly communicated that the Flyers were rebuilding and not a Stanley Cup contender this season.

But that’s not what Farabee saw before the season. That’s not what a lot of his teammates saw either. And they weren’t happy about what they felt was disrespect from the rest of the NHL.

«We just came in with that F.U. attitude,» Farabee told ESPN. «Just seeing all the media, and everyone else, having us in the bottom five or bottom three in the league, whatever it was, I think it just fueled a fire and motivated us to stick it the doubters.»

Through 57 games, the doubters have been stuck. The Flyers are third in the Metro Division with a 30-20-7 record (67 points), trying to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2020. Instead of tabulating their lottery odds, as many anticipated, it’s their playoff odds that are getting the most attention: a 76.8% chance of making the cut as of Thursday, according to Stathletes.

«There was a chip on our shoulder from the beginning of the year. People were always saying that we were supposed to be one of the worst teams in the league,» defenseman Sean Walker said. «Once we started to win some games, we felt like we could be successful this year. And then we started actually doing it.»


TO A MAN, the Flyers say that training camp was where the belief started. The team had lost a few veteran players in the offseason, including trades that shipped out center Kevin Hayes and defenseman Ivan Provorov. Expectations were low for what was seen as a rebuilding campaign.

But Tortorella believed they could be better than that, and it started with team chemistry.

«For me the most important part of our summer prior [to the season] was our locker room. You could see early on that our locker room was together,» he said. «It’s just something you feel. It’s hard to explain how you see it. There’s no analytic for it. It’s just your gut and how you watch how they act.»

It’s something veteran defenseman Marc Staal experienced as one of a handful of new faces on the Flyers this season, signing in Philadelphia after helping the Florida Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final.

«When I got here, guys already had a really good culture and a good room and everyone enjoys each other’s company,» he said. «We’re able to push each other while still keeping each other accountable and having fun at the same time.»

«I knew the projections of what the Flyers were supposed to be. I didn’t really believe when I saw it,» Staal continued. «I looked at their lineup; they were getting players back, good goaltending. I was just like, they’re not far off, and that’s been proven that over the season.»

The word «belief» is heard a lot around the Flyers. It’s a mantra from Tortorella, a catchall word that refers to everything from desire to win to confidence that success can be achieved.

«The word ‘belief’ is huge for us. We’re not a team of stars, and we certainly don’t have things figured out here as the beginning of our process of rebuilding this. But belief brings in a lot of good things,» said Tortorella, in his second season with the Flyers and 22nd as an NHL head coach. «If you have the effort and you have the mindset that we’re going to do this together, you can stay competitive in this league.»

But at some point, belief isn’t enough. There has to be proof of concept to reinforce it.

For the Flyers, that came early. They started the season 3-1, including wins over the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. Then came an overtime loss at the Dallas Stars and a tight 3-2 loss at the Vegas Golden Knights. The wins didn’t start arriving en masse until November, but those early efforts were fortifying.

«I think that first road trip, going into Dallas, Vegas [and playing other] top teams, we were right there,» Staal recalled. «We had some big wins, really close games, and I think that started to kind of build like, ‘Hey, we’re competitive every night. We have a chance.'»


ONE THING EXPECTED to be a drawback for the Flyers might have actually helped bond the team: the lack of true star players. Sure, Travis Konecny has 27 goals and Couturier is considered one of the better two-way centers in the league. But as Tortorella said, and Farabee reiterated, it’s not a team of stars.

«Obviously we’re one of those groups where it takes all of us to win games. We don’t have the one guy that’s going to score four goals and win us the game. It takes everybody, and it’s every night,» Farabee said. «We go into every game believing that we’re going to win the game, so I don’t think we overanalyze too many things. I think the good thing about our group is we kind of just go out there and play. We compete really hard. We’re hard to play against. I think if you have those attributes as a team, you give yourself a chance to win every night.»

New Jersey Devils coach Lindy Ruff said the Flyers are a «hard team to play against» as an opponent.

«For me, they’ve been a highly competitive team almost every night,» he said. «You’ve got to compete for all the ice you’re going to get in every zone. They’re defending well, and they’re playing the game quick. They’re creating some really good opportunities.»

The Flyers are 23rd in goals per game (2.91) and 11th in goals against per game (2.88).

What Philadelphia has excelled at this season is not allowing its bubble to burst. In December, the Flyers lost seven of nine games; then followed that with five straight wins; then followed that with five straight losses; then followed that with four straight wins. Lots of peaks, lots of valleys, but not a lot of panic.

The Flyers credited Tortorella for helping them maintain confidence. There was probably a time earlier in his career when losing seven of nine games might have led to a volcanic response from the coach. But Farabee said that Tortorella has managed emotions well.

«I think he has a really good feel on the group and what we need versus what we don’t need — when we need to maybe be yelled at a bit versus when we don’t,» he said. «I think it’s him just knowing that it’s a long season, obviously you can’t be on it guys too much. I just think with how good our group is, he’s really found a really good balance on just letting us go out there and play and play our game.»

Staal played for Tortorella with the New York Rangers back in the coach’s more volcanic days. Although he said the coach is «still the same guy,» he believes the 65-year-old has found a better balance in his life.

«I think his coaching style has changed a little bit since the last time I had him,» he said. «His assistants run a lot of the meetings. He’s still very involved in the day-to-day business of it, but I think he’s a little bit more hands off in certain areas than he was when I had him in New York.»

Tortorella said being «hands off» sometimes means monitoring from afar.

«I do a lot of watching of the team when they don’t think I’m watching them. I learned a lot then as far as how they’re together,» he said. «You win a few games early on, you get off on the right foot. I watched how they handle it then, and you just saw it built. That helps [when] have some stretches where we struggled.»


THE FLYERS HAVE FACED some uncertainty as they journey to a surprising playoff berth.

Starting goaltender Carter Hart, who played 26 games for Philadelphia this season, took a leave of absence from the team in January. He surrendered to police in London, Ontario, having been charged with one count of sexual assault after an investigation into an incident involving Canada’s 2018 world junior championship team. He was one of five players charged in the case. Hart, 25, is a restricted free agent this summer.

His absence meant that rookie Samuel Ersson and 29-year-old veteran Cal Petersen are the team’s goaltenders going forward.

The March 8 NHL trade deadline could mean more roster changes. Despite their playoff position, the Flyers are still thinking ahead. Pending unrestricted free agent defensemen Walker and Nick Seeler have been in the rumor mill, as has veteran center Scott Laughton, who has two more seasons left on his contract.

«It’s been interesting at some times, but you just try to put it at the back of your mind and take everything with a grain of salt,» Walker said. «Everything will work itself out at the end of the day.»

Tortorella has said that the team is «not backing off at all as far as what we’re trying to do with the organization in the big picture as far as rebuilding,» regarding the trade deadline.

GM Danny Briere has all but ruled out trading draft picks to bolster the team’s current playoff chances.

«We’re not going to make trades just to make trades,» he said in January, via PhillyVoice. «If there’s something that makes sense that we feel makes us better for the future, we’ll strongly consider it.»

Finally, there’s the rest of the conference. The Devils, New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins are trailing the Flyers with games in hand, and they can’t be counted out for the third seed in the Metro or a wild-card spot.

All that said, Philadelphia is in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot. Which is not where many expected the Flyers would be — outside of their locker room, at least.

«Being the underdog, there’s nothing wrong with that, right?» Atkinson said. «Personally, I’ve been an underdog my whole life, my whole career trying to prove people wrong. There was no expectation for us. We have each other’s backs. We put our bodies on the line. You can see how excited the guy next to you is when someone scores a goal. It’s a special group, and it’s fun to be a part of that.»

Especially when it’s a chance for a team from Philly to stick it to the critics.

«We’ve always thought that we were good enough to be here,» Konecny said. «This year is another opportunity to prove people wrong, the people that were counting us out. It gave us a little bit of motivation.»

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