By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
It’s not often that you see Alain Vigneault actually note the meaning of a game, but he couldn’t help himself on Wednesday. In his pre-game media availability, he joked that someone told Flyers PR guru Zack Hill that this game was a big one.
“It was me,” Vigneault said. “I told him that.”
It expressed a looseness that this Flyers team is playing with over the course of their now seven-game winning streak following Wednesday’s win in said big game against the Capitals, a win that moves them back to within a point of the division lead.
It wasn’t the prettiest of starts for the Flyers, and they did allow the first goal, but once again, it meant very little to the result. This team budges at nothing. They do not play scared. They play with conviction. They play with character. They play for each other.
The phrase “statement win” gets thrown around a little too much in today’s sports world. It’s the impression that every game has significant meaning in the here and now when in the big picture, it’s not nearly as impactful. But this game against the division leaders on a national stage and securing the victory by three goals with a very strong final 40 minutes, that certainly qualifies as a statement.
That statement: this team is for real, and people are really starting to see it.
“Our boys came to play. I think it showed a lot about the will and character of this group here,” Vigneault said. “Obviously we haven’t accomplished anything yet, but tonight was a big game for both teams.
“We came to play. It was exactly what I expected and I’m sure it’s what this group expected. Now we’ve got to do the same thing tomorrow night.”
It wasn’t long ago that Vigneault deflected a question about the team’s goals changing. That answer indirectly answered that question. The Flyers are not locked into the playoff race yet. No team is with upwards of 15 to 18 games left for teams across the league. But with 16 games left on their own schedule, the Flyers don’t feel like they have accomplished anything because just making the race isn’t enough. The goals are becoming loftier than that.
A game like Wednesday’s showed it. It was physical. It was intense. It had all the makings of a playoff game. And the Flyers stood up to the challenge, dealt with some adversity early — allowing the first goal and having another disallowed because there was no conclusive evidence of the puck entering the net — and answered the bell once again.
This all of a sudden isn’t a team that is on the playoff bubble, just trying to make the dance. This is a team that is poised for playoff success, that continues to turn heads with every game and is showing they don’t just want to participate, but expect to be around for more than just a few games.
Even the loss of James van Riemsdyk to a broken hand, the only blemish on an otherwise exciting night for the Flyers, feels different. On one hand, there isn’t a player on this team that you feel can be lost for significant time. If any player exits for a significant period, it feels like a big loss no matter what the role. That speaks to the depth of the team.
Of course, this is also why Chuck Fletcher’s deadline plan was to add depth up front. The Flyers were getting results before the deadline with rookies Joel Farabee and Connor Bunnaman in the lineup. Both were sent down when Derek Grant and Nate Thompson arrived, and it provided the Flyers with some more security in the event something like this happened.
The Flyers aren’t plugging up van Riemsdyk’s absence with a player who has to jump in without much experience. It’s a player who has been here for a majority of the season.
Throughout training camp and early in the season, Vigneault said several times that it was a process of getting the Flyers up to speed on the system and playing as a unit. There are moments where a turnover rears its ugly head or some of the execution is slightly off, but they are fewer and farther between. Vigneault hasn’t talked about the process a lot lately. Instead, he’s focused on the execution and coming away with the right result because it is earned.
That, perhaps, is the biggest reason the Flyers have not lost back-to-back games in nearly two months. When adversity pops up, this team stays in the moment. The Flyers aren’t jumping to any conclusions. They aren’t taking this winning streak for granted and assuming the rest of the pieces will fall into place. Instead, they are doing what their coach asked them to do all the way back at the very beginning in training camp.
“You can say you want to win. You can say a whole bunch of things. At the end of the day, you have to show it,” he said. With another statement against the Metro division leaders, the Flyers moved one step closer to taking that place away.