1. The Flyers were at the bottom of the league at the start of the season, but are in competition for a playoff spot now. What's changed?
Well, a few things have changed. For one, the coach changed -- Peter Laviolette was largely a good coach here that almost won a Cup, but it just kind of seemed like his time was up, even though I thought the firing of him three games into the season was a bit quick. Craig Berube's done a pretty good job with a group that clearly has its shortcomings. Furthermore, several top-9 forwards who started the year cold -- Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Scott Hartnell ... OK, pretty much everyone -- all have more or less regressed back to the level of play that they're capable of, and have been scoring pretty steadily since mid-November, so that's helped. Steve Mason's been good, though we'll talk about him more shortly. And finally, the Flyers -- a pretty mediocre even-strength possession team -- have been outstanding on both the power play and the penalty kill for a while now. Which matters a fair bit, given that they spend less time at 5-on-5 than any team in the NHL. They've won a handful of games on the back of their special teams.
So it's been a lot of things. All in all I think this is a decent yet obviously flawed team that will spend all year fighting with other decent yet obviously flawed teams in the East for a playoff spot. I had always been pretty confident that they'd eventually get back up to that level, even after the 1-7 start.
2. Ed Snider seems rather grumpy. Do you agree that Claude Giroux was snubbed for Team Canada?
Eh, that's just Ed. He always seems grumpy. It's his thing. He cares about stuff a lot and will say loud things about it.
That said, I agree with him 100 percent on Giroux, who we're pretty sure was skipped out on because (a) he had a bad first 15 games of the season and (b) he skipped out on a ball hockey match for Team Canada in August while he was rehabbing his injured wrist. Seem like pretty ridiculous reasons to skip out on the guy who's scored more points than all but one Canadian forward over the last four years (with, ironically, the one guy who's scored more than him also being held out until Thursday). But hey, I'll live -- Giroux's been on a total tear since the initial announcement was made, so maybe the extra motivation has done him well. And he could probably use a bit of a break. Plus, I'm American, so now I don't have any sort of reason to root for Team Canada. :)
On the whole, they've been pretty good, and have been since they got here in 2011. I think most Flyers fans would actually tell you they're completely OK with the Carter trade at this point. Jakub Voracek has been attached at the hip to Claude Giroux for the last two seasons, and he's a no-doubt core player moving forward. Sean Couturier, meanwhile, hasn't exactly been lighting up the scoreboard, but he's an outstanding defensive forward who plays tough minutes every night, and he's one of the best penalty-killing forwards in the entire league. At age 21, we figure the offense will come for him eventually, and the defensive capability he's already shown has most of us pretty excited about him.
The Richards trade will start a bit more of an argument with most Flyers fans, but the guys from that trade have also been respectable at worst. Wayne Simmonds, who was almost exclusively used as a defensive winger in LA, has succeeded in a second-line winger and netfront power play guy for the Flyers for three years now. He looks like a safe bet for 25 or so goals a year for the foreseeable future, which is quite good. Brayden Schenn, the guy who was supposed to be the centerpiece of that trade, is still the big wildcard at this point. He's gotta be the streakiest player on the team at this point -- he'll have a few weeks where he's making plays happen and scoring points left and right, and then have a few where you won't hear from him at all. He's still just 22, and you can tell there's clearly talent there -- he just needs to show it on a slightly more regular basis. Basically, the trades will never not look bad in the eye of the general public until/unless the Flyers win a Cup with these guys (because of L.A. winning one and all), but don't let that fool you -- the guys the Flyers got from the Carter/Richards trades are closer to the bottom of the list of problems than they are the top of it.
4. How has Flyers goaltending been holding up? Do they have any good prospects at that position?
Well, probably the biggest story for the Flyers this year has been Steve Mason. I'm still not sure how to explain it, but so far the guy's been far and away better than most of us could have expected. He was unquestionably the team's best player for the first two months of the season, keeping them in a lot of games they could have easily lost. December and January didn't go nearly as well for him, but the last couple of weeks have been good (he's allowed seven goals total in his last five starts). Still have absolutely no clue how good or bad he will be long-term here, especially now that he's got a three-year contract extension, but like I said, he's greatly exceeded expectations, so I can't complain at all for now. He deserves credit for what he's done, especially in front of a suspect defense.
With Mason's play, Ray Emery has been relegated firmly to the backup position. His numbers this year look real bad at first glance (.897 SV%, in particular), but he's been decent at even-strength (.924 SV%), and other than a couple of real rough appearances he's been serviceable. Highly doubt he comes back next year, but we'll see. As far as prospects go, they've got a solid starter in the AHL (Cal Heeter) who is probably the front-runner to be the Flyers' backup next year, and they have a 20-year old goalie in London in the OHL (Anthony Stolarz) who suffered a nasty injury about three weeks ago but until then had been maybe the best goalie in the league this year.
Overall, there's still so much that depends on whether or not Mason's strong play this season is close to sustainable in the long-term or not. Flyers fans seem to be having that argument after every game Mason plays nowadays -- for better or worse. I'm a little more skeptical about him than most, but we'll see.
5. Say the Flames win later today. How'd they do it?
Well, the games that the Flyers lose are the ones where they just look really slow all over the place and just can't get the puck out of their end and into the other team's. Their defensemen have a noticeable lack of ability to start any sort of movement of the puck up-ice, and the games where that's on full display get ugly real quick -- it leads to a lack of time in the other team's zone, too much time in their own zone, and inevitably either some goals against or a bunch of stupid penalties that eventually lead to goals against. So if the Flames are able to use any sort of speed to neutralize the Flyers' breakout, they'll probably end up with more possession time and will have a pretty good chance at winning the game.