PHILADELPHIA — Forty-four seconds into Thursday night’s opener, three Toronto Maple Leafs crossed the Flyers blue line in an odd-man rush, their second already of the young game. The noise in the Wells Fargo Center, deafening in the minutes leading up to the faceoff, quickly devolved into a collective gasp as the first minute of the 2013-14 season mimicked the months that ended the previous one.
This time, though, the goalie did not react unpredictably or with any sense of panic, even when one of those forwards took a pass at the tip of his crease. This time, two odd-man rushes did not beget four, five, six odd-man rushes, did not beget panic, and the Flyers settled down to play a thoroughly controlled and hope-filled first period, outshooting their visitors 15-9, dominating the final 14 minutes, eliminating those juicy opponent scoring chances that so doomed their season of a year ago.
They lost, of course, a 2-1 game that finished 3-1 late when the Flyers were pressing. But, as starts go, it wasn’t as ugly as their 1-5-1 preseason would suggest. Defenseman Andrej Meszaros, missing for most of last season, played 11 shifts in that first period. Nicklas Grossmann, another oft-injured defenseman who missed the last 18 games of last season with a concussion, had 10 shifts. Scott Hartnell, who acknowledged this week that he began last year’s lockout-shortened season out of shape, looked in shape — even if he rubber-sticked two primo scoring opportunities in the game’s first 25 minutes, and flubbed a power play tip-in early in the third period that would have tied the game.
Matt Read played as if trying to prove he’s worth the four-year, $14.5 million contract he signed in September, drawing two penalties with his hustle and persistence in the larger ice surface behind the net.
And the captain, Claude Giroux, coming off a subpar season that mirrored his team’s – or dictated it depending on your vantage point – was in the middle of much of it, running the power play from his familiar spot along the half-boards.
“We’re doing the right things out there,” he said. “Obviously, you want to win the game. But I’m a strong believer that when you play a good game it carries to the next game.”
No doubt, the Flyers still supplied a lot to doubt. Despite a slew of ticky-tack early penalty calls in their favor – including a penalty shot awarded after Wayne Simmonds seemed to have already lost control of the puck veering in on a semi-breakaway – they scored only once in the first two periods against a Toronto team that had played a grueling game the night before in Montreal.
“We missed a lot of nets tonight,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said.
In fairness, the Maple Leafs acquired top-tier goaltender Jonathan Bernier in the offseason, and his solid play, combined with some eye-popping bad shooting, kept the score low.
But seven power plays and a penalty shot should produce more than a single goal. A year after the Flyers failed to score with any consistency and suffered some harrowing and ill-timed defensive breakdowns, this was not a night that suggested a change of fate.
Here’s what did: Their play in their end, at least until the winning goal. After that first minute, and until Max Talbot’s long, ill-advised pass led to Toronto’s tying goal, the Flyers played with little of the frantic uncertainty in their end that doomed last season.
Their own bargain-rack goalie, Steve Mason, who is expected to split time with Ray Emery, was as solid as his counterpart, but he wasn’t tested much until the turnover led to two Toronto forwards bearing down the slot unchecked, competing for a rebound.
That was ugly. So was the winning goal, scored after both Mark Streit and Luke Schenn lost puck battles behind and to the side of the Flyers net, leading to another easy goal.
By now most Flyers fans know of the 2-1 odds placed by Bovada that Laviolette will be the first NHL coach fired this season. Among Sports Illustrated’s four hockey writers, both Laviolette and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma received a vote to be first fired, which would make for quite a scene at the Sochi Olympics in February, where the two will coach the U.S. team.
It’s no secret, too, how Laviolette’s job can be saved. Hartnell must find a firmer stick and find the net as he did then, too. Mason and/or Emery must stop more pucks and supply less drama than their predecessor. And those promising kids must stop being just promising kids, treating shifts not as if their careers have been made, but rather as if they depend on it.
But it all starts and stops at Giroux. He must return to the player Laviolette called the best on the planet two springs ago. This happens, those other things might follow. They often do.
He’s still only 25, and his best hockey might actually be ahead of him. That’s the bet, anyway, the bet that this season ends differently from how the oddsmakers and the majority think it will.
It’s a lot to put on one pair of shoulders, probably too much given this roster. But it’s the only shot they have.