VOORHEES, N.J. -- Scott Hartnell likened the Flyers’ return from their Olympic break to the start of training camp. There was talk of families, warmer climates, off-ice training regimens.
This time, though, instead of reconvening after a summer spent stewing over a disappointing season, the Flyers returned to Skate Zone still high on the way they closed out the first "half" of the season. They entered the break having won four in a row and five of their last six.
And after 10 days apart, they were more than ready to return to the ice.
“When you’re winning, you want to keep playing as fast as you can and keep the momentum going,” Claude Giroux said. “But we’re aware that the next few games we have to play won’t be easy games. We’ll have to make sure that mentally and physically we’re ready to go.”
There’s a lot of time until then, of course. The Flyers won’t play again until Feb. 27, when they host the San Jose Sharks – one of the best teams in the league. That game will be a fast reality check if the Flyers don’t enter it fully prepared to compete.
And therein lies the challenge: There's simply no good way to replicate the intensity of a game in practice. For the next eight days, it's up to the Flyers to work as hard as they can to make sure they're ready for their final 23 games of the season.
“You’ve got to practice this week like you’ve just had a big win in our home game,” Hartnell said. “We have to be focused, determined, work really hard at practice, take care of ourselves – I’m sure guys had a couple daiquiris or a couple beers or whatever during the break. We’ve got to take care of ourselves during the week and be ready to go.”
It’s a goal that becomes more complicated because of some missing pieces. The four Flyers Olympians whose teams have been knocked out of contention (Michael Raffl, Jakub Voravek, Andrej Meszaros and Mark Streit) won’t report to practice until Sunday. There’s no timeline yet on Kimmo Timonen’s return; Finland advanced to the semifinals with a win over Russia Wednesday.
“You’ve got what you’ve got,” coach Craig Berube said. “You’ve got to make sure they’re prepared, and make sure the intensity level’s getting raised every day toward the first game. Systems, and all that stuff. Execution. We’ve got to work with what we’ve got.”
As such, the Flyers weren’t exactly able to run line rushes or work on power-play specifics at their first practice after the break. But there's plenty they can do leading up to the return of those aforementioned key pieces. That's what they worked on for about an hour Wednesday, and it's what they'll continue to do for the next two days, as well.
“It’s going to be important for us to get our legs underneath us, get our hands going, get the skilled part of the game,” Brayden Schenn said. “Once we get more guys back, I’m sure there will be some more X’s and O’s, working on systems. But as far as that goes, I think it’s going to be important for us to play some 3 on 3, 4 on 4, 5 on 5, whatever it is, just to get in simulated game mode. I think it will help us for the upcoming game against San Jose.”
The currently Flyers sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division with 66 points -- in playoff contention but not comfortably so. A two- or three-game slide could be enough to knock them into fourth or fifth place, as has already happened a few times this season. Getting in the right mindset is critical, especially considering six of their next eight games are against divisional opponents.
It all starts this week at practice.
"We’ve got to hit the ground running," Steve Mason said. "We can’t just coast into this next month of the season and hope for the best. We’ve got some really tough opponents coming up and we’ve got to make sure that we’re taking it to them and not the other way around."