Con­di­tion­ally speak­ing, Fly­ers in fine form

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jack McCaf­fery jm­c­caf­fery @21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Jack­McCaf­fery on Twit­ter

At first, there were whis­pers. Then texts. Then face-to-face warn­ings.

“Phone calls,” Wayne Sim­monds said. “We were all hear­ing it. We all knew to get ready.”

That was how it be­gan, in the mid­dle of last sum­mer, through the start of the Fly­ers’ train­ing camp. Be­cause of re­cent sea­sons of mad­den­ing in­con­sis­tency and a cruel trick by the NHL sched­ule­maker in­volv­ing a four-game trip to the coast wind­ing back through Nashville, the Fly­ers would need to pre­pare not for just any train­ing camp, but for one like none other.

“We sweated,” Jake Vo­racek said.

They sweated. And, early at least, it showed. By the time the Fly­ers resur­faced at the Skate Zone Thurs­day for the first time since camp, they’d been any­thing but beaten down by the trip to San Jose, Los An­ge­les, Ana­heim and Nashville to start the sea­son. With the risk of an 0-4 start that could have punc­tured their sea­son and po­si­tioned Dave Hak­stol on a heated seat, the Fly­ers re­turned with four stand­ings points, in­clud­ing a vic­tory in over­time.

They also had a late lead in Nashville be­fore a 5-on-3 Preda­tors power play and a video re­view gone wrong cost them an­other point or two.

They were ex­pected to do worse. They could have done bet­ter. Ei­ther way, they were pre­pared, in ev­ery lit­eral hockey way, for the chal­lenge.

“We skated more in camp,” Vo­racek said. “A hun­dred per­cent, it was tougher. And we are skat­ing bet­ter. We skated bet­ter than those teams dur­ing those road games. When you think about that fourgame road trip, in tough build­ings, and you play so well in the third pe­ri­ods, it shows how well we are skat­ing.”

As impressive as the 2-2-0 record dur­ing the trip was the Fly­ers’ ef­fort in the fi­nal 20 min­utes and over­time. They have scored five goals in the third pe­riod or later, and in Nashville they un­loaded four con­sec­u­tive goals from the mid-sec­ond into the third.

While the trip didn’t val­i­date them as con­tenders, it did re­veal the Fly­ers as fit for that task.

“Be­cause of the time changes, and the teams we were play­ing, heavy, heavy teams, the way we did play in the third pe­riod did show a lot,” Vo­racek said. “We had a good train­ing camp. And I think that’s why we have been suc­cess­ful in the third pe­riod.”

The Fly­ers lost six of their first nine last sea­son and did not make the play­offs. In 2015-2016, Hak­stol’s first sea­son, they lost their first two and nine of their first 13, though they did re­cover to squeeze into the post­sea­son. But they knew they had to be ready this sea­son be­cause of a sched­ule so dif­fi­cult that it could have re­vealed them as in­ept by the time they played a home game. That, they will fi­nally do Satur­day, when the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals visit the Wells Fargo Cen­ter at 7.

“We wanted to make sure we were a well-con­di­tioned team,” said Sim­monds, who is av­er­ag­ing a goal a game. “The way to do that is to make sure you are skat­ing and work­ing hard. And ev­ery­body on our team came into train­ing camp in re­ally good shape. And we had high-paced, up-tempo prac­tices and all sorts of things like that.

“We knew it was com­ing. We knew. We knew. The coaches put ev­ery­one on alert. I don’t know if ev­ery sin­gle player knew, but a few of us were told what to ex­pect. This team likes to work hard. We rel­ish work­ing hard. So there was no prob­lem at all.”

The tar­get re­ward for such con­di­tion­ing is not nec­es­sar­ily the first four games, but the mid­dle 40, the fi­nal month and, maybe, the spring. The Fly­ers, though, will take their div­i­dends one at a time.

“Not bad,” Sim­monds said of the trip. “Ob­vi­ously, we would have liked to get two points in Nashville. But I thought we played re­ally good games. We were strong. We kept pres­sure on. We didn’t get too high. We didn’t get too low. We played hard ev­ery sin­gle game. That’s what it’s go­ing to take. We can’t get down if we are down a cou­ple of goals.”

In char­ac­ter, Hak­stol min­i­mized the im­pact of what the dress­ing-room con­sen­sus in­sisted was a more in­tense, skat­ing-ori­ented, con­di­tion­ing-cen­tric camp.

“I think it has more to do with the at­ten­tion of the play­ers to con­di­tion­ing over the sum­mer,” the coach said. “In­di­vid­u­ally, ev­ery guy came in in ex­cel­lent con­di­tion. They were ready to go in a tough, com­pet­i­tive train­ing camp. But they’re the ones that did the work. And with some of the depth that we have and some of the men­tal­ity we have, we are able to build our game through 60 min­utes.

“It’s early. So we can’t put a stamp on it yet. But that’s one of the traits that we like to have, to be a good team and a hard team to play against in the third pe­riod.”

That’s what Hak­stol had planned, and it leaked to the team lead­ers, who spread it through the ros­ter: Be con­di­tioned, and be con­di­tioned early.

“It was a pretty weird sched­ule,” Sean Cou­turier said. “I think we were play­ing our third game and some teams were play­ing their first game of the year. But it’s nice to get it out of the way.”

Be­cause they were phys­i­cally ready to skate for 60plus min­utes, the Fly­ers even made it work.

REED SAXON — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Fly­ers winger Jake Vo­racek, right, and Ana­heim Ducks right winger Corey Perry do a lit­tle puck rac­ing last Satur­day night in Ana­heim.

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