If the Flyers are going to sneak into the Stanley Cup playoffs – and that seemed like a long shot when they lost 10 straight earlier this season — they are going to need their suddenly productive third line to continue its ascension.
That line will get favorable matchups because opponents are more concerned about the top two units.
That line – rookie Nolan Patrick centering left winger Jordan Weal and right winger Wayne Simmonds – has been extremely consistent since it was reunited Dec. 29 in a win in Tampa. (The line played a handful of games together earlier in the season.) Heading into Saturday's matinee against New Jersey, the line had combined for nine goals, six assists, and a plus-7 rating in its last eight games. The Flyers were 6-2 in those games.
"I know our line is considered the third line, but I think we've been playing some pretty good hockey," Simmonds said. The top two lines "are playing some good hockey, too, so it makes it a little harder for teams to check us because we're a little more spread out" with the production.
"Our chemistry," said Weal, who had three goals in his last seven games heading into Saturday, "keeps getting better."
"Wealer's really upped his game lately, and Simmer has been great, too," Patrick said. "They've been huge helps for me."
Weal, who has a strong stick and wins lots of battles despite his small frame (5-10, 179), says the line has been "playing to our strengths. When we do that, we have a lot of speed and talent and we can make some stuff happen."
Patrick has looked noticeably quicker recently. Maybe he's just getting more comfortable. Maybe it's because it has taken him time to recover from abdominal surgery.
"It's not like my body feels any different. I just feel like I'm getting in better game shape and feel faster," Patrick said. "I don't know if it's just me focusing on playing fast or my confidence building, too."
Whatever the reason, he has been more aggressive in the offensive end. Which is why his linemates were especially gratified to see him rewarded Thursday, when he stole the puck from Mitch Marner behind the net and scored his third goal of the season and his first in 25 games, triggering a comeback that led to a 3-2 overtime win over Toronto.
"It was nice to see him get that goal and kind of get the monkey off his back," Sean Couturier said.
Patrick, 19, the second overall pick in the draft last June, smiled and said he "tried to forget how many games it was in a row without a goal."
"Ninety percent of it is just being comfortable and being confident in the stuff you've got, and you can tell every day he's starting to get more and more confident with the speed," Weal said. "Every game we feel we're starting to jell a little more."
"The first hurdle is making the National Hockey League, and then in your own mind, getting to a point where you actually believe you can have an impact," general manager Ron Hextall said.
Patrick now has that belief, Hextall said.
"To me right now, he looks like he has a lot of confidence," Hextall said. "It's not just if you score a goal here or there, it's more the plays he's making – whether it's defensive plays, offensive plays, passes he's making, the way he's seeing the ice, his positioning. Everything to me is just coming together for him right now and hopefully it continues."
Despite his lack of scoring, Patrick has impressed coach Dave Hakstol, who said the young center has done "a real good job working to build his game. …We are starting to see that offensive [play] more and more from Nolan, and you have to keep pushing to have that high level of consistency and urgency. If you look over the last 10 games, he has been a consistent player for us. We need him to keep pushing the envelope."
When Hakstol dropped Jake Voracek and Simmonds off the first and second lines, respectively, he created more scoring balance on the top three units. The Flyers now have dependable scorers on the first (Claude Giroux, Couturier), second (Voracek), and third (Simmonds) lines.
"We're trying to put lines together that make sense all the way through," Hakstol said.
The moves also helped Voracek, who leads the NHL with 45 assists.
"It's better for me when you think about it because Coots and G are getting the toughest matchups on the road," said Voracek, referring to his former linemates, Couturier and Giroux. "It's more room for me to kind of create something. Now it's up to me to make a difference in a game because I don't got as tough of competition as they do. That's huge."