Injection of youth pays dividends for Flyers

When you’re watching the Philadelphia Flyers continue to inch closer to the top of the Eastern Conference standings and you think about the possibilities come April or May or even June, it’s easy to overlook the fact that they’re getting it done with a bunch of kids.

And not just once in a while, but almost every night.

It was so Thursday night when the Flyers knocked off the red-hot Nashville Predators by a 4-1 count in Philadelphia.

The Predators had won five straight, were 9-1-0 in their past 10 and shouldered their way into the discussion at the top of the league’s most dominant division, the Central.

But the Flyers handled the Predators with relative ease thanks to guys like rookie Zac Rinaldo, who provided the perfect screen on the Flyers’ first goal of the night, and Matt Read, who scored his 16th goal of the season to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead in the second period, a goal that would stand up as the game winner.

Read, 25, stole the puck from Nashville defenseman Kevin Klein at the Philadelphia blue line, and then had netminder Anders Lindback thinking pass before Read snapped the puck past Lindback. The undrafted Read now leads all rookies in goals (16) and game winners (4).

“I just think he’s getting better every game,” Rinaldo told ESPN.com following Thursday’s victory.

Yet for all of his success, Read is just one in the Flyers’ group of first-year guys who’s contributing and helping to redefine the identity of this team.

Rinaldo, who drew an assist on the first goal of the night and had a strong game playing with fellow rookie Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds, said there’s no sense of wonderment that so many first-year players are making such an impact on the Flyers.

“I thought it was possible from the beginning of the season,” said Rinaldo, who has brought a measure of grit and physicality to the proceedings.

The native of Hamilton, Ontario, leads all rookies in penalty minutes, but has found a nice niche playing often with Simmonds, who had two goals on Thursday night. The two hang out away from the rink and are finding their chemistry off the ice bleeding into their on-ice work, much of which centers on pressing opponents with a tenacious forecheck.

There was, of course, much speculation about just how GM Paul Holmgren’s mad scientist routine from the offseason was going to work out. It wasn’t just that Holmgren traded captain Mike Richards and proven NHL sniper Jeff Carter, but it was the decision to open so many doors to so many young players.

Eleven different rookies have laced them up for at least one game for the Flyers this season, and six have played at least 22 games.

The injection of youth hasn’t hurt the Flyers a bit as they moved to within three points of the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers with Thursday’s win.

Read and Sean Couturier have each posted scoring streaks of five games this season, the first time that’s happened in team history. In fact, before this season, the last Flyer rookie to score in five straight games was Mikael Renberg back in 1994.

And Philadelphia rookies have chipped in at least one goal in 13 of the team’s past 15 games and 10 of its past 11 games.

“We’re taking advantage of it and running with it,” Rinaldo said of the opportunities afforded he and his young teammates.

Although the gang of rookies all hail from different backgrounds -- Rinaldo’s road teammate Harry Zolnierczyk and Read came via the U.S. college route, Rinaldo was a late-round draft pick who played in the Ontario Hockey League before apprenticing in the American Hockey League and Sean Couturier was a top-10 draft pick who made the jump right from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- Rinaldo said there is a definite bond among the first-year guys.

Still, he said, they don’t sit around much and discuss things like the Calder Trophy and whether any of their crew may be in line for the hardware next June.

“We don’t ever really pay attention to the TV or the media and stuff,” he said.

Too busy winning hockey games, we guess.