Well, consider this game a Gus Bust. For the first time in 2021, the Philadelphia Flyers lose, 5-0, to the Buffalo Sabres, who win for the first time in 2021. Opposite day isn’t until January 25, but both teams decided to flip the results of their opening series upside down.
Unfortunately, this was kind of a long time coming for the Flyers. Well, as long of a time as a season three games old can be. In games one and two, the Flyers pulled out three goal wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, what seemed like convincing wins in the box score were much dicer in reality. As much as it pains me to say this, Pittsburgh definitely outplayed the Flyers. Coming into Monday, only Detroit had a worse shot-attempt differential (aka Corsi) than Philadelphia’s 41.55%. Only four had a worse Expected Goals percentage. Something had to give.
What did give in was Sean Couturier’s right shoulder. An injury suffered early in Friday’s game has the Flyers top center sidelined for the rest of the month, maybe longer. While his injury presents a great opportunity for top prospect Morgan Frost (who entered the lineup centering Coots usual line mates), it’s definitely a tough short-term blow. Has anyone mentioned that this is a shortened season and everything, including injuries, matters more? Wonderful.
The Flyers start to this game wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t terrible. Morgan Frost made some early highlights on his first shift of the season, setting up a scoring chance and drawing a penalty. However, a lethargic man advantage would set the tone for the rest of the night. The sloppiness that plagued the Flyers, especially on breakouts. Some great saves by Carter Hart and a two-on-0 shank by Jeff Skinner kept the Sabres off the scoreboard for a while.
But when the dam broke, it burst. Phil Myers’ size, reach, and recovery ability usually make him a beast at defending the rush. He made a few really good plays in that aspect early in the game, but Buffalo’s Curtis Lazar late in the first. Myers couldn’t settle a bouncing puck at the blue-line, then got beat just enough to the outside to not prevent the shot. That shot was a perfectly placed backhander that caromed off the post, Hart’s skate, and over the line. Forward depth is an area the Flyers should dominate the Sabres in on paper, but in the real world, Buffalo’s fourth line broke the deadlock.
Philadelphia somehow survived the rest of the period without falling further behind. But a Buffalo blitz throughout the second period was simply too much to handle. The Flyers actually started the first minute of the period really strong, but then the breakdown began. Hart took a tripping penalty (curse you, DGB) to prevent Sam Reinhart from likely finishing an A+ chance. Turns out, he was just delaying the inevitable. Taylor Hall made a shifty feed to Reinhart backdoor, and Hart’s desperation lunge only got a piece of the puck, not enough to stop it.
The Hall-Reinhart duo connected again less than three minutes later. Hart was unable to stop a pretty normal dump-in, starting the downwards spiral. Hall beat Myers in a battle along the boards (a theme for the Flyers tonight), Jack Eichel nudged the puck into the slot, and Reinhart was there to pick up the loose change. It was kind of a broken play, but it was definitely effective, and the floodgates are now wide open.
And before the Flyers could close them off, another puck snuck through. This time, bad rebound control by Hart on a point shot and sloppy coverage by the Gustafsson-Hagg pair were the culprits. The end result was a nifty pass by Riley Sheahan and a slam dunk for Lazar to join Reinhart in the two-goal club. As the Sabres skated to their bench to celebrate, Hart skated to his in shame, as AV gave him the mercy pull.
The goalie pull didn’t seem to inspire the Flyers very much, who looked as flat with Brian Elliott between the pipes as they did with Hart. Buffalo was simply the sharper and more physical team tonight. It’s crystal clear to me that the Flyers were only 2-0-0 because the Penguins tripped over themselves more than Philly. Buffalo kept their footing and it showed. The Sabres didn’t look like the 90s Red Wings, but they played decisive and efficient hockey, taking the Flyers to task.
Things went from bad to worse in the third. Alain Vigneault shook up every line and d-pair except the fourth line, but none of the new groups really stood out. The Flyers finally managed to outshoot an opponent for the first time in a period this season (pop the champaign?). But if you adjust for score effects (the leading team doesn’t need to generate offense, so they’re usually outshot), Buffalo still comes out on top.
To summarize, the Flyers have played nine periods this season. At 5-on-5, adjusting for score and venue, the Flyers have been outshot nine times. They have been out-chanced in eight (3rd period on Wednesday is the only exception). I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that isn’t good enough.
If you’re not into fancy stats, the goal department backed up the numbers’ assertion tonight’s 3rd period was a lackluster one for Philly. Buffalo’s fifth goal perfectly summarizes the night; a weak backhander by Henri Jokiharju that Erik Gustafsson’s skate steered into the net. The Flyers mercifully broke up Carter Hutton’s shutout bid on a smooth entry and set-up by Michael Raffl that Nicolas Aube-Kubel easily finished off.
That’s the same Nicolas Aube-Kubel who received a double minor for
high-sticking punching(?) Rasmus Dahlin. Some pretty passing by the Sabres top-unit set up Victor Olofsson at the left circle. Olofsson was tied for 11th in the league with eleven power-play goals last year; his snipe of a shot here was his first of the sort this season, restoring the Sabres comfortable five-goal lead.
There really isn’t anything new to take away from this Flyers game compared to their first two. The difference tonight? The Sabres played a strong game, amplifying the Flyers mistakes. Sometimes Carter Hart bails the team out on nights like this, but you can’t expect that from him every night.
Breaking the puck out of the zone has been a problem. The third pair of Robert Hagg and Erik Gustafsson are the main culprits here, but they aren’t alone. But their struggles have been the easiest to see. Gustafsson is a piñata that turns the puck over every time you hit him. Hagg is an offensive liability who took a couple of mind numbingly frustrating icings tonight.
But again, it’s not just them. Justin Braun isn’t looking special. Granted, that’s what Braun’s game is all about, but I don’t think the Flyers top pair can thrive with a conservative defender like him on it. Braun is still solid in his own zone (though Hall’s pass for Reinhart’s first goal went right through him). He’s got a spot on this team, but top pair just isn’t it. Ivan Provorov can only do so much on his own. Myers made some mistakes tonight, and his pair with Travis Sanheim hasn’t found the chemistry that made them special down the stretch last season. Not exactly a recipe for success there. I could do the same for all the forwards, but my keyboard might run out of clicks if I tried that.
That being said, this isn’t time to panic. The Flyers didn’t find the Sanheim-Myers pairing until it was forced upon them by a rash of injuries in January. Heck, the Niskanen-Provorov partnership didn’t come together until game six. Everyone and their mother has said how important starting fast this year. What they haven’t emphasized enough is how much harder doing that is this year. The areas the Flyers are struggling in would almost certainly be smoother if they had a full training camp. Yes, everybody had to go through that, but that doesn’t completely invalidate the theory.
The Flyers were going to join the loss column eventually. Problems were bound to pop up sooner rather than later. It’s not the end of the world. Do they need to be fixed? Absolutely. If the Flyers keep playing like this, it’s going to be a long season. But it’s Alain Vigneault, the coaching staff’s, and the players’ jobs to fix their issues. So let’s give them the chance to do just that. They proved they could handle that task last year, even under a new head coach with two of their best young players suffering major health scares. The Flyers are facing their first speed bump out of the year. Let’s just keep it from becoming a mountain, okay?
The news on Sean Couturier isn’t great, but it could’ve been worse. Coots will be out for at least the next two weeks with a Costochondral separation, which sounds incredibly painful.
Couturier’s injury had more ripples than just Frost. Connor Bunnaman, previously of the taxi squad, was promoted to the active NHL roster as 13th forward. Shayne Gostisbehere is now officially on non-roster status; he’s still out due to COVID-19 protocol.
Forward Tanner Lacyznski was loaned to the Phantoms on Saturday. Lacyznski would’ve been a dark horse for the fourth line and taxi squad at training camp, but missed because of core muscle surgery. He’s healthy enough now for Chuck Fletcher to demote him to Lehigh Valley.
Congratulations to Travis Konecny (3 goals, 2 assists) for being the NHL’s second star of the week. Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov is first; Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos is third. He’s the first Flyer to make the list since Brian Elliott October 21-27, 2019.
Pittsburgh’s Jared McCann was fined $10,000 for an elbow to the head of Travis Sanheim in Friday’s contest.
Carter Hart struggling at home has been a rarity in his NHL career. As a rookie, Hart posted a .912 save percentage at the Wells Fargo Center; as a sophomore, that number was a league leading .954. Monday was the first time since February 19, 2019 that Hart was pulled on home ice.
Here’s some of the specifics on those line changes the Flyers made in the third. Ivan Provorov played alongside Travis Sanheim (my ideal top pair once Ghost returns). Myers played with Gustafsson, Ghost’s closest comparable. Hagg and Braun formed an all-defense third pair that didn’t see much ice. AV put the right wingers in a blender. They previously ranked Farabee, Konecny, and Voracek; after the changes, the order was Konecny, Voracek, Farabee.
As I was finishing writing this, former Flyer Tyler Pitlick scored his first goal as a Coyote! A pretty slick curl and drag shortie, at that. I always said Pitlick had an underrated shot; good to see him putting it to use.
The Flyers, Sabres, and the entire NHL celebrated Martin Luther King Day (and the 63-year anniversary of Willie O’Ree breaking the NHL’s color barrier) with these special helmet decals.
Brian Elliott would’ve been a lock to start tomorrow night, but with Elliott playing more than half the game, that job might be in doubt. I’d still bank on Moose making his first start of the season.
Tonight marks the Flyers first regulation loss at home to the Sabres since March 5, 2011. The Flyers went on to beat the Sabres in the first round a month and a half later (Buffalo hasn’t been back to the playoffs since). If tonight is what we have to do to summon an encore, I guess I’ll take it. This better work, AV.
Usually these terrible/cringey headlines come from my own (lack of) creativity. This was one of the rare occasions where I was inspired by an outside source. Turns out that last line and the Bills win over the weekend is all I need.
3rd – Jack Eichel: 3 Assists (4, 5, 6)
2nd – Curtis Lazar: 2 Goals (1, 2)
1st – Sam Reinhart: 2 Goals (1, 2)
1/19, 7 PM – BUF vs. PHI
(Advanced Stats via Natural Stat Trick)