*Reclines lawn chair, slowly sips lemonade, and looks at shots on goal category to see another number in the high 30s* I can get used to this! The Philadelphia Flyers WIN, 3-0, over the Buffalo Sabres. Again! The Flyers sweep their weekend series in not just dominant, but relaxing fashion, thoroughly outplaying the Sabres for 120 consecutive minutes.
Saturday’s performance was easily the Flyers’ most dominant victory of the season so far. They outshot Buffalo by a season-best sixteen shots, tying their single-game high for shots on goal (39). It was refreshingly relaxing and raised tons of excitement about what might be to come. But with Jack Eichel returning from a lower-body injury, could the Flyers sustain such a lofty level of success?
Well, the Flyers didn’t have the same dynamite first five minutes as yesterday. In fact, the Sabres threatened early with a couple of good chances and a delay of game penalty on Justin Braun. Curtis Lazar appeared to light the lamp about halfway through the period, but his shot went bar straight down, staying out of the net by inches. The Flyers’ dominance from their last two games was nowhere to be found in the first five or so minutes.
However, the Flyers found their legs fairly quickly after that. A Rasmus Ristolainen penalty less than a minute after Lazar’s chance really seemed to turn the tide; the Flyers were outshot 7-6 before his slashing minor, but outshot Buffalo 7-1 the rest of the first period. The only bad news was the Flyers didn’t light the lamp, as rookie Jonas Johansson held the offense at bay.
Good news: the second period began with the same great Flyers play, but now with the payoff you’d expect. Eichel lost Sean Couturier in coverage on the very first shift of the period, and the Flyers’ elite first-line center buried a Joel Farabee rebound 22 seconds into the second. Just 75 seconds later, Michael Raffl won a draw and went to the net, tipping in Robert Hagg’s D-to-D one-timer to double the lead.
To their credit, Buffalo mounted a bit of a pushback. The Flyers kept controlling play after the Raffl goal, but eventually, the Sabres found their stride and forced Philly into some mistakes. Yet Carter Hart was there when the Flyers needed him. Sometimes, it was luck — Brandon Montour blasted a shot right into a fallen Hart with the whole short side seemingly wide open. On others, namely his incredible 2-on-1 sprawling save on Kyle Okposo, it was pure skill and Hart’s incredible anticipation that saved the day.
Regardless of how he did it, Hart prevented the Sabres from gaining any tangible momentum, and the Flyers made them regret that. The shift by the Couturier line and top defensive pair that extended the lead was just simply stupid good. First, Ivan Provorov went around the world, from the left point to behind the net to out the short side, for a great chance. Then, Coots, Provy, JVR, Farabee, and Ghost hemmed the Sabres in with smart puck movement. And they capped it off with Farabee intentionally shooting for a James van Redirectsdyk and getting just that. Beezer and Reemer’s incredible chemistry couldn’t have been more obvious, and more importantly, it vaulted the Flyers ahead by three.
And for the second straight game, a late second-period goal by the Flyers would be it for the scoring. The Sabres definitely outplayed Philadelphia in the 3rd, outshooting the Flyers 9-4, spending over three minutes on the power-play, and generating over 75% of the 5-on-5 expected goals (0.42-0.13). Yet it never really felt like the Flyers’ chances of winning would be seriously threatened. Maybe that’s more of a commentary on Buffalo’s futility, but the Flyers definitely deserve some credit for their overall performance today.
Besides, Carter Hart kept holding his ground, stopping a few scrambles in front and one really nice chance for Taylor Hall to preserve his second career regular-season shutout. His performance today wiped away a lot of the doubt surrounding him after his rough showing at Lake Tahoe. And for the first time October 9, 2019, Hart finished a regular-season game with flawless numbers, stopping 28 of 28 Sabres shots.
With the team finally getting healthy and an opportunity to face a not-exactly top-tier Sabres team, this weekend was a great chance for the Flyers to take a step forward. Saying they did just that is probably a severe understatement. Philadelphia passed this test with flying colors. Their work on the forecheck and in the neutral zone was superb. The PK shut down all six opportunities for the NHL’s best power-play. The PP didn’t score but generated some good looks. Every forward line created some great chances. This weekend was peak Flyers hockey, no doubt about it.
Now we’ll see how long the Flyers can sustain it. Three straight games against the Penguins should be a tougher test, even if Philly took the first two meetings by a combined 11-5 margin. The Flyers sit third in the East overall with 25 points, but they’re actually first by points percentage (.694). If they can replicate this level of play consistently moving forward, it won’t be long before they’re recognized as a true contender. Doing that won’t be easy of course. But proving the Flyers had it in them was half of the battle, a battle the Flyers won running away on almost every shift this weekend.
The Flyers made a lot of history this weekend. It’s the first time they’ve had back-to-back shutouts since October 12-14, 2015 (Michal Neuvirth was in goal for both games). It’s the first time the Flyers have put up consecutive shutouts against the team since October 1999 against the Rangers. And it’s the first time in franchise history the Flyers have recorded consecutive road shutouts. And also this.
With Giroux getting some games under his belt after returning from COVID and Erik Gustafsson exiting the lineup (Phil Myers returned after yesterday’s surprising healthy scratch), the Flyers trotted out arguably their most ideal power-play group of the season. Claude Giroux at the left boards and Sean Couturier on the right. The ultimate net-front presence JVR with his 5-on-5 linemate Joel Farabee playing bumper. And Shayne Gostisbehere earned his first look on PP1 since October 2019. I really hope they get an extended look together (and I’m pretty sure they will). They looked good but not great today, but considering they had no practice time together, not too shabby.
Sean Couturier now has a 6-game point streak (5 goals, 5 assists) since returning from injury, tying a career-high. The only other time he’s pulled off such a feat is February 11-22, 2020 (3 goals, 3 assists).
Michael Raffl’s tally ends a nine-game goalless drought. It’s his first goal since his game-winner on January 28 at New Jersey.
In their first two-game series against the Sabres, the Flyers were outshot 78-49 and were outscored 6-4. This time, the Flyers outshot Buffalo 77-51 and outscored them 6-0. In fact, the Flyers had more shots on goal in today’s second period (21) than they’ve had in five full games this season. This is what their A-game looks like, and boy is it a treat to watch.
Congratulations to Alain Vigneault on his 700th coaching win! AV is now tied for 8th all-time with Mike Babcock.
I figured my first mention about Zayde Wisdom lighting up the AHL would be my last. Nothing against Wisdom, but the odds of an 18-year old 4th round pick dominating arguably the second-best in the league for more than two or three games aren’t great. And yet Wisdom is doing just that. He’s up to 6 goals and 2 assists in 7 games for the Phantoms, and he’s showing some real skill, too. It’s still a small sample size, but Wisdom is looking like a potential steal.
Two Flyers that really impressed me this weekend: Oskar Lindblom and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. Perhaps a bit of rest was exactly what Lindblom needed, who understandably hasn’t been as dynamite as he was last year before his cancer diagnosis. He had a beautiful assist yesterday and a couple of great chances this afternoon. And NAK has been a forechecking menace the last two games, making some incredible plays; he definitely deserved an assist or two for his outstanding work.
Speaking of hockey players who beat cancer, Sabres defenseman Brandon Davidson made his season debut today. I actually didn’t know before the Flyers broadcast mentioned it that Davidson had testicular cancer in 2012. The broadcast also noted he had a strong game, and the numbers agree; the Sabres won the shot attempts battle 11-7 and generated 62.52% of the expected goals with him on the ice at 5-on-5.
We’re actually going to have a third straight section about cancer here. Yesterday, the Ottawa Senators honored fan Brian Fraser, who passed away at age 26 from leukemia. In his honor, I encourage you to play Sens Money on the Board, which raises money for Canadian Blood Services. Basically, you put money on the (virtual) board based on a certain outcome during Senators games (ex. if I put $5 dollars on every Tim Stützle point and on the Sens winning yesterday, I’d donate $5 since Stütlze got one assist and the Senators lost).
Alright, time for some good news. Travis Konecny is officially off the league’s COVID list, the last Flyer from their recent outbreak to leave it. For the first time all season, Philadelphia’s top 12 forwards, top 6 defensemen, and top 2 goaltenders are all healthy.
Konecny coming back means Nolan Patrick will probably have to move back to center unless the Flyers drop someone like Oskar Lindblom to 4LW and move Michael Raffl to center (which is as unlikely as it seems). It’s a shame because I think Patrick has looked pretty good at wing, even if today was probably his weakest game out of three there (he and Braun were the only Flyers without a shot on goal). We’ll see if the Flyers ever go back to it.
Assuming TK returns Tuesday, someone from the Flyers well-oiled machine will have to leave the line-up. Connor Bunnaman would be the obvious choice to come out, but a dark horse candidate: Kevin Hayes. He didn’t finish today’s game very well, with some turnovers and a bad penalty plaguing his third period. AV’s criticized his defensive performance earlier in the year, and he could’ve been healthy scratched instead of Konecny if the Flyers didn’t desperately need centers. It obviously wouldn’t help the “keep Patrick at wing” desire, but it’s something to keep in mind. AV obviously hasn’t been afraid to make bold healthy scratches this season.
3rd: Carter Hart – Shutout (28 Saves/28 Shots) on 2.23 Exp. Goals Against
2nd: Joel Farabee – Assist (9), 4 Shots
1st: James van Riemsdyk – Goal (10), Assist (15), 4 Shots
PHI – 3/2, 7 PM @ PIT (11-7-1, W1)
BUF – 3/2, 7 PM @ NYR (7-9-3, L1)
Advanced Stats via Natural Stat Trick