Flyers
It’s a game the Flyers deserved to both win and loss, but right now, when in doubt, the tie seems to always go against Buffalo. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Well, I’ve never been so annoyed at being happy, which actually sums up the Flyers fan experience pretty well. The Philadelphia Flyers WIN a game that barely deserves an all-caps celebration (but all of the victories get one), 5-4, over the Buffalo Sabres. It’s a game that nobody deserved to win, but somebody had to win, and the Flyers desperately needed to win it. And in the end, they did. No one can take that away from them, especially the standings.

That being said… yikes. I’ve covered almost 200 consecutive Flyers games since the start of the 2018-19 season, which is a more impressive way of saying I’ve seen a lot of bad hockey. Heck, I covered a Flyers eight-game winning streak during which the team was outshot seven times. Yet I feel fairly safe saying this is the ugliest Flyers victory in a while.

Coming into tonight, the Sabres had lost six straight. They’d been shutout in three straight games against the Flyers. Their captain Jack Eichel is lost to a potentially significant upper-body injury. Oh, and Mat Barzal straight-up ripped the souls out of their bodies on Saturday. This game should not have been close, especially after James van Riemsdyk buried a beautiful one-timer set up by Joel Farabee less than two minutes into the contest. Especially since they outshot the Sabres in every period, won the 5-on-5 battle by a dominant 2.71-1.61 margin, and drew two more penalties than they took.

And yet the Flyers nearly lost this game before the first period concluded. That’s because the Sabres struck for three consecutive goals, more than they’ve scored in any of their past six games. Each of Buffalo’s goals were so similar I’m surprised the NHL didn’t give an assist to the Groundhog’s Day. Sloppy in-zone coverage by the Flyers, slick move or pass by a Sabre, difficult but somewhat stoppable shot beats Carter Hart. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It’s hard to blame any goal completely on Hart in a vacuum. The first was the product of a lost board battle and an excellent below-the-goal-line feed by Dylan Cozens. The third came off a similar set-up by Taylor Hall. Both were potted by Sam Reinhart, as Buffalo’s new-look top line of those three dominated all night.

Furthermore, that third goal became nearly unstoppable after it ramped off Travis Konecny’s stick. And the second was a rebound by Riley Sheahan after Hart stopped Eric Staal’s power-move following a defensive breakdown. But the Flyers young goalie wasn’t able to come up with a single “big” save in the first period, letting in three goals on eight shots.

That would be the night for Hart, as Brian Elliott came in relief for the third time this season. Philadelphia immediately gave their new net minder some offensive support. Scott Laughton walked Brandon Montour with a gorgeous deke to the outside, then set up Kevin Hayes with a filthy cross-ice pass. Hollywood Hayes put the Flyers on the highlight reels by finishing the pass off, bringing the game back within reach.

Yet after a couple of strong shifts that nearly tied the game 3-3, the momentum suddenly slipped away. Buffalo’s fourth-line of Tobias Reider, Cody Eakin, and Kyle Okposo hemmed the Flyers in their own zone on an extended shift. In wasn’t really a relapse of bad in-zone coverage; the Flyers made a few good reads and got their sticks on quite a few passes. Unfortunately, Shayne Gostisbehere also got his stick on a seeing eye shot by Montour which created a knuckle-puck that Elliott couldn’t fight off.

Needless to say, things weren’t looking pretty then. But something funny happened down the stretch. The Flyers continued to dominate 5-on-5, outshooting Buffalo 19-10 from Montour’s goal out. Yet somehow, it was their special teams that saved the day.

You heard that right. The team with the league’s 26th best penalty kill stymied the Sabres on a power-play that started less than a minute after the Montour goal. If Buffalo scores there, the game is probably over; the Flyers would’ve been down three and utterly deflated. Alain Vigneault had already made his big motivational move by pulling Hart. Yet despite not clearing the puck until the last 15 seconds, the Flyers hung tough.

They also immediately went to the power-play, which entered this game 28th in the league since February 1st. Sean Couturier hit the post from long range seconds into it, but the Flyers didn’t light the lamp either. They didn’t score on their second power-play of the period, either, but it did make a difference. Philadelphia cycled the puck around the perimeter, and just as Montour exited the box, Ivan Provorov moved it down low to Jake Voracek, who whipped it to the goal-mouth. Claude Giroux took some pointers from Joel Embiid in boxing out Henri Jokiharju, muscling in his 4th of the year five seconds after the PP ended.

Giroux’s goal gave the Flyers life, and you could see it in how they attacked. The Flyers were strong on the puck all night and easily could have scored five or six goals if not for some missed chances and a couple great saves by Jonas Johansson. A couple of net-mouth scrambles frustratingly stayed out of the net. Couturier hit another post from well out. Philadelphia was dangerous all night, especially when they needed a goal most.

All of that happened at 5-on-5. But a Shayne Gostisbehere point shot halfway through a critical power-play? That missed everything — Konecny’s re-direct attempt, JVR’s tip try — but also Johansson’s blocker. The second Ghostbomb (TM) in Philly’s last three games could not have come at a better time, saving the Flyers from a potentially inexcusable regulation defeat.

However, the Flyers still had to save themself from one more thing: themselves. And the Sabres power-play, which got another crack after a stunned Jake Voracek was called for a trip in the offensive zone. The stage was set for the most embarrassing and heartbreaking defeat possible. Yet the Flyers PK dug deep and held the NHL’s 5th-best power-play without a shot, sending the game to overtime.

An uneventful 3-on-3 that will be most remembered for the gradually increasing volume of boos on a 3-minute Sabres possession gave way to the shootout. It’s no secret this skills contest hasn’t exactly been kind to the Flyers over their history, rearing its ugly head in each of the team’s first two shootouts in 2021. But this time, the Flyers pulled off the clean sweep. Couturier and Nolan Patrick shimmied in with some stick handles before sniping on their forehand. Elliott stayed with Rasmus Dahlin’s wrister and Casey Mittelstadt’s forehand deke, saving the game and securing a second point for Philly.

Whenever a team wins a game, especially after losing the previous game(s), there’s almost a desire to build on it. While the Flyers certainly hope to build on the result, this game doesn’t exactly feel like a springboard despite the happy ending. It’s especially weird to write considering Alain Vigneault’s assessment that the team mostly controlled play holds weight. The Flyers had over 62% of the shot attempts (Corsi) and xG at 5-on-5. This easily could have been another dominant win over the dormant Sabres. And yet it came this close to an epic letdown.

Winning tonight doesn’t save the season, nor would losing have ended it. So what if it was buoyed by score effects; the Flyers put 33+ shots on goal for the seventh time in their last eight games. The special teams finally came through. There were still some egregious defensive breakdowns that cost them mightily. Their 22-year old goaltender is going through the growing pains anyone at his age does.

It’s a matter of handling the good with the bad right now. The invincible magic touch that carried them to a 7-2-1 start despite terrible underlying metrics has predictably vanished. In order to sustain that success, the Flyers needed to improve their play; everyone knew that. The process is improving, but it’s far from perfect. Philadelphia still has a long way to go before they can be fully satisfied with their game; how tonight’s game unfolded obviously proved that.

But as I was writing during that cofounding start, it’s important to find ways to win when you’re not at their best. The Flyers did that again tonight, and they deserve some (but only the slightest amount) of credit for avoiding a trap that became much more intimidating than it should have.

Lindies

This was the Flyers first win in front of fans since a 3-1 win on March 7, 2020, also against the Sabres. You love to see it.

The Flyers went with seven defensemen tonight with Michael Raffl still out with a hand injury, temporarily sending Connor Bunnaman to the taxi squad. However, AV might have tipped his hand for which six will play on Thursday; Robert Hagg played just 8:28, the lowest of any defender by over three minutes. Phil Myers also was used sparingly, playing just under 12 minutes, the third fewest minutes of his career.

For a 25-year old goalie, Jonas Johansson is pretty solid. Yet as Flyers fans are learning the hard ways, all young net-minders have their issues. For Johansson, one problem area is the shootout; he’s allowed goals to all four shooters he’s ever faced in the NHL.

Shayne Gostisbehere’s power-play goal snapped a string of 17 straight killed penalties by Buffalo. It also broke an 0-15 drought for the Flyers PP against the Sabres, dating back to Matt Niskanen’s goal on December 15, 2019.

Sam Reinhart isn’t necessarily the dominant force you hope for out of a second overall pick. But the 2014 pick is an underrated consistent goal scorer. Since the 2017-18 season, Reinhart has scored 82 goals, tied for 53rd in the NHL. That’s not too shabby, nor was his 12th career two-goal game tonight.

It’s a small sample size, but since February 27th, the Flyers’ PK is tied for 11th in the NHL with a very solid 82.4% rate. That date coincides with the return of key PKers Oskar Lindblom, Justin Braun, and Scott Laughton from the COVID list.

Speaking of Laughton, the forward left the game for a large part of the first period after an awkward takedown by Buffalo’s Curtis Lazar on the face-off following the JVR goal. Postgame, Laughton was not happy about it, calling it “a pretty dirty play, to be honest.” I personally doubt it will garner any supplementary discipline, but it was definitely unnecessary and reckless.

And speaking of postgame comments, it was really hard to hear Carter Hart talk about this game to the press. Hart definitely sounded defeated as he repeated that he knows he’s not stopping enough pucks and needs to find a way to change that. Every player goes through their struggles, especially 22-year old starting goalies. There’s a reason there aren’t many of them.

You have to feel for Hart, but it’s worth noting he’s worked through adversity at the NHL level before. He briefly lost the starter’s net towards the end of October last season, but mostly settled down after stopping 33 of 34 in a 4-1 win over Carolina. This slump has certainly gone on longer, but I’m confident that breakthrough game is coming for Hart. Hopefully it arrives sooner rather than later.

3 Stars

3rd: Claude Giroux – Goal (4), 3 Shots, 70% Face-offs

2nd: Sam Reinhart – 2 Goals (10, 11)

1st: Sean Couturier – 2 Assists (9, 10)

Next

BUF – 2/11 vs. PIT (14-9-1, W2)

PHI – 2/11 vs. WSH (14-6-4, W1)

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