Flyers
Kevin Hayes celebrates the eventual game-winning goal in the Flyers first victory since February 7. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

He’s a G, folks! The Philadelphia Flyers WIN, 4-3, over the New York Rangers, in Claude Giroux’s reunion to the lineup after missing the last two weeks with COVID. Finally, reinforcements are on the way for the Flyers. After earning a point against the Rangers six days ago with half an AHL forward core, the captain filling in for Maxim Sushko made the difference in a win more dominant than the score suggests.

The good news is for the first time since Super Bowl Sunday, the Flyers weren’t severely more undermanned than their opponent. The bad news is that has more to do with the Rangers’ depleted line-up than Philly getting back to full health. Yes, Claude Giroux returned to the line-up, and Justin Braun was activated from the COVID list earlier today (though he didn’t play tonight). Others are close to returning, too, but that didn’t help tonight, of course.

However, the Rangers are at least just as short-handed. Kappo Kakko and strong rookie K’Andre Miller are on the COVID list. Tony DeAngelo became a locker room problem and was exiled to waivers. Jacob Trouba broke his thumb. And now Artemi Panarin is out indefinitely on a leave of absence after a potential political hit piece accused him of domestic assault weeks after a social media post supporting a rival of Vladimir Putin. The Flyers may not be back at full strength, but they weren’t exactly outclassed on paper tonight.

They certainly didn’t like it early. Philadelphia dominated the beginning of the game. They made smart decisions with the puck, were active on the forecheck, and kept the Rangers from even testing Brian Elliott. The result? Outshooting the Rangers 9-0, drawing a penalty, and lighting the lamp all in nine minutes’ time. The goal came courtesy of a ride on the Gus Bus, as Erik Gustafsson beat Igor Shesterkin on a D-to-D one-timer just after the PP ended. Shesterkin’s own man Libjor Hajek inadvertently set the screen, and Gustafsson tallied his first as a Flyer on the feed from Shayne Gostisbehere.

All that momentum was snapped when Sean Couturier took a seat in the box for holding. Less than seconds into the man advantage, the Flyers lead was no longer. Brian Elliott, starting for the first time in 20 days, gave up a big rebound on his first shot of the night from Mika Zibanejad. He probably wished the same thing happened on the second shot, but instead, Chris Kreider beat him on that rebound for his second in as many games.

Thankfully, that didn’t lead to a Sunday “snowballing out of control” moment. Instead, Philadelphia earned another power-play, and after Elliott stopped Zibanejad on a breakaway, made good on it. For the second time in the period, a Flyers defenseman buried their first of the year. This time, it came in the form of a Ghostbomb goal (Ghost snapshot just doesn’t have the same ring to it). Gustafsson’s point shot went wide (may have tipped by Nolan Patrick), and Ghost buried the rebound with no delay. The Rangers threatened on a late PP of their own, with Colin Blackwell sending a tap-in back into Elliott’s pad and Ryan Strome hitting the iron. Yet the Flyers entered intermission with 15 shots on the net and a 2-1 lead.

The Philadelphia power-play would go back to work and get back in the goal column early in the second. Once again, the second unit to come out lit the lamp, but that wasn’t the Giroux unit this time. They started the power-play ok, but Joel Farabee finished it off the right way, setting up JVR for a slam-dunk backdoor; it’s the second straight game this duo factored in on a key goal.

Seconds later, the Rangers took another penalty. And 22 seconds later, they took another. Suddenly, Philadelphia had one of the hottest PKs in the league at their mercy and a chance to do to the Rangers what the Bruins did to them on Sunday. Yet despite some great looks for Ghost and Giroux, the Rangers held the fort, then made good on another power-play chance of their own. Poor coverage in front led to Mika Zibanejad setting up Chris Kreider for a second PP tap-in, putting themselves right back into a game they were being outshot 22-12 in.

The Rangers ran with Kreider’s second goal, turning it into their best stretch of the game to that point. A couple of clutch saves by Brian Elliott kept the lead intact as the Flyers tried to rediscover their scoring touch. There were a couple of odd-man rushes (including a near 2-on-0) that didn’t result in shots on goal. But Giroux made up for his teammates’ mistakes by sneaking a cross-ice pass to Kevin Hayes. The ex-Ranger took that improbable feed and beat Shesterkin short-side with almost no angle, turning a 4-on-2 into a 4-2 game.

New York wouldn’t give up easily, though. The Rangers turned it back into a one-goal game on a goal at the net-front by — you guessed it — Chris Kreider. Ryan Lindgren tipped a Colin Blackwell centering feed off the post, and Kreider buried the rebound for his third career hat-trick. Cue the butterflies, Flyers fans. You knew this would be a nail-biter to the bitter end.

The Rangers kept pressing all period. Elliott had to make another short-handed breakaway stop on Zibanejad. He gave up a big rebound on an off-speed from Fox but bailed himself out. In the midst of New York’s surge, the Flyers desperately tried to pad their lead. Joel Farabee was stopped on a clear-cut breakaway; Giroux hit the post on a semi-one of his own, then drew a penalty on another. The Flyers kept the Rangers to the outside once Shesterkin went off for the extra attacker, making enough defensive plays down the stretch to seal the deal.

Almost as important as the win, the Flyers actually played pretty well in this game. Claude Giroux was a one-man wrecking crew, generating over a half dozen scoring chances and tallying three assists. The Flyers peppered Shesterkin with a season-high of 39 shots. The top two lines (Farabee-Couturier-JVR, Giroux-Hayes-Patrick) won the shot attempts battle 21-9. Brian Elliott did his job, especially considering this was his first start in 2021. They’re 9-1-1 against teams that aren’t the Bruins (Carter Hart has a .919 save percentage in those games, by the way). And they’re 3-0-0 in games with Couturier and Giroux.

Does this mean they’re all the way back at peak 2019-20 vintage? Not quite. They lost the xG battle at 5-on-5. The penalty kill came up clutch down the stretch but went 2/5 against one of the league’s coldest power-plays; they’re 29th in the league, down over 10% from last year. But they’re showing signs that they’re close. This was one of their best games of the season, but there’s still room to improve. Once their COVID list empties, they’ll have a legitimate shot at reaching their full potential. But tonight was a step forward, no doubt about it.

Up next on the Flyers schedule is a road back-to-back against the Sabres, who our Trey Daubert does not have a very high opinion of.

Lindies

As of now, the Flyers have four players left on the COVID list: Jakub Voracek, Scott Laughton, Oskar Lindblom, and Travis Konecny. Voracek is eligible to come off the list tomorrow (and I expect him too since AV said he was asymptomatic and “chomping at the bit” to return). Laughton and Lindblom can come off as soon as Friday, meaning they could play in this weekend’s games (but that’s not guaranteed). And TK can’t come off until at least Sunday; he’s likely out next Tuesday’s contest.

The big story heading into this game was Alain Vigneault moved Nolan Patrick to the right-wing. Patrick has played center exclusively since being picked 2nd overall in 2017; but in the midst of an eight-game point drought, AV thought the move might spark the 22-year old. I thought Patrick played pretty well. He made a couple of nice plays (including a through the legs pass), and the Flyers had about two-thirds of the shot attempts and expected goals when he was on the ice at 5-on-5. AV said it’s not a long-term move, but hopefully, it provides a long-term boost.

Bad news for the Flyers’ defensive depth. Defenseman (and part-time right-winger?) Mark Friedman was claimed by Pittsburgh on waivers this afternoon. It makes sense, as their new GM Ron Hextall drafted Friedman in the 3rd round in 2014. Friedman has the skillset to be a very solid third-pair defenseman, but the 25-year old never found a consistent role in Philly. I wish him the best (but please don’t burn us when we play you).

The Flyers have scored three hat-tricks this season, but after tonight, they’ve given them right back. David Pastrnak has two against them, and now Kreider joined the party tonight with his first hatty since NYE 2016.

Kevin Hayes has now scored four goals in five games against the Rangers since coming to Philadelphia last season. Two of those are game winners. Should’ve kept, Rags.

Scary-looking hit by Carsen Twarynski (making his season debut) on Ryan Lindgren late in the 2nd period. Twarynski drilled Smith hard into the boards on the forecheck, drawing quite a crowd as a result. He was lucky to get off with just a minor; we’ll see if the Department of Player Safety has something to say about it.

Some milestones I missed from Sunday’s contest: JVR’s assist on Farabee’s goal was his 500th NHL point. It was also his 8th of the season, tying his rookie year total (in 50 games). And Alain Vigneault coached his 1300th NHL game.

Speaking of JVR, his PPG in the second period is his 7th of the season. That ties Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Dallas’ Joe Pavelski for first in the NHL. He had five all of last year. Aren’t you glad he’s JVRed hot?

And speaking of power-play goals, Shayne Gostisbehere scored his first of those since November 29, 2019. After spending the last few games with Travis Sanheim, Ghost returned to the top-pair alongside Provorov tonight. The duo earned a gaudy 76.47% Corsi (shot attempts) and 83% xG at 5-on-5. And Ghost finished his night with a clutch 6-on-5 shot block on Brendan Lemieux, one of the Rangers’ last chances of the night.

Several schedule changes for the Flyers were announced by the league yesterday.

Per NHL PR, Sunday’s Flyers-Bruins Lake Tahoe game was the first-ever NBCSN regular-season game to surpass 1 million viewers. I guess if you’re gonna lose, do it in style. But let’s stick to winning, ok?

3 Stars

3rd: Shayne Gostisbehere – Goal (1), Assist (2), 6 Shots, 20:48 TOI

2nd: Chris Kreider – 3 Goals (6, 7, 8), 3 Hits

1st: Claude Giroux – 3 Assists (11, 12, 13), 8 Shots

Next

NYR – 2/26 VS. BOS (11-3-2, W1)

PHI – 2/27 @ BUF (6-8-2, W1)

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