They Jersey-shored up, alright! The Philadelphia Flyers WIN, 5-3, over the New Jersey Devils. It’s a desperately needed rebound from a Boston massacre last week(end), and not just in result. This was arguably the Flyers’ best game of the young 2021 campaign.
Even when the team was winning games, there were plenty of warning signs. The team was routinely being heavily outshot and out-chanced and rates worse than the historically bad 2019-20 Red Wings. Team defense was a huge problem both in terms of in-zone coverage and breakouts. And the penalty kill was returning to their terrible habit of not covering the front of the net that made them 2nd worst in the NHL from 2014-15 to 2018-19.
That all came to a head in a frustrating shootout loss Thursday and an unacceptable beatdown on Saturday. Two off days plus the desperately needed return of Shayne Gostisbehere from the league’s COVID list seemed like signs of better fortunes. A match-up with a not exactly stacked on paper Devils team down their first-line center and starting goaltender amplified the urgency. If the Flyers couldn’t at least show signs of stepping forward tonight, the reaction wouldn’t have been pretty.
While this game wasn’t a full 2019-20 vintage showing, the Flyers finally started looking like their once dominant selves. In fact, for about half of the second period, the Flyers looked exactly like last year’s borderline juggernaut. The forecheck was ferocious, forcing several Devils turnovers. Everyone was making crisp plays with the puck.
But the biggest sign the Flyers might be back? The defense. The passive group that started this season was replaced tonight by a free roaming unit ready and willing to take chances. In a three minute or so span in the second, Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Travis Sanheim all jumped up in the play, creating excellent chances. Ghost and Provy basically led one rush all by themselves. Even Justin Braun and Robert Hagg(!) were making plays in the offensive zone. It truly was a sight to be-hold.
At that point in the game, it felt like the Flyers were in the driver’s seat. After all, identical power play tip-ins by James van Redirectsdyk (it’s RIGHT there, come on) on Ivan Provorov wristers had the Flyers up 2-0 less than a minute into the second. The aforementioned nostalgic barrage began immediately after JVR’s second goal, and for a while, it seemed like the Flyers were on the cusp of running away with this game.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple in Philly. The Flyers were awarded two power-plays with a chance to put the Devils in a stranglehold. They came awfully close to doing so on the first, but the Devils started to gain some momentum with an excellent penalty kill. Then Ivan Provorov mis-read a dump-in, took a penalty trying to recover, and Michael McLeod scored before the Flyers could even touch up. Yes, the same Michael McLeod who entered tonight 0-for-38 in scoring at the NHL level. Wash, rinse, repeat, or something like that.
At this point, the snowball was tumbling down the proverbial mountain at such rapid speed it was about to become an avalanche. Coincidentally, the Devils were looking awfully like the Avalanche as they started to swing the game back in their favor. An errant Travis Sanheim stretch pass and a slow line change gifted NJ a 3-on-2. The Devils took advantage, as Andreas Johnsson’s shot ticked into the net off Travis Zajac to tie the game.
Suddenly, all of the good work the Flyers had done, erasing a somewhat sloppy first period and actually playing up to their potential for once, was gone. For the second time in three games, a 2-0 lead vanished in the blink of an eye. The Flyers had more time and an intermission to recover than they did in Thursday’s collapse, but there was no guarantee they’d make it count.
Mercifully, the Flyers dug deep and found enough nostalgic energy to make the third period one to remember. Though the Devils dominated the early minutes to the tune of two iron strikes by Johnsson and Damon Severson, the Flyers re-found their stride. Philadelphia’s forecheck was outstanding all night long. Every line had their moments. The fourth line had an outstanding night, outshooting the Devils 6-2. The second line overpassed a bit, but at least they were getting to the high-danger areas quite a bit.
But with the game on the line, the big guns went to work. The Flyers reconstructed the Giroux-Patrick-Konecny line not seen since the 2019 Stadium Series. They had a couple of close calls in the game’s early goings, but finally made good when it mattered most. Ivan Provorov pinched to keep the play alive, and Travis Konecny took his feed and made an even slicker one. Nolan Patrick’s resulting power move turned into a pass to Claude Giroux. It was tipped, so Giroux couldn’t settle it cleanly, but he never lost composure. Instead, G doubled back and found Patrick wide open in the slot.
With the entire Devils defense and goaltender Scott Wedgewood down and out, Patrick put the puck top shelf for the go-ahead goal! Nolan Patrick delivers the first signature moment of his redemption tour, restoring the Flyers lead. While the team would settle back a bit after that, the Devils never created another signature chance while the outcome was still in doubt.
Instead, rookie Ty Smith made nightmare turnover right in front of Wedgewood that the Flyers forechecked helped force. It turned into a self-inflicted dagger when Joel Farabee deposited Scott Laughton’s rebound into a yawning cage, putting the game out of reach. A long-range empty netter by Ivan Provorov and a garbage time goal shortly after by Pavel Zacha (the #7 and #6 picks in the 2015 draft, respectively) essentially cancelled each other out, but prevented the Flyers from ending the night on a total high note.
However, the Flyers should be pretty proud of themselves for their performance tonight. As a team, they looked disruptive as heck on the forecheck, and it showed big-time. That was an area the Flyers got away from in the playoffs last year, and it was arguably the biggest part of their downfall. A defense that has tried to force things way too often this season looked much more patient tonight. They were still far from perfect, but considering how poor the Flyers looked in their first six games, I’ll more than take it.
On the individual level, there are plenty more compliments to go around. Claude Giroux had his best game of the year. Aside from setting up the game-winner, G drew two penalties, assisted on JVR’s second goal, and drove the bus for arguably the first time all season (it’s a crime he doesn’t have a goal yet). Connor Bunnaman won plenty of puck battles and was a forechecking menace. Shayne Gostisbehere was thrust right into top-pair duties in his first game of the season, yet delivered an overall strong performance. Brian Elliott came up big when he had to.
Overall, it was a good night. There’s still lots of hockey to play this season, but the Flyers desperately needed to show their fans their true potential still had a pulse. Tuesday’s performance was an encouraging step forward, setting the ground work for the coming games. If the Flyers can just build off this performance (and continue to get healthy), heart rates across the Delaware Valley will be on the decline in no time.
The Flyers had been involved in Patrik Laine rumors for months, but ultimately it wasn’t meant to be. Pierre-Luc Dubois’ falling out in Columbus gave the Jets a clear lane to a gutsy one-for-one blockbuster. Apparently Winnipeg wanted Ivan Provorov for Laine, which was never going to happen.
One of the big reasons for James van Riemsdyk’s down year last season was his lack of power-play production. JVR’s four PPGs were his fewest since 2011-12, as he was snake bitten on the man advantage all season. The universe is starting to balance itself; van Riemsdyk is already up to four man advantage markers this season. Oh, and that number also leads the entire NHL.
Speaking of the power-play, I’d like to see Ghost get a look on PP1 once he gets a few games under his belt. Over the last two years, Ivan Provorov is 19th out of 22 defensemen with at least 200 PP minutes in shots and expected goals for. Yes, he’s got a great shot, but Ghost is almost certainly the better pure power-play quarterback. Provorov’s power-play evaluation would’ve been a lot worse if the Yegor Sharangovich’s short-handed breakaway that resulted from Provorov fumbling a simple pass didn’t catch the post.
Tonight was also van Riemsdyk’s second career multi-power play goal game. His other was February 12, 2019; van Riemsdyk tallied two PP goals, including the game-winner in a 5-4 win at Minnesota.
Congratulations to Jake Voracek! His assist on JVR’s goal was his 400th in Philly; he’s one of five Flyers to do so. Bobby Clarke, Claude Giroux, Brian Propp, and Bill Barber are the only others to do so (Devils assistant coach Mark Recchi is just short at 395).
I mentioned last game that Claude Giroux tied Bobby Clarke for most games played as Flyers captain. Well, he played tonight’s game, so… you do the math. Congrats, G!
Joel Farabee’s insurance marker was his first point since his career-high four point performance in the season opener.
Very interesting that the American Hockey League apparently won’t be awarding its championship (the Calder Cup) this season. I know the MLS originally said the same about its regular season trophy, the Supporter’s Shield (equivalent to the President’s Trophy), but eventually reconsidered. Here’s hoping the AHL does the same. What’s the point of professional competition if there’s nothing to play for?
After starting the year with four forwards and one defender on both PP units, the Flyers shook things up. The numbers do say that 4F and 1D is the better way to go. But the Flyers did have decent success with Sanheim/Ghost and Matt Niskanen on the second unit. Sanny and Ghost were both on PP2 Tuesday, and they looked good in their (very limited) ice-time.
I was kind of surprised to see AV go back to Elliott as opposed to giving Hart a chance to quickly move on from Saturday’s disaster. However, it’s worth remembering that Hart also had a slow start last season, yet worked through it. That slow start included a week (October 20-27) where Elliott started four of five games, winning the first three with pretty strong performances. When the magic wore off, Hart was ready to respond. Hart will likely get a chance to do the same on Thursday; we know he can do it.
As much as I’d like to chalk this one up to the Flyers figuring out their flaws and transforming into last year’s juggernaut, we all know the real reason the Flyers played well tonight.
3rd: Claude Giroux – 2 Assists (4, 5)
2nd: Ivan Provorov – Goal (2), 2 Assists (2, 3)
1st: James van Riemsdyk – 2 Goals (4, 5)
1/28, 7 PM – PHI @ NJ
*Advanced Stats via Natural Stat Trick