The two teams most hockey experts were lining up as potential Stanley Cup Final opponents this season were the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And while the hockey media bias always skews Canadian when it can, there was at least some rationale for it. After all, the Oilers and Leafs feature two of the sport’s youngest and brightest stars in Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
Both teams were on the come last season and were hard outs in the playoffs. They are well managed and coached and are definitely teams who this league will see in the Cup Finals in the very near future.
And the Flyers are 4-0 against them this season.
To the Flyers credit, they played perhaps their most complete game of the NHL season to this point last night, defeating the Maple Leafs 4-2 and extending their winning streak to four games – the first time they have won four straight in regulation since February, 2014. Yeah… almost four years.
They continue to get great goaltending from Brian Elliott (although the first Leafs goal was as unsightly as a big juicy whitehead on the side of your nose), Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier keep dazzling and production keeps coming from further down the lineup.
And for once, they won the possession battle, something that’s been eluding them for some time.
But, they did get a little fortunate. Matthews missed the game with an injury. Toronto, for as talented and well-coached as they are, turn the puck over a ton and are not a good possession team and the Leafs are in the middle of a five-city, five games in seven days stretch while the Flyers have been home resting for four days.
So, a lot of extraneous stuff does play into it.
Still, this was a good win for the Flyers. The most impressive of this winning streak so far. And there’s a lot to takeaway from it, so, as Kyle likes to say, let’s hit it:
1. Captain and Ginger
Come on, it’s a good mix, and you know it.
And the Flyers have found through 30 games that this is a combination they have waited far too long to try.
Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier have a special chemistry right now. Everything they are touching is turning to gold.
We’ve talked about Couturier being the breakout star, not just for the Flyers but in the NHL this season. So much so that he’ll be given All-Star consideration. So much so that he’ll finally get mentioned in the Selke conversation.
He had another goal and an assist last night. Ho hum.
But Giroux, he’s playing at a level not seen in about four years.
Giroux has been hovering around the top ten in scoring leaders in the NHL all season. With his two points last night he now has 34 this season in 30 games, which is good for 12th in the league.
Lets compare this to his two best seasons through the team’s first 30 games:
2017-18: 13-21-34 (on pace for 93 points)
2011-12: 16-23-39 (finished with 93 points, 4th in MVP voting)
2013-14: 5-15-20 (finished with 86 points, 3rd in MVP voting)
The captain is quietly on pace to match his career high in points and could potentially sneak into MVP conversation if he keeps up this pace over the course of a long season.
And he’s doing it methodically. He’s not dominating games – like he did at times in both those previous seasons.
No, he’s pacing himself well and is simply playing an all-around consistent game.
He scored a goal on a set play he said never works. He set up the game-winner with elite vision that only a few players in the sport have.
He’s been special, even if the team around him is as inconsistent as runny eggs.
And because of that, we have Couturier’s breakout season.
Couturier matched a career-high in goals last night with his 15th and he’s got 52 remaining games to break it.
His 30 points have him sitting just outside the top 20 in the NHL, but he’s a point-per-game player. His career best in points for an entire season is 39. He’s on pace to break that by January 4th. If he keeps this up, he’ll best his previous career high by more than 40 points, and that’s quite rare.
“They’re a real good combination,” Dave Hakstol said. “I think those two guys, they’re in sync. They’re working hard together and we got a good result with the game winner tonight.”
Here is that game-winner. Pay particular attention to the number of legs Giroux passes this puck between… and without looking:
Everything about this goal was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. Giroux with the crispy apple between the legs and Sean 1Couturier with the sniiiiiiiipe pic.twitter.com/FphfIWj0jG
— Jordie 🔵 (@BarstoolJordie) December 13, 2017
“The D did a good job of getting it out and I saw Coots in a foot race and usually he doesn’t beat the other guy,” Giroux said, trolling Couturier who was standing right next to him but oblivious to the gentle jab from his teammate. “But he was able to beat him there and he got a great shot, too. He’s been playing great hockey and it’s fun to be on his line.”
It was a return of favor for Giroux, who scored the opening goal of the game after a clean faceoff win by Couturier:
Coots win the draw, then G slaps it home. pic.twitter.com/2hBapK9w5C
— Chris Jastrzembski (@CFJastrzembski) December 13, 2017
Couturier won seven of nine faceoffs last night. He is a respectable 21st in the league this season in faceoffs won (among players with at least 300 faceoffs), winning them at a clip of 54.1%
Which brings us to the next reason the Flyers are finding success:
2. Faceoff success
It’s not just Couturier. Giroux is seventh in the NHL at 57.4% in this department.
“It’s an area of this game, that really, [Couturier has] really taken a lot of pride in,” Hakstol said. “If you look at the numbers on both face-off dots, he’s done a real good job. And that’s in both zones, as well as the neutral zones. Sometimes we forget about the neutral zone, but if you win that draw, you get to start with the puck.”
And that’s imperative. If you want to be a good puck possession team, you have to have the puck, and winning faceoffs more than the opposition assures that. Or, at least it should.
Overall, the Flyers are the fourth best faceoff team in the NHL, winning 52.5% of their draws. Only Carolina, Nashville and Winnipeg are better. Nashville and Winnipeg are two of the better teams in the NHL so far this season and Carolina is an analytics darling – it’s a team that a lot of stat heads think is about to emerge as a dominant force in the league because of how strong they are by advanced statistical measurements.
However, it hasn’t always translated into good possession numbers for the Flyers, who still rank in the bottom third in the NHL in Corsi.
That means the Flyers are prone to turning the puck over between the time they first get the puck and before they can shoot it, which would indicate their neutral zone play leaves a lot to be desired.
Still, winning faceoffs as the Flyers do (and did again last night, claiming 56% of them) is a good first step to getting the puck and doing something positive with it.
3. Better discipline
Quite simply, the Flyers have gotten past their seemingly never-ending frustration with the officiating.
In the four game winning streak, the Flyers have only been shorthanded seven times total. It was just once last night (and Toronto scored, as former Flyer James van Riemsdyk got the goal), but compare being shorthanded 1.75 times per game to the 10-game losing streak when they were shorthanded 39 times (3.9 times per game, more than double the winning streak) and in those 39 shorthanded situations, the Flyers let up 11 goals.
I asked Hakstol about this after the game, and this was his response:
“I think we’ve had the puck a little bit more and that’s probably the first place to look,” he said. “We had a stretch there where stick penalties were getting us and those kind of penalties happen when you’re chasing a game, when you’re defending a little bit too much and that was the case during that stretch.
“So it’s not necessarily the discipline side of it, that’s the first place that I would go to and say we’ve had the puck a little bit more, we haven’t had to defend as much in our own zone, and usually that leads to a less number of penalties against.”
His answer was an astute hockey answer. It’s not completely correct (although it was for last night’s game) as the Flyers were on the wrong side of puck possession in the three games previous, but it’s a fair point.
The fact is, the Flyers are controlling the puck more time-wise. It may not be showing up on Corsi charts, but the Flyers do seem to have the pucks on their sticks more.
The negative is, it’s not leading to shot generation, but there is a sense that the Flyers aren’t running around in their own end chasing the other team and trying to get the puck as much. So, that’s a positive.
4. The Honey Bees
Well, that’s Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier. The third member of the band keeps changing about as often as a member of Yes, but they may have found the right musketeer or amigo to make their three-man band perfect.
Travis Konecny was excellent last night. It was his best game in quite awhile and it showed. The Leafs had no answer for Konecny’s speed, and with Laughton and Leier being plus skaters as well, the Bees were buzzing.
Finally, they scored this goal to tie the score early in the third period:
In his 100th career game, Travis Konecny ties this game at 2. pic.twitter.com/g90YmSHm9G
— Chris Jastrzembski (@CFJastrzembski) December 13, 2017
The goal was originally credited to Leier. Leier even said he thought the puck hit him. A slow mo, up-close replay showed the puck hit two Leafs – Dominic Moore’s stick and Roman Polak’s body – and never came close to Leier before going in.
But hey, the Flyers will take it.
It was an effort goal. Those bounces go your way when you are humming like this line was. It got fourth line minutes, which was a surprise since it had been getting third line minutes, but Hakstol said it’s part of the gameplan – and it was effective against the Leafs.
“I think Laughts, Leiersy, and TK played very well tonight,” Hakstol said. “Again, you guys can label them whatever you want. They’re just one of our lines. We thought that line combination made sense with the speed and pace that all three of those guys play at. It was one small tweak to our line-up that we made coming off of the road trip out West. Those guys, as well as others, played well tonight and played hard together.”
I expect we’ll see them stay together against Buffalo tomorrow.
5. The curious case of Nolan Patrick
Nolan Patrick has now played 21 games in the NHL. He’s played all of 205 minutes. Easy math shows you that he’s averaging less than 10 minutes per game – and this is for a guy who was a clear No. 2 Center for a good portion of the season.
He has two goals and three assists for five points.
His Corsi For percentage (CF%) is 39.00. It’s the worst of any player on the Flyers who has played at least five games this season.
It’s the fifth worst percentage of any player in the NHL who has played at least 20 games so far this season.
In short, the heralded rookie is struggling mightily.
Which begs this question – why the heck wouldn’t Ron Hextall let Patrick go play for Team Canada in the World Juniors?
I mean, there’s still time. He still can. But, he won’t.
And that’s where I don’t understand the hypocrisy.
We hear Hextall preach patience and development with so many young players. And yet, here he is, with the prized No. 2 overall pick, throwing him to the wolves night in and night out, and draining the rookie’s confidence.
I don’t know why the nurturing prospects mentality applies to some players and not others. I get it when you have a kid like Ivan Provorov who has the ability to just come into the league as a teenager and be very good.
But, once you see Patrick is struggling, don’t you try to find a way to build his confidence and have him improve his play?
Look, when he was “concussed,” I know for a fact he was being held out longer than usual (he missed nine games) because the Flyers were at a point where they could still send him back to his Junior Hockey team and it was being discussed.
They decided to keep him rather than send him back.
It was probably the right decision. Playing another full season of Junior hockey wouldn’t help him develop further. He dominated at that level and would simply dominate again.
No, he needs to experience the difference in competition, play against men and learn how to adapt so that he can deliver on his overwhelming potential.
But he’s barely getting a chance to play. He’s being babied at the NHL level and he’s getting killed out there – and primarily, I’m told, because he’s not a confident player right now.
The World Junior Championships are coming at just the right time then.
What harm would there be in loaning Patrick to Team Canada for a couple weeks, let him play in some high-intensity, high pressure games against the best players in the world in his age group, and maybe regain a lot of the confidence he has lost by being overwhelmed in the NHL?
Is it better for him to toil along on an unproductive line playing less than 10 minutes a night (OK, he played 12 minutes against the Leafs. They were still 12 uninspiring minutes)?
If there was even the hint of deliberation about sending him back to junior when he was recovering from his concussion, and the decision was not to send him because it would waste a whole year, isn’t this a great alternative?
It’s only two weeks. The Flyers can fill in Patrick’s empty minutes while he’s gone. They can always trot out Jori Lehtera again.
Or, maybe, they give Oskar Lindblom a chance. He scored another goal last night, making it three in four and posting 16 points in the last 21 games after going pointless in the first seven games of the season.
It’s a win/win. An audition for Lindblom and a mental rehabilitation opportunity in some pressure-packed games for Patrick.
Otherwise, the Flyers are doing himno favors by keeping him in the lineup as a third or fourth line center (which he’s not) playing very few, if any, meaningful minutes.