There was something a little bit different about the Flyers last night as they won consecutive games for only the second time all season.
They continued the notion of secondary scoring being key, as they got four more goals from guys not named Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek – a trio that had scored 45.7% of the teams’ goals prior to the last two games.
Well, the rest of the team has now scored nine straight goals for the Flyers – all of them by forwards no less – and unsurprisingly, the Flyers have won two straight.
But that’s not what was different specific to last night. Dave Hakstol finally broke up his top line in Calgary and kept it that way in Edmonton. And yes, it helps spread the offense around, as we’ve been talking about on this blog for about a month.
But that’s not it.
Brian Elliott played another strong game in net for the Flyers – something that has become almost expected. After a slow start in his first half-dozen games, Elliott has been the guy keeping the Flyers in games on most nights with his workman-like approach to goaltending – not flashy, just getting the job done.
But it wasn’t Elliott either.
Nope. It was the Flyers trying to play like the New Jersey Devils, circa 1995.
It was a flashback to a bygone era in the NHL. An era where boring, stifling hockey would put you to sleep on a nightly basis. But, those Devils would beat you with their style that everyone else in the league hated – except them.
The Flyers were at it last night.
One game after beating Calgary but allowing the Flames to take a whopping 80 shot attempts, the Flyers decided to hunker down defensively and really try to frustrate the Edmonton Oilers and their supposedly high-flying offense.
The Oilers only attempted 51 shots. Only 26 actually got on goal. After some of the save performances Elliott’s had to put in recently, he had to feel like this game was merely a part-time shift.
And the Oilers were greatly limited as compared to the Flames because the Flyers decided to change their system a bit last night and bottle up the neutral zone. It made for a much more even game, puck possession-wise, and the Flyers were opportunistic, scoring on their best chances. It was an old-fashioned hockey formula that caught the Oilers by surprise and worked for the Flyers for one game.
Can it work long-term? Maybe. However, it requires a lot of patience and commitment to the defensive game as well as a more conservative approach – things that don’t normally seem attractive as options to today’s younger players.
But if Hakstol is smart, he’ll see if he can get the players to buy into it for a little while anyway to see if it instills confidence in a team who, despite winning two straight games, is still a fragile group when things go awry.
To the takeaways:
1. Rooting your offense in opportunism
This might be the hardest thing about a defensive game plan. Offensive players want to skate. They want to create. They want to do something fun and dazzling.
But, when you ask them to worry about their defensive responsibilities first and foremost ahead of their offensive chances, it could lead to frustration. Guys who want to “go go go” are being muted. Defensemen who are keen to jump up on the rush or pinch in along the wall to create offense must show the self control not to do that.
Instead, you have to be content to punt. There’s no Doug Pederson fourth down bravado in this type of hockey.
Nope, instead you just dump it in deep, let the other team go chase it, and then set your defense and force them to weave their way 200 feet through five players in defensive posture.
It’s not pretty to look at. It makes hockey slower, more muddled. It becomes more like tug of war – or soccer (sorry soccer fans).
But it’s effective. Maddeningly so, but effective.
And it was quite effective last night, especially against Connor McDavid.
McDavid did have an assist; it came shorthanded after he stripped Couturier and created a 2-on-1 that led to a goal by Leon Draisaitl. But at 5-on-5, McDavid was only on the ice for five shots on goal.
That’s five shots on goal by all the players on the ice with and including him.
That’s a fine defensive effort by the Flyers.
There were some people on Twitter last night perplexed as to why the Flyers would award the Ric Flair “Woooo” robe to Andrew MacDonald after this game.
How they played against McDavid is all you need to know.
McDonald wasn’t alone. Ivan Provorov was amazing defensively as well, playing at the same time as MacDonald. However, MacDonald is often the guy who is tasked with taking a man-to-man approach against a star player on the other team, and as such, he was considered the MVP of the game by the guys in his own locker room.
Fans don’t see it that way sometimes, but it is the reality.
That said, I don’t think last night’s successful shutdown of McDavid and his line was all MacDonald’s doing. Nor was it Provorov as well. No, it was the whole five-man unit.
Whichever line was out there against him – while Edmonton, with the last line change, would often try and get McDavid out against Filppula’s line, Hakstol often countered a McDavid shift by changing lines and going with Couturier’s line with Giroux and Wayne Simmonds – did a fine job of being responsible for their coverages to take away Edmonton’s best offensive option.
The Flyers remained committed to this style for the entire 60 minutes, and it worked. It was probably the best overall team effort since shutting out the Blues in St. Louis on Nov. 2.
And when you play this way, you also have to take advantage of the limited chances you are going to get as well and the Flyers did that by converting a power play, creating two scoring chances off turnovers and getting an empty-netter.
It’s how you win. And they did.
2. Captain Fantastic
None of this would have happened without a really fine game by Giroux. As mentioned earlier, his line was out there most of the time against McDavid – especially when the Flyers were changing lines on the fly – getting Giroux and Couturier on the ice for 15 of McDavid’s 23 shifts.
But Giroux was also responsible for creating the opportunistic chances we were talking about.
The first was on the power play when Jordan Weal replaced Simmonds on the first sequence and this happened:
Tic-tac-toe and a Weal goal! pic.twitter.com/bfOGjJdV1S
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) December 7, 2017
This is a set play. Giroux with a slap pass to Couturier who catches it and feeds Weal in front. Kudos to Weal for being in position. Normally that’s where Simmonds would be, but Simmonds had a skate issue, so Weal hopped in.
Credit to Giroux for going with this play, assuming the woeful Edmonton penalty kill (and it is woeful, as it’s the worst in the NHL – killing just 56% at home!) wouldn’t think that with a little guy like Weal the Flyers would look to get him the puck in the blue paint. But they did.
Later, Giroux found another guy he doesn’t normally play with:
Claude Giroux gets the loose puck and gives it to Dale Weise on a line change. His shot makes it 2-1! pic.twitter.com/u2Cxdplj9U
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) December 7, 2017
Yep. Dale Weise scored everyone. That’s a chug the entire beer in your hand… and open a second and do the same in the Flyers drinking game.
But, all kidding aside, there are three things to notice about this play.
First, Giroux out-skating two Edmonton defensemen to a loose puck – and he had a long way to go to get there.
Secondly, having the wherewithal to notice Weise coming off the bench on a line change to get him a pass in good scoring position.
The third thing to notice, and it didn’t have any impact on the play but was definitely something to keep an eye on in the future, Voracek was streaking down the wing uncovered. I don’t think Weise even saw him, because if he did, making the pass to Jake had to be a higher percentage play than shooting five hole from where he did, but the mere vision of Voracek busting it on the wing was all you need to know. The Flyers were 100% all-in last night.
3. Raffl still motoring
Ever since waking up from hibernation a couple weeks ago, Michael Raffl has been a real option for the Flyers.
He is strong on the puck and has a good shot. Hthe kidse just needs to play with a playmaker, and now that he’s playing with Voracek, he might be finding that 20-goal touch he had a few seasons ago.
Here was his latest goal, his fourth in the last seven games, courtesy of a pass from Jake:
Jake Voracek sends Michael Raffl on the breakaway and he scores! 3-1! pic.twitter.com/EehtvCGuxR
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) December 7, 2017
Raffl doesn’t need to suddenly turn into a regular goal scorer. But if he can give the Flyers 15 more goals over the final 50-plus games, that would be a huge boost to the lineup.
4. The kids are alright
Brandon Manning is out of the lineup for about a month with an upper body injury. Radko Gudas can’t play again until Tuesday. So, the defensive corps is going to be really young again.
Sam Morin is hurt, so he can’t be recalled. So for now it’s Mark Alt again. (More on the call-ups in No. 5 below).
This is exactly what Hextall was lamenting about during his impromptu press conference after losing for the eighth straight game at Wells Fargo Center last week – in his mind, it’s not a good idea to trot out such a young defensive corps – because it’s not good for their development.
That’s a cockeyed view point in today’s NHL.
Look around. How old is that Columbus defense?
Yeah, they have two veterans in Jack Johnson and David Savard, but they are rolling out four defenseman under the age of 24 in Ryan Murray, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Scott Harrington – and they’re only one point out of first place in the Metropolitan Division.
How about Carolina?
Yeah, they’re in a similar boat as the Flyers near the bottom of the Metro, and yet you don’t hear their GM Ron Francis bitching about how young they are:
- Trevor van Riemsdyk – 26
- Justin Faulk – 25
- Jaccob Slavin – 23
- Brett Pesce – 23
- Haydin Fleury – 21
- Noah Hanifin – 21
As a matter of fact, that’s their future. The Hurricanes’ young D corps could be one of the best in the NHL in a few years. The difference is, they’re playing now. Every day.
Last night, aside from MacDonald, the Flyers trotted out a very young defensive group – and they played really well against a team that, albeit is struggling, was many experts pick to go to the Stanley Cup Final from the West this season because of their high-powered offense.
And yet, the Flyers defense did just fine against them.
I feel like a member of the crowd at the Astrodome in “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training:”
Or maybe a better comparison is the South Park Cows taking on the Detroit Red Wings:
Yeah… that’s more like it.
5. Loose Pucks
- Manning’s injury will keep him out for awhile, but Gudas will be back after sitting out the final game of his suspension tonight in Vancouver. Alt probably will stay in the lineup, but the Flyers did recall local kid T.J. Brennan as the extra defenseman. Brennan grew up in Moorestown, N.J. and has always dreamed about playing for the Flyers. He probably won’t get the chance this time around (he has played in the NHL already with Ottawa), but if there’s another injury on the blue line, he’s next in line until Morin recovers from his injury.
- Leave it to Michal Neuvirth to get injured while not even playing. His injury, the lower-body variety, likely occured in practice. So, the Flyers called up Alex Lyon to backup Elliott. There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell Lyon plays tonight in Vancouver, even though it’s a back-to-back for the Flyers. Elliott will go again. Good thing he had some light work against Edmonton.
- If anyone is going to be affected negatively from a production standpoint by the line jumbling, look for it to be Couturier, who was on a torrid pace before Hakstol finally broke up his top line. Couturier will still get points, playing with Giroux will allow that, and he’ll till score some on the power play, but I expect his goal-scoring pace, which was for more than 40 goals, will slow down some until Voracek is reunited with that line, if ever.