Two days ago it was 90 degrees, and it felt more like July 2 than October 2.
Back on July 2, we were perplexed about the Flyers. What exactly was their offseason plan? Overpaying for Kevin Hayes? Trading for marginal-at-best defensive upgrades in Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun?
Fast forward three months and after a less-than-inspiring training camp that culminated with a loss to a Swiss League team, albeit in an exhibition game, the season was slated to open and new Flyers coach Alain Vigneault wasn’t happy with his team.
The lines he tried in preseason? They were changing. The defensive pairings? Yeah, they were changing too.
Couple that with the tumult of not being able to have more than 20 players on the opening day roster because of some unfortunate management of the salary cap, and well, the feeling was that there was going be more of the same-old, same-old that we had seen from the Flyers in the past seven years.
But then something happened. The winds of change rolled in. The temperature dropped nearly 30 degrees. It felt like hockey weather for sure. And with that feeling, came a Friday afternoon season opener as the Flyers took on the Chicago Blackhawks in Prague as part of the NHL’s Global Series, the annual sojourn for games elsewhere in the world besides North America.
And wouldn’t you know it, the Flyers changed, too.
They played a very solid brand of hockey, dominated the possession for much of the game, and came away with a well-played 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks to win their opener for the fourth straight season.
Of course, the last three seasons didn’t inspire much in the way of positive hockey after those previous opening wins, but there were some things that were shown in this game against Chicago that might give you the inkling that this time could be different.
After all, it’s crucial for the Flyers to get off to at least a decent start this season. Anything less will leave fans apathetic. With a lot of buzz around both the Eagles and Sixers as potential championship contenders this season, the Flyers could quickly slip into the realm of irrelevancy if they don’t start well.
Which is why they should be happy about what happened Friday in Prague.
Travis Konecny scored two goals. He was great. We’ll get to him. Oskar Lindblom had a power play goal – on the second PP unit – something that never happened last season (OK… “never” is a little misleading, but without looking it up, if the second power play unit scored seven goals last year, that would have been a lot) and Michael Raffl’s insurance goal proved to be the game-winner, but on the list of things that impressed me most, those are further down the rankings.
Six things I saw that I think will be more indicative of the Flyers’ play moving forward, rather than just the guys who got on the scoresheet after the jump:
1. The Forecheck Was Awesome
This was the biggest difference that I noticed in the Flyers play from last year to Game One this year. They were relentless pressuring the puck.
They forced turnovers, mistakes, bad passes, etc. and brought the puck right back at Chicago with speed and tenacity.
And they did it in smart fashion.
It wasn’t just taking away time and space either. The Flyers actually looked like they were playing a system where it allowed them to read and react. One forward thought he could make a play and would go for it, knowing that his spot was being covered behind him.
It made the team look a step or two faster than the opposition. Now, the Flyers might actually be a faster team than the Blackhawks, but they looked superior in that department.
The schematic was even more impressive as one forward might take away a lane while another marked a man, forcing a Chicago defense to make quick choices – try and get the pass past an oncoming defender, or pass it to the player who is being marked?
Neither option is a good one, and as long as that system is played the right way, it will work often. It will create those mistakes, turnovers and bad passes.
They forced Chicago into 13 recorded giveaways. The Flyers added an eight additional takeaways. Combine that with 50/50 puck battles won and it’s no wonder the Flyers fired 68 shots (39 on goal) compared to just 49 for the Blackhawks (41 on goal).
If the Flyers can pressure the opposition with close to this success on a regular basis, they will win more often than not.
It’s just one game, and it’s a big “If,” but it was definitely a good sign.
2. James van Riemsdyk, Defensive Guru
I will admit, when I saw that Vigneault was going with a third line of van Riemsdyk, Scott Laughton and Carsen Twarynski, I was a little underwhelmed. I felt like this line wouldn’t be all that successful.
Laughton has a great motor and is a smart player and yes, Twarynski was the training camp darling, but this game matters. The lights were going to be brighter and the intensity greater for a rookie like Twarynski, so relying on JVR to be a a defensively responsible player on what amounts to a checking line, left me scratching my head.
This is why I don’t coach and Vigneault does.
JVR was a complete player for the Flyers Friday. No, he didn’t get on the scoresheet, which is usually the only way we notice him in a game – unless he makes a critical mistake. Instead, he was a really good player making good passes, getting to the greasy areas in front of the net, and truly playing a 200-foot game.
Laughton and Twarynski were decent too. I thought this would be a line Chicago would try to exploit, and they couldn’t. That’s because JVR played a different brand of hockey than we are used to seeing from him, and certainly flipped the switch on after a mostly dreadful preseason.
Sure, you don’t wish you had to play $7 million dollar players in third line roles, and ultimately, he may move up, but for one game at least, he was a difference maker in a way I’m sure most of us never expected.
3. The First Kevin Hayes Experiment
If you’ve listened to Snow the Goalie, you know Russ and I have talked about how important it is for Hayes to individually get off to a good start so he doesn’t become a whipping boy for Flyers fans simply because he signed a lucrative contract that is great for him, but could potentially be one the Flyers regret.
So, color us all surprised when Hayes was inserted as the top line center with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek for the opener.
And while the line was mostly meh for the game, Hayes was certainly the most noticeable of the three Flyers.
Maybe it was because he was used in all situations – top power play, top penalty kill, top line – that you just noticed him on the ice a lot. But he did have some chances. He was sprung on a breakaway in the third period that didn’t pan out. He won a number of key face-offs – including a big one after the Flyers allowed Chicago to get back within three goals. He smartly won the draw forward and got the puck out of the zone, not letting the Blackhawks set up the offense with an extra attacker on the ice.
All told, it was a pretty good first game for Hayes.
4. New Fan Target Robert Hägg was Excellent Playing on His Offhand Side
I mentioned that all the lines and D pairs were shuffled by Vigneault just before the opener, and Hägg was forced to switch to the right side where he played with Shayne Gostisbehere on what was the Flyers’ third pairing.
While their advanced stats may be a little light as far as Corsi is concerned (they were a dead-even 50 percent Corsi For), both played well. On several occasions Ghost used his speed to step in front of attempted long stretch passes by the Blackhawks, while Hägg did a nice job winning puck battles along the wall and make a good first pass to start breakouts.
Hägg might not be saddled with an onerous contract like Andrew MacDonald was for so many years, but the fan belief in town seems to be that he is the guy playing in place of prospects like Phil Myers or Sam Morin.
As such, he’s going to be criticized probably a little more relentlessly than most defensemen by the fans.
But, there’s nothing to criticize here. Hägg had a solid game and he and Ghost were arguably the best pair in this game.
That said, I don’t know how long these pairs will last. Ivan Provorov didn’t have a good game at all, turning the puck over several times, and he played with Braun. Travis Sanheim was fine as was Niskanen, but me thinks there will be a juggle here and sooner rather than later.
5. OK. Here’s TK.
Travis Konecny was the star of the game. Hands down. It’s easy to say that about the guy who scores two goals, but he was simply excellent. Actually, that newly-made second line with him, Sean Couturier and Lindblom was superb.
Couturier and Lindblom are so defensively responsible that it allows TK to be a little more of a gambler with his pressure, and because he is so quick, he can make things happen.
And he did.
Eat up, bud!!!
Travis "future 30 goal scorer" Konecny gets the first Flyers goal of the season pic.twitter.com/9arZR0bvNt
— Jordie 🔵 (@BarstoolJordie) October 4, 2019
Oh my god Travis Konecny is so fucking awesome.
Hope you enjoyed that walk, Duncan. pic.twitter.com/atVnVsjzrN
— Jordie 🔵 (@BarstoolJordie) October 4, 2019
Yeah. He’s good. He broke out two seasons ago playing with Couturier and Giroux. While Lindblom is no Giroux, his style of play actually allows Konecny to freewheel a little bit more.
This is a nice line combo. I’d expect to see this one for a little bit.
6. Michael Raffl, Under-appreciated
Fourth line wingers are often just considered a dime a dozen. Especially in a salary cap world – you look for cheap players who can play 10 minutes of ice time per game for you and do little things well and occasionally chip in some offense but there are low expectations.
I look at fourth line guys like backup quarterbacks. You don’t know how important they are until you need them. Then, the better ones show their value while the less than stellar ones fall on their faces.
Michael Raffl is arguably the Nick Foles equivalent of fourth liners.
OK, maybe that’s going too far. Raffl isn’t going to lead the Flyers to a Stanley Cup by filling in for Giroux on the top line, but, he can play on the top line for a dozen games if you need him too. He play on either wing or center. He can play PP. He can kill penalties. He’s a Swiss Army knife, and one of the better ones out there.
And he can do this too:
Raffl has been going for the wraparound all day (night?), and it finally goes for him.
Nothing more arousing than some 4th line tucks. pic.twitter.com/NiREgLOHfF
— Jordie 🔵 (@BarstoolJordie) October 4, 2019
Jordie is right, Raffl tried wrap-around attempts at least twice prior to this one. However, this one caught Chicago goalie Corey Crawford by surprise because it was a backhander.
But the play of taking away the puck on the far wall, kicking it to himself, shielding the puck from a defender as he skated behind the net, and then sneaking a shot past Crawford were all savvy, veteran, often under-appreciated plays.
It gets highlighted here because it amounted to the game-winning goal, but he does these things game-in and game-out.
Which is why GM Chuck Fletcher was wise to sign him to a new contract in the offseason.
The Flyers don’t play again until Wednesday in the Wells Fargo Center Opener (this was technically a home game in Prague for the Flyers) when they welcome the new-look and much-improved New Jersey Devils, which will also be a homecoming game for Wayne Simmonds.
This will be a much greater challenge than Chicago, who frankly, looks old. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook can’t skate like they once did, and their younger defensemen made some stupid turnovers.
But New Jersey should be a whole different animal. It’ll be interesting to see if the Flyers can make this style of play translate against them next week.
There were still too many giveaways (the Flyers had 17), and Carter Hart was O.K. in his first start (probably should have had the first goal), but needs to be better.
There’s no reason to focus on these negatives though because, hey, this was a good start. Let’s appreciate that for once with this team.
For more Flyers coverage, check out Snow The Goalie: A Flyers Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, GooglePlay, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and wherever else you get your podcasts. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony and Russ live stream during pregame and the first and second intermission breaks of every Flyers home game live from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page and Twitter.