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Matt Niskanen stood in front of his locker, blood caked on his lips and goatee, his nose about three times the size as normal, with 15 fresh stitches and a pair of cotton spindles up his nostrils to prevent further bleeding.
He told the gathered media “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
We’ll get into his contributions to the Flyers’ 6-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings in a bit, but I told you that story to tell you this one:
Flyers coach Alain Vigneault used Niskanen’s take on his injury as a way to talk about the Flyers’ seemingly easy victory.
“Nisky said it looks worse than it is,” Vigneault said. “Well, we didn’t look real good at the beginning, but we found a way to get it going. That probably summarizes a bit of our game.”
In other words, the final score is not as good as it looks.
Hey, it was a game all about appearances for the Flyers (14-7-5, 33 points) who leapfrogged both Pittsburgh and Carolina into third place in the Metropolitan Division, a far cry from where they were exactly one calendar year prior when general manager Ron Hextall was about to be fired.
The Flyers didn’t look good for 40 minutes, and still had a lead. Two defensemen took pucks to the face. And that collection of veterans who have appeared to be struggling – well, they’re all scoring now.
Shayne Gostisbehere, back in the lineup for the first time after being benched for three games, scored a goal. Kevin Hayes, who has only been able to score in the past dozen games when there’s no goalie in front of the net, scored. Jake Voracek had a three assist game. Heck, even James van Riemsdyk got a goal in garbage time.
And yet, despite a five-goal victory, the Flyers were badly outplayed in the first period (which they ended up leading 2-1 heading into intermission) and for much of the second period (the Flyers lead actually grew to 3-1).
“To be honest, I think they were the better team for two periods,” Voracek said. “It’s always, I wouldn’t say hard to play against those teams but obviously they got nothing to lose, you know, in the standings. It’s really sometimes you don’t expect something happening on the ice, what they do, when they swing away and they kind of move around with all five guys in the zone. Sometimes you have a little trouble with that, but we got to move and stay patient. We got to find a way to win the game. Kudos to us. Kudos to us for doing that and sticking with it until the third period.”
Jake called it a “mindset,” that the Flyers are playing with right now. He said it’s something this team hasn’t had for a long time.
“AV holds guys accountable, you know what I mean,” Voracek told me when I asked him to elaborate on it further. “If you don’t have that ‘mindset’ then you aren’t going to play. It’s easy. You have to have that mindset to play the right way and to be successful. Tonight wasn’t pretty but I’ll take playing not pretty and winning over putting up 55 shots and coming up short.”
Positive things are happening for the Flyers in an unexpected fashion, but one in which we all should recognize are ways that things happen to good teams sometimes. When you play consistently, and with accountability, you can have games like this against a last place team like the Red Wings.
This wouldn’t have been the norm 12 months ago.
“You have to be able to evaluate your game individually and you have to be able to evaluate your game as a team,” Vigneault said. “We know that Carter [Hart] kept us in this game early – and goalies have to do that sometimes – and then we got going.”
It started with Hart. It ended with JVR. Up next is a team that has been absolutely pathetic at home of late. Let’s cycle through this rapid fire.
Carter Hart was the difference maker in a 6-1 win
Yeah, that’s kind of a weird thing to say. Usually, when you blow a team out by that kind of score, the goalie is an afterthought.
But, as Voracek said, the Red Wings were the better team for 40 minutes. There’s no doubt about that. And were it not for the play of Hart in goal over those first 40 minutes, the Flyers could have been in a bit of trouble.
Carter Hart with a big save just moments before. pic.twitter.com/5MAplXp760
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) November 29, 2019
So those two tweets show the outcome of what happens when a goalie saves your bacon. The game was scoreless when Hart makes the big pad stop on Brendan Perlini. The play goes the other way quickly and Scott Laughton scores on a breakaway to make it 1-0 Flyers.
That’s truly a two-goal swing, created primarily by a big save from the goalie.
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) November 29, 2019
Yeah, that was a huge one in the first period that kept the score tied when Detroit was absolutely throttling the Flyers with possession and scoring chances out the wazoo.
“I knew off the hop that it was going to be hard,” Vigneault said. “We’re (in the middle of playing) 4-in-6… So, I figured we need saves early, which we did and we got. We got some big saves which I thought enabled us to find our legs, a little bit better execution in the second period. And there’s no doubt that goal that [Sean Couturier scored] at the second period, sort of took their will away. We score there and we score twice real early in the third. Very rarely do you in a 6-1 game get your goaltender to be one of the stars, but that’s how good Carter was at the beginning. He gave us a chance to find our way in this game and get two important points.”
Hart finished with 32 saves, but 26 of them were in the first two periods. He was a difference maker.
Gostisbehere was named the first star of the game. I would not have gone that far. Yeah, he scored a goal, but…
— Hockey Daily 365 (@HockeyDaily365) November 29, 2019
It was flukey. It was fortunate because of the bounce. It was a great play by Voracek to find him open on the goal line, and credit to Gostisbehere for putting the puck back into a dangerous area, but this wasn’t vintage Ghost. This wasn’t a blast from the point, or a nifty head fake, step-around move to create more space.
It was something he needed though.
Ghost did seem to have a few shifts where he had some of that old puck-moving chutzpa. He zigged, the Detroit forwards zagged, and you could see flickers of what made him such a special player in the past.
But, there were still a few classic Ghost gaffes with the puck. Turnovers or poor decisions with the puck.
You can take a few of those if he’s scoring – so in this game, it’s a passing grade for Ghost – but the Flyers are going to need this to be more consistent, and not just a one-off from Gostisbehere.
He once again talked about being a bad teammate though. I think this was something that really was put into his head by coaches while he sat.
This is what he said during a first intermission interview with NBC Sports Philly’s Taryn Hatcher:
Shayne Gostisbehere at first intermission:
"Just go out there and be the player that I know I can be and have fun again. I was putting a little too much pressure on myself and maybe not being the best teammate."
— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) November 29, 2019
I submit that an attitude adjustment is more important than the play on the ice. When you have the right attitude, you hold yourself accountable to your teammates and coaches and it tends to fix the mistakes. If you have a bad attitude, the same mistakes tend to fester.
After the game, every Gostisbehere quote was short and team-first oriented.
If the message gets through, and Ghost just plays hockey and stops worrying about everything else, he’ll be a huge boost for the Flyers, even if there are still some mistakes being made on the ice.
He wasn’t the only guy breaking out of the doldrums:
Kevin Hayes just took everyone to dangle city pic.twitter.com/d1qaWAAHOu
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) November 29, 2019
- Barstool guys – that is NOT a dangle.
- Even though it was a broken play, credit Hayes for doing the right thing and continuing to drift toward a position where he would have a chance to score.
- Also, Hayes told me afterward he saw the play the whole time and knew Laughton was passing him the puck. As such, deft skate-to-puck skills by Hayes.
- Although this was technically Hayes’ third goal in the last five games, it was his first in more than a month (17 games) with a goalie actually standing in front of the net trying to make a save.
And then there’s JVR:
— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) November 29, 2019
It was a garbage-time goal, but it was just his second goal in the last 17 games. He had a couple of othr opportunities earlier in the game, one that would have been absolutely gorgeous on a tic-tac-toe pass from Morgan Frost and Claude Giroux, but JVR whiffed on the shot coming across the slot.
Still, the fourth line played really well in this game throughout. I’ve been especially impressed with the play of Tyler Pitlick of late. He creates this goal and has had a series of good games. Keep an eye on him today in Montreal. He’s the kind of player that can take advantage of a team with depth issues from the fourth line.
That’s the nickname that the veterans on the Flyers have given to Niskanen. One could certainly argue that through the first 26 games of this season, Niskanen could be the Flyers most valuable player.
He has been rock steady on the blue line. Playing with Ivan Provorov he has been a calming enough influence to let Provorov revert back to being a burgeoning star on the blue line rather than be a 22-year-old kid who is trying to do too much.
And, Niskanen is incredibly reliable. His game is as about as sound as it gets. He’s well-respected and is a leader without a letter on this team. No knock on Hayes, who is also very well-liked and respected in that locker room, but Niskanen should have an “A” on his sweater.
He took this shot to his nose in the first period:
— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) November 29, 2019
Blood dripped on the ice for a good 20 seconds afterwards, but he stayed out there and finished his shift. He later came back wearing a full cage and added a second assist for the game on a the back-breaking goal by Sean Couturier with 12 seconds to play in the second period.
Then, he gave this interview, which immediately endeared him to the Flyers faithful forever:
A ton of Flyers fans are running out to get Niskanen jerseys after this interview. pic.twitter.com/vJDmjPTvuL
— Flyers Puck (@FlyersPucck) November 29, 2019
But starting pitchers can’t throw more than 100 pitches, or relievers can’t pitch more than an inning or two in two days, or basketball players need entire games off for load management. GTFO.
The Flyers have a quick turnaround and play Saturday at 3pm in Montreal. That’s especially tough sledding after playing Friday and having to travel, but it’s also the fourth game since Tuesday night, so the Flyers could be at the end of the gas tank.
Making matters worse is the fact that the Canadiens are wrapping up a five-game home stand in this one, and are 0-3-1 so far. They’ve actually lost six straight overall (0-4-2) and with the exception of a loss to Boston, the other five have been against sub-.500 teams.
Making matters worse, in the six games, the Habs have been outscored 31-16. That’s not a mistake. They’ve allowed 31 goals in their last six games, or 5.17 per game.
The Flyers beat them in Philly earlier this month on an overtime goal by Couturier, but both teams are in vastly different places than they were four weeks ago.
The Flyers have the most points (22) in the NHL in November and a win against Montreal will tie the franchise record set in 1990 for most points in November.
Granted, there have been an inordinate number of games this month (16) and the Flyers have netted four “loser points” which didn’t exist in 1990, but, it’s still a milestone worth noting for a team that is really starting to figure it out two months into the season.