With the start of playoff hockey comes a lot of things. More intensity. More scrutiny. More magnification. More excitement. More concern. More unhinged emotion. More of a mental challenge. More discussion. More analysis – both good and bad. More rumor. More speculation. More…. a lot.
The team that is best prepared to handle the “more” is most often the team that is left hoisting Lord Stanley’s silver chalice over head when all is said and done.
But there is admittedly more noise out there too. Some of it is overreaction. Some of it is borne from unbridled optimism, some from inherent pessimism.
What we plan to do here in this space after each game is cut through that din and tell you what we learned using a combination of insight, analysis, and information being passed on to us from well-placed sources in the Flyers organization to give you basically a no-bullshit breakdown of what you watched as the Flyers pursue their first Cup in 45 years.
So, without further ado, welcome to “What we learned” –
1. Carter Hart is everything Flyers fans want him to be
It’s really the most rare of combinations. Fans setting wildly high expectations and the athlete living up to them. And yet, that’s what we’re experiencing with Carter Hart.
By the time you’re reading this, Hart is celebrating his 22nd birthday. Many athletes that age are usually not the most important player for a team with championship aspirations, but Hart is not most athletes.
Nope, like Molly Brown, he’s unsinkable. (Google that one, if you’ve never heard it before).
Looking at the game, you’ll see why. I re-watched portions of it just to focus on Hart and I found that despite only facing 28 shots, which in today’s game, is about average, Hart was under a lot of pressure. Even when the Canadiens weren’t getting official shots on goal, they were trying to create chaos in front of Hart, and yet, he almost had the answer for every one of their strategic measures.
Whether they were throwing multiple bodies at the net, or trying to get Hart moving from side to side, or simply distracting him in any way they could, Montreal gave a hell of an effort – and Hart was still up to the task.
This doesn’t mean that I expect Hart to maintain his 1.00 playoff goals against average – because a team is going to solve him in a game here and there, but the big question is, can a team solve him four times before he stops them cold four times?
The odds of that are growing increasingly longer.
Look, Hart isn’t perfect. He’s still got a lot to learn in the sport. He’s also a product of the system being played in front of him, which is helpful. And even though he’s not yet at a goaltending pinnacle, there’s no doubt he’s at a high enough level to get the Flyers to where they want to be. He’s 1/16th of the way there right now.
2. Young Beezer impressing
When the Flyers arrived in Toronto, there was a good chance that Joel Farabee was going to be the 13th forward.
While some were perplexed by that, it should be noted that playoffs are not a time for development. Playoffs are a time to win, and win at all costs – even if that means keeping a heralded rookie out of the lineup.
Farabee’s day was sure to come for the Flyers, the organization just wasn’t so sure it would be this soon.
With Michael Raffl suffering a lower-body injury that has him on the shelf temporarily, the Flyers needed to get another forward into the lineup. The got a look at both Farabee and Conner Bunnaman against Tampa, but there was no doubt Farabee was the first choice. In fact, they inserted him on the top line for the Tampa game, replacing Jake Voracek who was “unfit to play” (more on that in a minute).
Coach Alain Vigneault wanted to see Farabee with veterans Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux to see how he played with them, but also to protect the young player, having him on the ice with the most responsible linemates possible.
It couldn’t have gone better through two games.
Farabee scored a nice one-timer against Tampa, but that was a round robin game. His goal against Montreal will go down in Flyers lore as it was a game-winner in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Not to mention, he did all the work. His effort to force the bad clear by Montreal defenseman Ben Chiarot is ultimately what makes the play happen. Yes, he redirects Travis Sanheim’s shot and then follows up his own rebound to score the goal – all big parts of the play. But, the play never happens without Farabee’s tenacity on the forecheck. It’s that commitment to the style Vigneault wants him to play that’s going to likely keep him in the lineup, even when Raffl is ready to return sometime next week.
3. Jake Voracek’s rough start in Toronto
With Farabee on the top line, Voracek suddenly found himself in a third line role that really doesn’t suit him. Playing with Derek Grant and Nick Aube-Kubel, that trio looked stuck in neutral at times, their first time playing together.
However, this is part of Vigneaut’s message-sending, and although Voracek scored the first Flyers goal (more on that in a minute too) he’s not exactly had a good start to his time in the bubble.
I’ve heard a variety of wild rumors coming out of the bubble, most of them are of the QAnon variety – completely unsubstantiated and baseless, intended to make the player and/or his team look bad.
But, what I can tell you is, there is a protocol that needs to be strictly adhered to in the bubble. It seems Voracek may have violated that protocol, and even though it sounds like whatever the violation was, that it was minor, it didn’t sit well with the coach.
I’m told Voracek didn’t play against Tampa because of a coach’s decision, not because he was sick or injured. And even though he was back for Game 1, it wasn’t in his traditional spot in the lineup.
If the Flyers are going to win anything, they’re going to need Voracek at some point. Getting off to a slow start is survivable, but a focused Jake – a pissed off Jake; a Jake who doesn’t care what anyone thinks and just goes out an shows why he’s such a skilled talent will benefit the Flyers in the long run. Hopefully this is all just a blip on the radar.
4. Power Play Tweaks
Voracek did respond to the the team’s needs in a positive way on the power play. He was credited with a power play goal when an Ivan Provorov shot apparently brushed against his sweater, or pants, or somewhere on his person on its way into the net. That’s great. But it was more about the setup than anything else.
The Flyers flip-flopped Voracek with Travis Konecny on the top unit, putting Konencny on the right side half wall and making Voracek the rover who shifts between playing below the goal line and being part of a double screen in front of the goalie.
It was during the latter portion that Voracek scored the goal. He was more pronounced as a net-front presence in a later power play chance that didn’t go as well, but it was definitely a new look, one that resulted in a goal and one the Flyers hope will jump start a unit that has been otherwise moribund.
5. Unfair criticism
We spent a good portion of the Press Row Show during and after the game talking about a lack of production so far in the bubble from the team’s best players.
This of course comes after Giroux assists Voracek on a power play goal and the game in Tampa where Sean Couturier had two assists.
But fans see what they want to see and right now the leading goal scorers for the Flyers in the postseason are Farabee, Aube-Kubel and Scott Laughton.
The players making the most money on the team have not been lighting up the score sheet.
This is not a bad thing. If anything, it’s an indicator about just how deep this Flyers roster is. They have gotten very little in the counting stats department from their most expensive players and they are still 4-0 in the playoffs. How can you find anything to complain about there?
My knuckle-headed partner on that show insists that you can’t win without your best players scoring more regularly. I say hogwash. The Pittsburgh Penguins won a Cup a few years back and their leading goal scorer wasn’t Sidney Crosby, nor Evgeni Malkin, nor Phil Kessel, all of whom were being paid the big bucks.
Instead, it was youngster Jake Guentzel.
Giroux and Couturier have been very solid thus far. Kevin Hayes had a three-assist game in the round robin, but has otherwise not made much of an impression on the score sheet. We already talked about Voracek and James van Riemsdyk has been relegated to fourth line duty – where he’s actually a good fit as he has played very well with Tyler Pitlick all season. These guys are doing their job. The team is winning. There’s no need for criticism here.
6. Fair criticism
The Flyers defensemen have seen better days.
I’m not talking Provorov. He was great, as usual, but everyone else had a mediocre at best, subpar at worst outing against Montreal.
Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim really don’t deserve much at all. Their second period wasn’t great, but find me a Flyer not named Hart or Farabee who played well in that period. Otherwise they were OK. They didn’t stand out as great, or terrible. They were just OK. That’s fine.
But the other three guys had a very difficult night.
Matt Niskanen has not looked like the same player since the restart. There was nary a complaint about him prior to the pause as he was such a calming influence on the top pairing with Provorov. But, since hockey resumed, he seems a little off. Whether he doesn’t have his legs yet or he’s just going through a rough patch of games, the Flyers are going to need a better effort from him going forward as he logs so much ice time.
However the third pairing of Justin Braun and Shayne Gostisbehere just don’t mesh well together. Braun should never be as noticeable as he was in Game 1. Yet, he was turning pucks over, losing board battles and otherwise looked like a player the Canadiens were targeting whenever he was on the ice to pressure into a mistake.
Meanwhile Gostisbehere, who earned his way back into the lineup with a good exhibition game against Pittsburgh and an even better round robin game against Tampa, was back to being the inconsistent Shayne we saw through much of the season.
He had some good moments, especially in the offensive end, with getting shots to the net, but in his own end, his decision-making left a lot to be desired.
It’ll be interesting to see if Vigneault gives this pair another chance, considering it was just one game and one the Flyers won, or is the leash so short that Robert Hagg finds his way back into the lineup for Game 2.
7. Habs in awe
The Flyers are in the Canadiens’ heads a little bit already – and not just because Derek Grant plowed into goalie Carey Price (OK, he was pushed in, but still – it unnerved Price).
No, the Flyers drew high praise from the Canadiens coach Claude Julien and his players for the way they play.
Not only that, the Canadiens seemed happy with their play, despite the losing result. They were saying things like, “I thought we did well… we built some confidence in knowing that we can play with these guys.” (Julien)
“We generated a ton. We’ve shown that we can play against the top teams in the league, and this team is definitely one of them.” (Nick Suzuki)
“We showed that we can play with them. We believe that we can play with them.” (captain Shea Weber)
“They’re an extremely good team. I’d like to think that our team is a good enough team to play with these guys.” (Julien, again)
To me, this sounds like a team that’s just happy to be here and be competitive. You want to show you belong, you shouldn’t be in such a conciliatory mood after the game. Screw the other team being good. We should have won the game. We’re not happy we didn’t, and we’re going to go out and get the next one.
Instead we got plaudits.
That means Montreal recognizes it threw some good punches at the Flyers in Game 1 and didn’t faze them. They can only hope to keep doing the same and get a different result. That’s unlikely to happen as long as the Flyers stay true to their approach.
For more Flyers coverage, check out Snow The Goalie. Follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook and Twitter. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy preview every Flyers home game pregame and recap the first and second period action during intermission breaks from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts (@AntSanPhilly @JoyOnBroad).