It’s like some sort of magic trick. The Flyers had just come off a 1-4-1 road trip that put them right on the borderline of the playoff picture. A return home, where they entered Wednesday with a 13-2-4 record, was going to be welcome news.
But this return home was going to be no picnic. The first three games on the Flyers schedule in their return home were coming against the NHL’s top team, a team on an eight-game winning streak and the defending Eastern Conference champions. The flaws and errors that were apparent on the road trip could easily change the narrative on home ice.
Against the Washington Capitals, the NHL’s top team in the standings, the Flyers looked every bit the part of the contender they were believed to be before the holiday break, securing a 3-2 win to improve to 14-2-4 on home ice and snap a four-game losing streak.
Let’s get to observations from Wednesday’s win.
There were three areas where the Flyers particularly struggled on the road trip. We’ll get to one of those in a few moments, but the leading area that changed the narrative from the dismal trip was the penalty kill.
The Flyers certainly flirted with disaster. The Capitals do not have a top-ranked power play by any stretch, but the names on the top unit are daunting. Over the final two periods, the Flyers were shorthanded five times. They killed off all five penalties, but it was more about how they did than anything else.
The penalty kill lacked structure on the road trip. Puck movement was easy. Lanes were open to make cross-ice passes. Too many Flyers would commit to the same side of the ice and leave a man uncovered. That kind of loose coverage would have been detrimental to the Flyers against the Capitals. Everyone knows what the end-goal is for the Washington power play: get the puck to Alex Ovechkin at the left circle.
Ovechkin had two shots get to Carter Hart while on the power play. The first was not his signature slap shot, as he had to control the pass and only had time to take a wrist shot. The second was the chance the Capitals wanted and Hart swallowed it up.
The Capitals had their chances on the man-advantage, but the Flyers overall structure allowed for more clears and more perimeter play that high-danger chances.
One of the big parts of the penalty kill has been the addition of Kevin Hayes. It’s now half a season into the first year of Hayes’ time under contract with the Flyers and the team’s overall improvement on the penalty kill has been largely due to his presence.
For the second time this season, Hayes scored shorthanded, and it came at a time where it felt like the game could unravel for the Flyers.
When Hayes scored his first shorthanded goal of the season against Columbus on Oct. 26, the Flyers had just rallied to erase a 4-2 deficit and the late power play could have easily given the opposition the advantage again. In addition, the team has to kill the penalty without one of their top defensive forwards, Sean Couturier, who was in the box.
Back to Hayes goal on Wednesday night, and who was in the box? Sean Couturier. The Flyers had played through the entire second period without getting much offensive pressure — they finished the period with just three shots. Locked in a 2-2 game, this felt like the place where Washington was going to strike. Instead, the Flyers grabbed the eventual game-winning goal.
Much like the team’s success, who knows the reason that Carter Hart seems to just perform better at home than on the road. At home, Hart has elite numbers, the type you would see from a Vezina candidate. On the road, it’s a disaster.
It certainly felt like it was going to be a long night for Hart in the first period. After the Flyers grabbed the lead, the Capitals got two quick goals that were both preventable.
The first goal by Nicklas Backstrom is the result of a bad turnover by Travis Sanheim. It allowed Tom Wilson to get to the puck and make a quick centering pass to Backstrom. The shot goes under the arm of Hart and gets through. Hart should make the save there.
The entire sequence that led to the second goal could have been easily prevented if Hart would have controlled Michal Kempny’s shot from the point. It’s a fairly routine shot with no screen and Hart can’t secure it. Evgeny Kuznetsov comes through and picks up the rebound and draws a penalty in the process. A split-second later, he centers to the slot where Jakub Vrana was waiting. Vrana fired off the post and in to give Washington the lead.
From there, Hart was locked in, making several difficult saves in the second and third. At one point, the Capitals were outshooting the Flyers, 9-0, in the second period. The reason the game remained tied was largely due to Hart.
While there may not be an explanation for why Hart looks so good at home and struggles on the road, the return trip home may help to at least give him some confidence back. A win against the NHL’s top team largely orchestrated by timely saves and overall solid defense may be a good place to start.
Each of the Flyers goals was the result of another player making a key play to set them up.
Travis Konecny opened the scoring with a great shot from in close alone on Braden Holtby, but the play along the boards by Couturier to force the turnover and then center was equally impressive.
Robert Hagg’s goal was the result of Michael Raffl making a nice aggressive play going for the wraparound and Tyler Pitlick providing a screen and nearly deflecting the shot.
Hayes’ goal on the shorthanded breakaway was set up by good pressure from Scott Laughton. Laughton is the only player mentioned here among the three goals that didn’t actually get an assist, but his pressure on John Carlson seemed to distract the defenseman the entire way up the ice. When the puck came back to Carlson upon entry into the zone, he quickly put it right on the stick of Hayes and Laughton sealed off Carlson along the boards, allowing Hayes with plenty of time to go in and make a move.
It was noted on the broadcast during the game that in exactly three months, the NHL playoffs will be underway. It was also noted that if the season were to end as Wednesday’s action began, the Flyers would face the Capitals.
It’s still early to think about playoffs and who a team might face in the first round, but the fact that the Flyers are in this discussion and showed that they can hang around and defeat the top team in the NHL is an impressive feat, especially considering the way they had played on the road trip.
For sure there were still a lot of troublesome areas within the game, but the Flyers were able to get the edge, play with the lead and protect it effectively. That could be the first step to turning around the results that weren’t there over the previous six games.