The long-awaited rematch between the Flyers and the New York Islanders, the team that eliminated them from the playoffs over the summer, finally took place on Saturday night. Call it the opponent, call it a message sent from the coaching staff, but the Flyers finally showed glimpses of the team they could be for an entire period.
But the Islanders remained resilient, and in familiar fashion, made the game a close one down to the wire.
The Flyers managed the win in overtime after essentially surviving the final 40 minutes of regulation. It was another example of how they have managed to weather multiple storms over the early part of this shortened season.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s game between the Flyers and Islanders.
1. Strong Start
The real message was sent in the morning. Travis Konecny, who Alain Vigneault called one of the team’s top three forwards, was sitting out as a healthy scratch. That was a powerful statement all on its own. But the message was certainly felt by all of the players, especially the veterans.
Less than four minutes into the game, Jake Voracek and Claude Giroux executed a perfect give-and-go for the opening goal. From that point, their speed was very evident. This team was flying, and it was really the first time all season that they had shown it in this way.
Kevin Hayes scored just under 14 minutes into the first to make it 2-0 on another perfect passing play. James van Riemsdyk drew four Islanders to him as Hayes drove the net, leaving him wide open to receive the pass.
It was as great a start as the Flyers could have hoped for. But we had seen this act before too...
2. Playoff Look-alike
Twice in the seven-game series in the playoffs and once last regular season in November, the Flyers had built up multi-goal leads in the first period on the Islanders. None of them lasted.
So when the Islanders started to push back in the second period, it was only a matter of time before they trimmed into this lead too.
The Islanders were dominant in the final two periods, a story that should feel all too familiar. Everything the Flyers did in the first period was gone. They were not able to generate any sort of rush through the neutral zone. They were not getting sustained offensive zone pressure. Even when they did, they would get a chance or two and then get stuck back on their heels and trapped in their own zone.
It was no surprise that the Islanders found a way to tie up the game, but in the third, the Flyers can once again pat Carter Hart on the back for helping keep them in position to win. After facing just six shots in the opening period, Hart faced 18 in the final 40 minutes. It wasn’t the barrage he had faced in some of the previous games this season, but it was way more than what his teammates were generating themselves.
If the second and third period play looked familiar from the Islanders standpoint, there was another playoff look-alike factor that favored the Flyers. The game reached overtime and in the playoff series, the Flyers won all three games that reached sudden death. That trend also continued.
3. Great Scott
Scott Laughton has scored some pretty big goals recently. When the team returned to play for their first and only exhibition game in Toronto, Laughton scored the game-winner on a breakaway against Pittsburgh. In the playoffs, Laughton deflected a shot by Ivan Provorov to win Game 5 and set up Game 6.
Saturday night marked his first overtime goal in the regular season, but it was his second time beating Semyon Varlamov for a goal in the extra session.
It was a strong play by Laughton, who waited it out and got Noah Dobson out of position and Varlamov down before firing a shot under the right arm of the Islander netminder.
It also happened to be Laughton’s first goal of the season, one of the few forwards left that had not yet this season – only four other forwards who have played this season don’t have goals: Connor Bunnaman, Morgan Frost, Sean Couturier and Sam Morin. When you consider that Bunnaman has only played in five games as an injury replacement, that both Couturier and Frost logged only two games before being injured, and Morin made his season debut in the game, that pretty much makes Laughton the last to break his scoring drought to start the season.
So what a time for your first goal, in overtime of a game that appeared to be slipping away, only for you to completely steal the second point after surviving to claim the first.
4. Morin’s Return
For the first time, we got to see the Sam Morin experience at left wing.
Let’s start with commending Morin for once again reaching this point. He’s been in and out and up and down with so many injuries over his career that this was a big deal for him. He had made it back into an NHL game.
Early in the game, he was pretty solid too. He came out and did what Alain Vigneault seemed to want most: throw his weight around, and he even got a solid shot off that Varlamov had to stop with his shoulder.
But as the game went on, you saw the work in progress that Morin is. He was a minus-1 in the game, getting caught on the ice when Scott Mayfield scored to tie the game. That goal wasn’t the result of anything Morin did in particular, but he certainly looked like he was struggling to find his position at times.
The more telling thing about Morin is that he only played 5:31 of ice time. It’s somewhat understandable that Morin needed to be eased into the game a bit, but as things progressed and the Islanders became the more dominant team, Morin got lost in the shuffle.
Vigneault said that Konecny will return on Sunday. Does that mean Morin’s lineup stay was only for a game or will another message be sent to another player on Sunday?
5. Finding a Way
You hear often enough that good teams find a way to win. Laughton really put it well after the game.
“I think you’ve got to be good to be lucky and lucky to be good, I guess,” Laughton said.
He’s right on all accounts here. The Flyers are certainly showing they are a good team, because any team less than that would have run out of steam playing like this by now. But they are getting incredibly lucky in a lot of ways.
There’s no real good explanation for how the Flyers won that game. They dominated the first period with their energy, effort and pursuit of the puck, then lost all of it and were utterly dominated the other way for two periods. Just getting the game to overtime was an accomplishment.
And yet, here they are, 6-2-1 through nine games in a 56-game season with 13 points in the standings, one of three teams that can say that.
The way this team is playing doesn’t make this kind of luck or success sustainable. Playing the way they did in the first period of this game would change that tune, but they can’t play the way they did for the final 40, or in Thursday’s game in New Jersey, or in the two games in Boston and expect to win night after night. It’s simply not going to work out that way.
What the Flyers are doing is finding a way. It’s certainly safe to say that winning a game in overtime without your top two scoring forwards from a season ago, one out by coach’s decision, qualifies as finding a way.
The Flyers may have a lot to turn around with their play, but posting a 6-2-1 record in the first nine games of the season while still trying to find your top gear and get to a level of play that really can be sustainable and make you a contender could be a lot worse.