The Flyers had to play three games upon their return from a COVID outbreak without half of their forward group. They managed to get the first to overtime before losing in a shootout. They were dismantled by the team at the top of the division in an outdoor game last Sunday. They got their captain back earlier in the week and pulled off a victory.
Finally, the Flyers are at a spot where there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Four more players returned to the lineup on Saturday afternoon and with those players back, plus another excellent goaltending performance, the nearly full-strength Flyers showed what may have been missing from their recent games.
A 3-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres kicked off a back-to-back weekend series that also started five straight games on the road, and the Flyers made sure it started on a good note.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s win in Buffalo.
1. Another Shutout
There might just be something about the Buffalo Sabres, but Brian Elliott continued career dominance against this team. He recorded a shutout back on Jan. 19 in a 3-0 win and repeated the feat on Saturday, albeit with fewer shots faced this time around.
Elliott was especially sharp from the beginning, but he was really good down the stretch. As much as the Flyers delivered a strong defensive showing and closed things at the end, the Sabres also got more quality looks from the final minute of the second period and throughout the third. Elliott was up to all of them.
There’s no reason to think about a goalie controversy. The Flyers believe in Carter Hart and will continue to trust in him, especially in a situation where you are playing so frequently. That said, having Elliott on his game is an especially big luxury. Elliott is now 5-1-0 on the season, and his only loss came to Boston, where he allowed the fewest goals against the team has allowed in all five games against Boston, just two.
Elliott won’t be in goal on Sunday, as was the plan all along, but don’t be surprised if you see him at least once, maybe twice, in the coming games in Pittsburgh. He’s helped carry this team through games this season with his solid play.
2. Return of the Reinforcements
In addition to getting Justin Braun back, which wasn’t a surprise after he came off the COVID list on Wednesday, the Flyers had a ton of reinforcements back on the ice for practice on Friday. Jake Voracek got to skate on Thursday as well, so it was hardly a question whether he was going to play in this game, but Scott Laughton and Oskar Lindblom had one morning to skate before making the trip to Buffalo.
Collectively, the three were put on the same line, keeping the top two lines and the previous third line, moved back to the fourth line, intact. Interestingly enough, all four players factored into the Flyers third and final goal of the afternoon.
The play started behind the Flyers net as Braun took a hit to make a play. Voracek got control in the Flyers zone and led it up ice to Lindblom. Lindblom quickly turned and led Laughton with a pass that put him behind the defense. Laughton took care of the rest with the beautiful finish on the backhand with 1:06 remaining in the second period.
So much for the rust factor.
In Saturday’s game and continuing Sunday, Travis Konecny will remain the only player on the NHL’s COVID list for the Flyers. There’s a good chance he’ll come off on Sunday or Monday, as Sunday marks two weeks since he entered the NHL’s protocol. He could very well be back in the lineup on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh if that’s the case, but even if he’s not, the Flyers finally had as close to a full roster as they have all season.
Buffalo was playing shorthanded – no Jack Eichel, no Linus Ullmark in goal, several other players either out or just making their return to the lineup – and yet, the Flyers could similar say the same thing. This was the first game back for four players, and they appeared to not miss a beat. That bodes well as these players get more time under their belts and get back into a rhythm.
3. Ghost Hunter
For the second straight game, Shayne Gostisbehere scored a goal, but that’s really only half the story with his game.
Gostisbehere had arguably his best game of the season on Wednesday, doing all of the things you like to see. He was serviceable without the puck, he was delivering with the puck, getting on the board. The same could be said for Saturday, where he took it a step forward.
Gostisbehere is ultimately at his best and usually judged when he’s producing on the scoresheet. That’s been his bread and butter his entire career and you can take the bad that can come in the defensive zone at times if you are getting the production to go with it. In this game, there wasn’t much bad to speak of.
The most noticeable thing about Gostisbehere in these last two games in particular is his mobility. He is flying out there, making things happen with his speed, making breakouts easier. He looks healthy. He looks strong. He looks like the player he was three seasons ago again. And it’s not always translating to the scoresheet, and that’s the best part.
Gostisbehere doesn’t need to be judged by how much he’s producing offensively. It’s just always been the case because the overall metrics were never top of the charts for him. He wasn’t going to be a defensive defenseman and that was fine if he was putting up points. This season, he has four points in 11 games, but has a plus-5 rating. Three of those four points have come in the last two games, so after being very quiet offensively, he’s been getting rewarded for his strong play in that area now.
The Flyers have a strong top-four defensively when they are able to get this out of Gostisbehere. This is when he works with Ivan Provorov at the top, when he can compliment him well and give the Flyers the play needed to protect the zone and deliver offensively. It needs to be consistent, but the Flyers have started to get the play from Ghost that demands much more attention.
4. Shots Fired
In 15 games prior to this week, the Flyers had topped the 30-shot mark twice in a game – 30 in their 3-0 win against Buffalo on Jan. 19 and 31 in their 5-3 win over the Devils on Jan. 26. The latter was also the first game of the season where the Flyers had out-shot their opponent. They did that only one more time in the first 15 games, outshooting Boston, 24-23, in a 2-1 loss on Feb. 5. Other than that, they have consistently been out-shot in every game and struggled to generate.
These last two games, not only has the approach changed, but the results have changed. Coming into the week, the Flyers had failed to top 20 shots in a game four times and surpassed 30 just once. In the last two games, they have produced the same shot total: 39.
The Flyers threw a lot of rubber at Carter Hutton in this game – 11 shots in the first, 15 in the second, and 13 in the third, never letting up when it came to putting pucks on net.
It may not have resulted in a lot of goals, and Hutton played his part in that, but the Flyers were finally showing signs of the team that generated so well a season ago. This was the team that not only finished games with a high shot total, but cycled you to death and dominated the possession metrics.
This was the Flyers team that had the attention of the entire league last March and entering the playoff bubble. It’s about the same time of year when the Flyers did that before the pause. There is no pause coming this time. Could this be a sign that things are turning in their favor moving forward?
5. Finishing Strong
In the same vein as the shot total for the Flyers, the shot total against was another strong area in this game.
The Flyers got out to the first-period lead in this game and finished the period with an 11-6 lead in shots. They nearly doubled up the Sabres in the second with a 15-8 shot advantage. Even in the third, as the Sabres got more quality chances, the Flyers still had the 13-9 lead in shots.
This is the type of performance that the Flyers displayed last season. They would supply timely offense and keep the foot on the gas while suppressing the opposition. It worked wonders in this game, as the Sabres are fragile right now without a lot of key components and struggling to produce.
The third period was especially strong. While the Flyers allowed a few too many quality chances, they also put the finishing touches on a game that they essentially controlled the entire way. After getting three of four points in two games against the Rangers without their full lineup, they have a chance to take a possible four points in a weekend back-to-back in Buffalo. That would certainly take the sting out of last Sunday’s performance and keep them right near the top of the East Division standings.