By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
In the blink of an eye, three goals in the first period of Wednesday’s game between the Flyers and Edmonton Oilers turned to five. A sixth was scored in the first minute of the second period. But the game was ultimately won in a competitive and entertaining third period.
For the third straight game, the Flyers faced the “win a period, win a game” scenario, once again going up against some stiff competition to start the season. After falling short last Saturday against the still-undefeated Florida Panthers, the Flyers passed the test this time.
Led by newcomer Cam Atkinson, the Flyers got the only goal needed to break the tie in the third, helping them take down one of the NHL’s hottest teams to start the season.
Here are five takeaways from Wednesday’s win in Edmonton.
1. Lights, Cam, Atkinson
It’s starting to become clearer who the Flyers best player has been to start the season. Through five games, all newcomer Cam Atkinson has done is score six times and put up seven points.
His two goals in this game were especially timely. The first was a buzzer-beater to end the first period. Just 17 seconds earlier, Connor McDavid scored on the power play to tie the game at two. Travis Sanheim flips the puck out of the defensive zone, a routine play with under five seconds to go in a period. Atkinson charges up ice and puts some pressure on Darnell Nurse, who struggles with the bouncing puck and bats it into Atkinson’s skate. All in one motion, Atkinson kicks the puck through his legs and to his stick, getting off a shot in a split-second to beat Mikko Koskinen with 0.6 seconds left in the period.
Atkinson was at it again in the third. This time off a rush, Atkinson just winds up and shoots after a give-and-go with Derick Brassard. The shot looks more like a play for a rebound by design, but when you have the shooting mentality that Atkinson has, sometimes these shots just happen to find the net too. This one goes right through the legs of Koskinen for his sixth goal this season.
Obviously, Atkinson’s overall energy was already going to endear him to Philadelphia fans. But this kind of production pours kerosene right over the fire.
How good is his start? For one, it’s the best scoring start of his career through five games. It’s also the most goals scored by a Flyers player in his first five games with the franchise, topping Todd Bergen’s five goals in 1984-85. Atkinson can also tie a franchise record for longest points streak to begin a season on Thursday. Peter Forsberg (2005-06) and Greg Hawgood (1992-93) both had six-game streaks.
2. Hometown Hart Gets the Win
If Atkinson’s goal in the final second of the first and his eventual game-winner in the third are the offensive difference-makers, Carter Hart was the difference in the second period.
Yes, Edmonton came out and immediately scored just 54 seconds into the period. But the Oilers out-shot the Flyers, 12-6, in the middle period, getting multiple odd-man rushes and high-danger scoring chances. Hart stood tall in that period, allowing the Flyers to be one goal away from the right side of the result in the third.
While certainly another game with three goals against won’t help Hart’s numbers, his save percentage will certainly be boosted by the 34-save performance.
Hart also didn’t allow any really egregious goals among the three. While he certainly shoulders some of the blame on the first goal by Tyson Barrie for how early he drops, the entire defensive coverage was out of sorts in a prolonged shift. Hart was beaten with friendly fire on McDavid’s goal off the skate of Justin Braun. Even Zach Hyman’s tying goal early in the second results from a broken play and quick one-timer from the slot. Hart gets a piece, but not enough to keep it out of the net.
The rest of the game, he was especially solid. And just consider, against the top two point producers in the NHL, Hart faced a combined 11 shots from McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and only allowed the power-play goal to McDavid. When the game could have gotten out of hand, Hart shut things down and was solid.
3. Fast Start
The Flyers got two goals in the first period to take a 2-0 lead shortly after the halfway point of the period. It was a mainly even first period, but again, the Flyers appeared to be the more opportunistic team.
Claude Giroux opened the scoring with a wraparound goal that came off a shot wide of the net by Travis Konecny. That was after Konecny got a pass to Sean Couturier that was received skillfully and Couturier cut around a defender before returning the puck to Konecny.
The Flyers also got a gift on a miscue from Koskinen. Out behind the net, Koskinen played the puck right to Nicolas Aube-Kubel. His stuff attempt got into the crease and Nate Thompson was able to poke it home.
Getting off to a fast start was certainly crucial to playing in front for most of the period. It was also that type of forechecking and relentless pursuit of the puck that made the Flyers such a tough team to beat two seasons ago.
In addition to the two goals in the first and Atkinson’s pair, Couturier’s empty-net goal to seal the 5-3 result marked the 23rd goal of the season for the Flyers as a team in five games. It’s the eighth time the Flyers have scored 23 goals in the first five games of the season and first time since 1986-87.
4. 3rd-Period PK
The Flyers did surrender a power-play goal to McDavid in the first, but after that stayed out of the penalty box until a critical point with 6:12 to play in the third. Travis Konecny was sent to the box for interference on McDavid, allowing Edmonton the chance to tie the game.
For a penalty kill that had its struggles in the preseason and opened the season with a 2-for-4 night against the Canucks, the Flyers have put together four straight games with positive results in this area. In the last four games, they are 14-for-16 on the penalty kill.
Certainly there was none bigger than this one, protecting the one-goal lead against such a powerful unit that can move the puck at will.
5. Block Party
Another big part of the Flyers win was the willingness of many players to step in front of shots from the Oilers. In total, the Flyers finished the game with 26 blocked shots.
Leading the way was Rasmus Ristolainen with four, and that doesn’t include a pass that caught him in the face and resulted in the defenseman leaving the ice bloody late in the second period. Braun, Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim each had three blocked shots. Oskar Lindblom was stung by a point shot late in the second as well.
That dedication to getting in the line of fire, especially against a team that can really fire it, goes a long way.