The Flyers had lost six games entering Tuesday’s night matchup against the Calgary Flames. The previous five times, they had responded with a win.
An important part of a hockey season is avoiding those downward trends. Sure, there have been moments this season when the Flyers have left a lot to be desired with their play. But they have seemingly always responded to those games with the opposite. It may be a win that comes in satisfying fashion. It may be a victory that is dirty but good, maybe not the best process, but against a team where points are coveted.
Tuesday’s game was the sixth of its kind, a 2-1 overtime win against the Flames that showed the team’s ability to adjust and once again their ability to get the best performance at the most crucial position and use an opportunity to seize the result.
Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s Flyers-Flames game.
1. For Jimmy
In his first game back in the lineup, Kevin Hayes appeared to just be getting his legs back and trying to get back into game shape. In his second game, returning to home ice in Philadelphia, he looked much more like himself.
That’s part of the reason why his first goal of the season was hardly a surprise.
Hayes got the puck from Rasmus Ristolainen after a steal by the defenseman at the Flames blue line. He tried to pass the puck to Joel Farabee twice, the second attempt actually changing direction and bouncing into the net. It was a justified result.
First and foremost, everyone was waiting for that first goal for Hayes upon his return. After everything he had gone through, from the offseason surgery to the re-injury just prior to training camp to his brother’s sudden passing, it had to feel good. It sure looked like it did, as Hayes pointed to the sky, pounded his heart, and celebrated with his teammates.
“He has worked real hard to come back and help his teammates,” Alain Vigneault said. “For him in his second game to be able to score that goal which tied the game was big for us and obviously very nice for him. There is no doubt that it had a big significance for him personally. What him and his family and their close ones have had everyone to go through is obviously challenging. That whole group that whole family has been so positive and hopefully it is the start of many more to come.”
“I think you could see it on my face. I think everything happens for a reason,” Cam Atkinson said. “I was the first guy to hug him. Got the puck for Kev, you know it's a big goal, not only for our team but for Kev and like he said, we’ll all remember this for forever, a long long time. It was special.”
As for Hayes, it was a relief to get the goal so soon in his return. He also has special plans for the puck.
“I’m happy it happened sooner rather than later honestly. It was a big goal, trainers got the puck for me, I’m going to give it to Jimmy’s kid, Jimmy’s son Beau and it’ll be one I remember for forever.”
For sure, this one was for Jimmy, as all of Kevin Hayes’ goals are sure to be in some capacity for the rest of his career. But everyone knew the first one would be extra special. It delivered.
2. Yes We Cam
Back to Atkinson, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime. It was his seventh goal of the season and just so happened to also be the seventh overtime winner of his career too. The goal also snapped an eight-game goalless drought for Atkinson.
The 2-1 result certainly doesn’t put an end to the Flyers scoring woes. They are still very present, now with 15 goals in their last nine games. But the Flyers offense was at its best earlier in the season when Atkinson was in on the scoring. Sometimes all it takes is one to get a player going.
In a game where the Flyers had certainly generated their share of shots, they had spread the wealth pretty evenly. No Flyers player had more than four shots on goal as they collected 43 for the game, whereas Calgary had 34 shots and more than half, 18 to be exact, came from Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm.
Gaudreau was easily the best player on the ice for most of the night, but he made the crucial mistake in overtime of losing possession, allowing the Flyers to escape the defensive zone with a two-on-one. Sean Couturier led the rush and took it himself, firing a shot low and at Jacob Markstrom’s far pad. The rebound shot right out to Atkinson, who knew just what to do with it.
“It definitely wasn’t my prettiest night, but stuck with it,” Atkinson said. “Coots made a good play. I wasn’t sure what he was doing, actually. My face lit up pretty good when it came to me. All I had to do was bury it and huge two points for us.”
3. Changing the Approach
The Flyers previous meeting this season with the Flames was not pretty. Forget the 4-0 result on the scoreboard, the Flyers could only manage four shots on goal for the first 35 minutes of the game.
From the beginning, that wasn’t going to be an issue. The Flyers had 11 in the first period, easily supplying more work for Markstrom this time around. That said, the process in the first period remained flawed and played right into Calgary’s strengths. The Flyers couldn’t penetrate the zone, they allowed Markstrom to serve as a third defenseman by playing the puck, and they once again wasted early power-play chances to put their mark on a game early.
Just when it looked like the Flyers were in for another one of those nights, they flipped the switch in the second. There was a clear adjustment, as the focus became on having better breakouts, making cleaner passes, and playing with more of an aggressive edge to keep up with Calgary’s speed. Suddenly, the Flames were coughing up the puck left and right as a result of the Flyers’ constant pressure.
Once again, it didn’t equate to goals for the Flyers, but that won’t be the case if they continue to play this way. Markstrom’s been one of the best goalies in the NHL to start the season. He was able to keep his team in the game just as the Flyers have leaned on goaltending recently and certainly had to again at times on Tuesday.
The process wasn’t going to magically change with the addition of Hayes or the supposed addition of Ryan Ellis, now out again week-to-week. Those players would help, but the Flyers needed to get back to playing fast and being aggressive at the right times to really make it happen. This was a game where they may have put their best foot forward in the final two periods and overtime.
4. Have a Hart
In many of these breakdowns, Carter Hart has been right at the top. Just because he’s this far down the list doesn’t take away from another outstanding performance in goal.
Hart was certainly tested early and often, notably by Gaudreau. It may sound like a broken record, but it’s really easy to tell when Hart is on. His positioning is on point. His eyes are always following the play. His reactions are crisp. It all leads to positive results in many cases.
This was another, as Hart did his part through the first two periods to survive the push that Calgary brought. He faced 12 shots in the first period, allowing the only goal for Calgary on the night off a point shot by Oliver Kylington that deflected off Sean Couturier and completely changed direction.
At the time of the Calgary goal, it was feeling like a game where Hart might have to be perfect for the Flyers to win. This came pretty close. Hart made another 17 saves in the second period, then was limited to just five saves in the third as the Flyers took control of the play.
Despite that, two of Hart’s five saves in the third were standouts. A point shot by Erik Gudbranson was deflected on the way in, and Hart stuck out the right pad just in time to turn it aside. Then Gaudreau used his speed for an impressive end-to-end rush and attempted the wrap-around, with Hart meeting him at the post with the left pad.
Even in limited action in the final 20 minutes, any goal at that point could be the deciding factor. Hart continues to give the Flyers exactly what they need and then some. This isn’t just goaltending that’s good enough to win games. This is elite level goaltending and it shows in the numbers. Specifically in his last two games, Hart has stopped 72 of 74 shots, a .973 save percentage. It’s brought his season total to a 2.19 GAA and .935 save percentage.
5. Second Pair’s Strong Performance
In the first few games of the season, the Flyers second pairing was very clearly under a microscope. The addition of Rasmus Ristolainen, in need of a change of scenary in hopes that he could reform his career, alongside Travis Sanheim, a player who needed a bounce-back season, was going to be heavily scrutinized for its flaws.
Make no mistake about it, this pairing sure had them in the early going. But in the last few games, you are seeing the potential of what this pairing could be.
It doesn’t come completely clean. This pairing will still have its moments and still give up quality scoring chances with defensive-zone breakdowns, a turnover, or just misplaying a rush in transition, but those instances have certainly been less frequent of late.
Ristolainen especially had a noticeable game on Tuesday. In fact, everything about it seemed to fit his style. Calgary is already a team that has shown it is built for playoff hockey. They can get the goaltending, and they have more than their share of scrappy players doing everything to get under your skin. Ristolainen was often the Flyers' response to that style. He had nine hits to go along with two shots, three blocked shots, and an assist on the Hayes goal in 19:30 of ice time.
“Risto tonight was a beast out there. Physical, hard one-on-ones, hard to play against,” Vigneault said. “I thought Travis skated extremely well tonight. He was able to beat the forecheck. It wasn’t one player, it was a team win. Carter made some big saves at the right time tonight, and that’s what you need in such a competitive league.”