By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
For those who may not have seen on Tuesday, the preseason is less about the end result and more about the process. You want to see signs that a team is starting to gel, building the chemistry needed for a good season. You want to see if a team’s newest acquisitions and offseason improvements turn out to be just that.
It’s harder to make those evaluations in the early road games of the preseason schedule. Teams are less likely to send established veterans on a road trip so early and more or less play guys who aren’t really in the big picture when it comes to the NHL roster.
That was what the Flyers did on Thursday, playing two lines that are going to factor into the NHL roster with two lines consisting of prospects and AHL veterans. Defensively, only one pairing was a true NHL duo, while the others are either in a battle for the seventh defenseman spot or AHL bound as well.
So you can imagine how the result looked when the Boston Bruins, playing in their first preseason home game, took the opportunity to load up with roughly 90 percent of the NHL roster. There were moments when it wasn’t pretty.
It’s hardly a way to evaluate how one team looks against another. It did present some early warning signs though, things that need to be addressed and cleaned up with exactly two weeks remaining until the regular season opener as of Friday morning.
Here are 5 takeaways from the Flyers 4-2 preseason loss to the Bruins on Thursday night.
1. Some Power Play Chemistry
The Flyers actually got on the board first in this game. After playing over six minutes without a shot on goal for either side, the Flyers had the game’s first power play and made quick work of it.
Off a turnover by Trent Frederic, James van Riemsdyk quickly gained control of the puck and centered for Joel Farabee, who buried the opportunity. For Farabee, that looked like the player from last season – opportunistic, always active on the play, always looking to score. It also showed van Riemsdyk’s offensive prowess on the power play, especially around the net.
Later in the third period, with the game mostly out of reach by that point, Farabee struck again. This time, it was a more conventional power-play goal. The Flyers got set up offensively, cycled the puck well, and eventually got it to Farabee in a shooting position, as he cranked a one-timer high off the post and in.
This wasn’t even really the personnel the Flyers plan to use this season, at least early on, when it comes to the man advantage. Yet, there were some early signs from this group that they can at least threaten to score on a power play.
2. Penalty Kill Adjustments
The Bruins also had early power-play success. For the game, the Bruins were 2-for-5 on the man advantage, but both goals came in the first period on their first two opportunities.
The first goal for Boston involved all of the things that plagued the Flyers penalty kill last season. Scott Laughton lost the face-off, allowing the Bruins to immediately gain possession and set up. After a shot rattled to the corner, Travis Sanheim was out-muscled by Patrice Bergeron, ensuring Boston maintained possession.
At this point, the Flyers structure breaks down, and now both Laughton and Rasmus Ristolainen have crept in from the other side of the ice. Now that Bergeron has muscled Sanheim off the puck, it allowed Taylor Hall the opportunity to get to it. As Laughton, Ristolainen and Nate Thompson draw toward Hall, he dives to center a pass to Brad Marchand, wide open in the slot. That’s way too easy of a chance for a scorer like Marchand.
On the next power play, a quick rush the other way and speed on entry catches the Flyers. Farabee makes a good play to clear the zone after Craig Smith fumbles a pass. But that quickly, Smith regroups and gets the puck back into Boston control with a pass to Matt Grzelcyk. Grzelcyk leads a pass to Erik Haula, already positioned near the blue and behind Farabee and Nicolas Aube-Kubel, also up on the play at center ice.
Haula notices that Wyatte Wylie is caught at the blue line with Boston entering with speed. He chips a pass around Wylie to Nick Foligno. While this happens, Smith darts back into the zone and blows past Farabee, gaining a clear lane to the net. Foligno finds him on the mini two-on-one and Smith finishes into the empty net.
While the Flyers did kill off three additional penalties in the game, the structure and positioning still clearly need some work. It may be early, but this is an area the Flyers want to tighten up quickly.
3. Martin Jones
The first game action for any goaltender is going to be a little challenging. After all, you are no longer facing relatively routine shots from your teammates and you are dealing with more activity in front of you than typically seen in drills.
It’s why when you are already shorthanded and your penalty kill gives up a clean shot from the slot to a noted goal-scorer and a virtually empty-net goal, it’s not really on the goalie in that spot.
Boston’s third goal of the third period was a different story. On what looked like a relatively harmless shot by Brandon Carlo from the right wing boards, the puck found the net high over Martin Jones’ glove hand. It sure looked like the type of shot that Jones would want back, a shot where you need a save.
Jones and Alain Vigneault both stated that Carlo’s shot deflected off the stick of Linus Sandin, changing the direction and forcing it to rise higher, but it still feels like the type of shot you want your goalie to stop.
From there, Jones saw very little action in his debut. In fact, the entire second period, he never faced a shot. Jones was lifted midway through regulation, having faced just the 11 shots he saw in the first period.
Originally, Vigneault had said the plan was for Jones to play two periods and Felix Sandstrom to play the third period. That changed sometime overnight, because Jones said he was told prior the night before that he would play half the game. Regardless of how the original plan changed, Jones is going to need to get some work. If everything goes according to plan from here on out, both Jones and Carter Hart will get two full games for the remainder of the preseason. Both could certainly use it.
4. Ristolainen Debuts
Outside of the example listed above on the penalty kill, Ristolainen’s debut was mostly uneventful overall. There were several parts of the night where he wasn’t very noticeable, a good quality for a defenseman.
His breakouts remained clean and he was able to move the puck up ice and alleviate pressure at times. He finished with no giveaways, had two shots and two hits in 22:28. Unlike the first preseason game which featured Ryan Ellis and Keith Yandle, there was more special teams time involved, and that took away from some of the ice time to really evaluate Ristolainen’s play at even strength. Only 16:03 of his ice time was at 5-on-5 and a majority of the second period was spent in the Boston zone.
There will be other opportunities for Ristolainen to show how he fits this preseason, and for now he can still put in the work and build the chemistry with Sanheim needed to be on point at the start of the season.
5. Veteran Experience
Obviously, on paper, this game was a mismatch. It’s difficult to get a feel for a team and how their full NHL roster will perform in just the second game of the preseason and first on the road. From the Flyers standpoint, this was a prototypical preseason road game roster.
That said, the Flyers play their next two preseason games on home ice. They have four games remaining total. Their plan for the goaltending in those games could shed some light on what’s to come.
If the goalies are going to start getting full games, don’t be surprised if the rest of the team doesn’t follow suit soon. Home games are typically a time to put your veterans on the ice for one. Additionally, something Vigneault did during his first season as Flyers head coach could very well happen again.
During his first preseason, Vigneault made a change after a handful of preseason games, determining that the veterans needed more ice time and game experience before the season. He moved cuts up and focused on playing veterans more in the preseason, just a week into camp.
Vigneault had said earlier this week that the big round of cuts will likely come next week following the team’s back-to-back on Monday and Tuesday. That could still be the case, you just might see even more veterans in the lineup each night until getting past that point in the schedule.