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February 02, 2016

Flyers 4, Canadiens 2: ‘There was a little bite to the game’

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“There was a little bite to the game,” is how Dave Hakstol described Tuesday night’s proceedings. Sloppy at times, but full of energy and emotion. At one point, P.K. Subban ripped Michael Raffl’s stick out of his hands, threw said stick, and even got away with it.

The Philadelphia Flyers defeated the reeling (for about two months now) Montreal Canadiens 4-2 at Wells Fargo Center, and before the game’s most important moment, the Flyers’ most important player on this night had no clue what was going on.

“It’s funny, the entire TV timeout I didn’t realize we were going on the kill,” Steve Mason said. “G comes up and asks if I was ready to kill five minutes and it looks like we were. It completely caught me off guard there.”

Mason wasn’t the only person in the arena who was confused at that moment. Here is the situation: 20 seconds after Wayne Simmonds gave the Flyers a 3-2 lead in the third period, Radko Gudas tried to check Habs left wing Lucas Lessio and missed. The two players got their legs tangled up, but there was no penalty call on the ice.

During the stoppage, Gudas was mysteriously assessed a five-minute major penalty for clipping as well as a game misconduct. On the way back to the locker room, an incensed Gudas shattered his stick. So, what did Mason do when Giroux finally informed him of the major task the Flyers were facing?

“I was trying figure out what the hell happened,” he said.

What happened during the Canadiens’ power play was somewhat unexpected, especially because the Flyers penalty kill (17.5%, 26th) has been a sore spot all year: The Orange and Black killed that sucker off so thoroughly that Chris VandeVelde and Sean Couturier had two of the better scoring chances during the five-minute span.

As Hakstol said after the game, it’s easy to play the blame game when a penalty kill leaks some goals. But now that the PK has come up huge in a couple of big spots, in the win at Washington before the break and now tonight, he’s giving credit to the entire group.

“It builds confidence for the hockey team, not just for the guys on the ice,” Hakstol said. “It builds confidence within a team.”

On Simmonds’ go-ahead goal, Voracek shielded off a defender like he often does, spun around the net, and hit Simmons with a perfect pass. Take notes, Jahlil Okafor. This was the best low-post passing I have seen at the arena this year:

Voracek’s scoring struggles have been well documented, but it’s not like opponents were able to easily knock him off his skates when the puck wasn’t finding the net.

“From what I’ve seen, I think he’s one of the top two, three players in the league [at] putting guys on his back and rolling around the net, making plays, and scoring goals off of it,” Simmonds said of his buddy.

“He’s pretty effective at [protecting the puck],” Hakstol said. “He’s tough to cover when he gets a step on somebody and is able to spin off of that pressure and gets a little open space. He’s pretty dangerous.”

The entire special teams came up big for the Flyers. If they are going to make a legitimate run at the playoffs in these last 35 games, the power play will likely need to make a Lazarus-like comeback. Coming into tonight’s game, the unit was at 17.8 percent (21st) compared to 23.4 percent (3rd) last year. There is just too much firepower here for that decline to be considered acceptable.

In the first period, the Flyers struck twice on the man advantage thanks to some great passing:

According to Shayne Gostisbehere, Hakstol sat the team down Tuesday morning and focused on the power play.
“We score a goal early and then the power play for the rest of the game lacks a little bit,” Gostisbehere said. “You get a little complacent. It’s working well right now. We’re moving the puck well, and most importantly, we’re shooting the puck.”

Michal Neuvirth is out for about a week, so it’s going to be Steve Mason’s show between the pipes. And in the first game out of the All-Star break, Mason was under siege, particularly in a first period where the Flyers were very sloppy in their own zone.

It’s not just the number of shots that Mason faced (32), because that seems manageable. It’s that a lot of them came from high-danger scoring areas. The Flyers goaltenders still lead the league in the metric that tries to account for shot location, and you could see why tonight. The Habs didn’t have a ton of shots, but when they did, they were good looks.

And when Mason was caught out of position, Nathan Beaulieu shot the puck into his chest. The Flyers netminder was both lucky (at least on that one) and good:

“It kind of caught me in the neck area and just fell into the glove there,” Mason said.

Voracek, who took a penalty out frustration early in the third period, said that there was a lot of chirping on the ice between the two teams.

“The games like that are fun to play,” he said.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann