August 09, 2020
The Philadelphia Flyers will enter the Eastern Conference quarterfinals as the No. 1 seed in the conference after sweeping their way through the Bruins, Capitals and Lightning in the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup playoffs, capped off by their 4-1 win over Tampa Bay on Saturday night.
The Orange and Black have outscored the other top three teams in the East 11-3 in their three games, and have gotten stellar play from up and down their roster, especially the back half as guys like Claude Giroux, Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny and Sean Couturier have gone scoreless so far during this restart.
Instead, it's been guys like Scott Laughton, Nic Aube-Kubel and a slew of players who weren't major contributors on offense during the regular season. But that's partly by design for the Flyers, who are finally reaping the rewards of all that talent they've been storing in their prospect pipeline in recent years. Now, their young players are starting to come into their own while still being surrounded by proven vets who, even when not putting the puck in the back of the net, are providing the experience and support structure to help groom the players making their first postseason appearances this year.
We'll cover that and much more in today's edition of What They're Saying about the top-seeded Flyers...
The Flyers entered the season with many believing they would compete for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, perhaps the final spot in the Metropolitan Division. And that was looking like an accurate assessment even in the middle portion of the regular season. But once February rolled around, the Flyers caught fire.
While teams go on hot streaks all the time, the Flyers' elevated play was something more than that, and that's been solidified since they've resumed play. If it was just a hot streak, the Flyers would've likely taken a step back in the bubble. Instead, they seem to be playing even better than before. And they're doing so without head coach Alain Vigneault treating the round-robin like it is a part of the playoffs.
So, before getting into what the local media is saying about the Flyers, we figured it was a good chance to take a look at what the Montreal media is saying about their Canadien's next opponent...
The Flyers have been bouncing in and out of the playoffs over the last several years, and some might think they are a better matchup for the Canadiens than the Lightning. But somewhat quietly, the Flyers have become a powerhouse. Since Feb. 1, or over their last 18 games of the regular season, no team had a better points percentage or scored more goals per game than the Flyers. And despite the long break, they seem to have picked up right where they left off, going undefeated in the round robin to claim the top seed in the Eastern Conference and looking very sharp entering the playoffs.
They just beat the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and the Lightning despite coach Alain Vigneault’s decision to basically use the round robin as an extension of training camp. He gave a start to backup goalie Brian Elliott, he fiddled around with his forward lines, he sat James van Riemsdyk for a game and he gave some fringe players an opportunity to fight for a job.
“Since we’ve been in Toronto, what we’ve tried to do is find a balance between preparing our team for our first playoff opponent — which we now know will be the Canadiens — and making sure our execution and our pace gets back more or less to where it was when the season was suspended,” Vigneault said in French after the game Saturday.
The Flyers’ three wins came without their first line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek (who missed the game Saturday) scoring a single goal. It is, however, one of the best forward lines. [theathletic.com]
That's important to remember. Just because the Flyers' top line hasn't contributed much offensively so far, doesn't mean they aren't one of the best end-to-end lines in all of hockey. And should they catch fire in the playoffs, the rest of the NHL better watch out.
On a related note, Canadiens coach Claude Julien seems to know what his team is up against in the red-hot Flyers...
I’m not saying they’re the favourites, but... pic.twitter.com/N4up6oQ0Lg— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) August 9, 2020
Speaking of the Flyers' depth, that was the main focus of Charlie O'Connor's Sunday story for The Athletic. Overall, Charlie believes the Flyers have a depth problem ... in a good way.
The battle with the Lightning wasn’t merely a winner-take-all showdown to decide the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. It was a measuring-stick game for a Flyers team that is testing its limits, aggressively pushing to see just how good it might be. And Tampa Bay loomed as the ceiling they had yet to break through when it came to their capabilities as a club. Even after emerging as a potentially elite team in early January, the much-improved Flyers still fell twice to the Lightning. In fact, they hadn’t defeated the conference powerhouse since 2017. Before Saturday’s convincing victory that saw the Flyers lead in every major statistical category, basic and advanced, they just couldn’t figure out Tampa Bay.
In 2018 and 2019, however, the Flyers were a limited team. Their top-end players were worthy of respect; no one was taking Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux lightly. But from top to bottom, the Lightning were built for titles in those years, even if the Stanley Cup ultimately eluded them. Philadelphia, as recently as the first half of this season, didn’t have the depth to hang with them over an entire game.
Well, they sure do now. The Flyers have so many useful pieces, they can’t even fit them all into a healthy lineup. [theathletic.com]
So where does that leave Vigneault when it comes to filling out his lineup? Well, it gives him some options, to say the least. The good news for Flyers fans is that the Coach of the Year finalist seems to be pulling all the right strings at the moment. And, as we've already seen in the round robin, that kind of depth gives the Flyers a unique advantage when it comes to dealing with injuries.
The Flyers are now so deep that they can choose to hold Farabee and Gostisbehere out of the lineup against the Boston Bruins last Sunday and still take apart the Presidents’ Trophy winners. They can bench Gostisbehere and James van Riemsdyk on Thursday but still cruise to a victory over a Washington Capitals team that has owned the Metropolitan Division for half a decade. Then, with top-liner Jakub Voracek unavailable Saturday, they can bring van Riemsdyk and Gostisbehere back for an infusion of offense, and watch the former post a 98.22 percent expected goals share at even strength and the latter set up two of the team’s four goals.
No team in this tournament is better positioned to withstand the kinds of injuries that might cripple other clubs. No team in this tournament is successfully attacking elite opponents via relentless waves of pressure to the degree the Flyers are in the early goings. And it’s pretty easy to argue that no team in this tournament is playing better than the still-undefeated Flyers, all the way down to the unheralded fourth-liners who made the Lightning’s lives so miserable as the first period came to a close. [theathletic.com]
One spot where Vigneault will have a decision to make is on defense, as Shayne Gostisbehere and Robert Hagg both seem capable of handling that role in the postseason, especially after the kind of game Ghost had on Saturday night against the Lightning.
Again, however, this is a good problem to have. It's not like AV is trying to decide which is the lesser of two evils. Instead, he's trying to maximize his lineup with two guys who are both deserving — and should whichever one earns that job take a step back in the East quarterfinals, the other will be ready and waiting to step into his place.
If Gostisbehere is the Flyers' seventh defenseman, he did everything to potentially shake that status moving forward. Gostisbehere, who has had to undergo arthroscopic surgeries on both of his knees in 2020, had a good camp and said he has felt "10 times better" compared to during the regular season.
Against Tampa Bay, he looked like his mobile, confident, making-things-happen self from the blue line, recording two assists and a plus-2 rating. Gostisbehere made a sharp play to help create Aube-Kubel's first goal and showed his vision to assist Farabee's goal, which was a big one as it extended the Flyers' lead to 3-1 in the middle frame. [...]
The 27-year-old offensive-minded defenseman displayed good instincts defensively, as well.
A performance like that will have Vigneault thinking, that's for sure. The sixth and final spot on defense will come down to Robert Hagg and Gostisbehere. Hagg likely has the slight edge for now, but Gostisbehere has drawn much closer and should be called upon if the Flyers don't have a positive start to the first round. [nbcsports.com]
Another decision awaiting Vigneault comes on offense, where rookie Joel Farabee played an impressive game on the top line with Jake Voracek out of the lineup, in addition to Michael Raffl who will miss some time with a leg injury. Voracek's status is much more unknown than Raffl's, as we don't even yet know if he was simply a healthy scratch against the Lightning. James van Riemsdyk also returned to the lineup against Tampa, further complicating Vigneault's decision.
If Voracek returns for Game 1 against the Canadiens, that would at least push Farabee off the top line, and could push him off the ice entirely should the Flyers opt to leave JVR, who has not looked great so far in the restart, in the lineup over Farabee. Of course, they could opt to put Farabee, who had a goal and an assist in their win over the Lightning, on one of their bottom two lines.
Here's more from Anthony SanFilippo of Crossing Broad...
I’m not sure Farabee is as beneficial in your lineup playing with Tyler Pitlick and Nate Thompson or even Derek Grant and Nick Aube-Kubel.
That said, JVR has not looked good at all in this restart. He’s always been a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of Alain Vigneault’s system, so maybe Farabee sticks in place of JVR.
And for those who say JVR is an expensive healthy scratch – nobody gets paid in the playoffs. There’s no salary cap in the playoffs. Scratching a $7 million player is no different than scratching a $700,000 player.
If Farabee stays in the lineup, I think he has a better chance of replacing JVR than anyone else. [crossingbroad.com]
One place where Vigneault won't have a tough decision to make, at least at the outset, is in net. Any questions there might have been about how Carter Hart would play in his first postseason action has been more than answered in the round robin. And, just like at forward and defense, AV has impressive depth at the position with Brian Elliott, who also looked solid in his one round-robin start, waiting in the wings.
But for the Flyers in this postseason, it will be all about the kid, who is still just 21 years old. But you wouldn't know it watching him play.
Earlier this week, even before his impressive win over the Lightning, the last (and only) Flyers goaltender to win a Stanley Cup title, Bernie Parent, spoke to The Inquirer's Sam Carchidi about just how special Hart can be...
“Let me tell you something: I watch this kid and I’m amazed at his thinking and his anticipation about what’s going on in front of him,” Parent said. “He’s incredible. He reads the plays in front of him and knows where the opening is, and that helps him cover up things. At 21, to be able to do that is just incredible.”
When Parent was 21, he was in his second NHL season, playing in 18 games with Boston in 1966-67. He was still getting his feet wet and says he really didn’t become a student of the game until he played for Toronto in 1970-71 and 1971-72 and had his idol, legendary goalie Jacques Plante, as a teammate and mentor.
“I wish I would have been at the level Carter’s at now when I was 21,” Parent said. “I changed my game when I went to Toronto, and I think that’s when I really learned how to study the players, your defensemen, and a lot of other stuff. When I learned how to apply it, it made a big difference.” [inquirer.com]
If Hart can keep playing at this level — coupled with the scoring the Flyers have been getting from every corner of their roster and their stellar blue-line play — and Philly is going to be a tough out for any team they come up against.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports