FFR2 Gm 50: PIT 0, PHI 3 - Doctor J
Talk about a keystone win!
In their final game before the bye week and All Star Break, the Philadelphia Flyers WIN, 3-0, shutting out the rival Pittsburgh Penguins thanks to a suffocating defensive performance, a total 180 from the first time these two teams met three months ago.
Previously in the Battle of Pennsylvania, the Penguins nearly ruined my birthday with a 7-1 thrashing of the Flyers in Pittsburgh, leading 4-0 after 20 minutes and never taking their foot off the gas. Since then, the Penguins have quietly been one of the best teams in the NHL, putting my preseason prediction of them missing the playoffs to shame despite suffering enough injuries to fill every hospital in PA.
But something caught my eye about the Penguins before this game even started. On Sunday, the Penguins fell behind 3-0 less than halfway through the 1st period of their game against the Boston Bruins, in part due to Matt Murray, who has had a nightmare season, struggling to make a save. The Penguins incredibly rallied to win the game 4-3 (in regulation, to boot), but after the game, the entire team, and particularly Evgeni Malkin, had an issue with fans giving Murray the "Bronx cheer" when he stopped a shot from center ice after allowing 2 goals less than 200 seconds into the game.
To provide some context for his frustration, Malkin told Rob Rossi of The Athletic, "We hear that in Philly, not Pittsburgh." Um, yeah. Because we care. Same as Pens fans. You don't want to get booed? Play better. Malkin cited all Murray has done for the Penguins, backstopping the team to consecutive Cups in 2016 and 2017. Murray will always be remembered fondly for those runs, but sports are a what have you done for me lately business. I almost want to call them soft, but that's discounting the adversity they have battled through.
It may not have mattered on this night, but I couldn't get it out of my head as the Penguins mustered just 19 shots on goal against Brian Elliott, including just THREE in the 3rd period despite spending the entire stanza trailing by multiple goals (so much for score effects). Maybe soft is too strong, but for all of the physical strength and amazing hockey skill on this roster, there's still a place in their minds that the Flyers can take them where the Penguins just aren't the same.
This may not have been the most dominant performance of the season for the Orange and Black, but it may have been their most complete. The Flyers played a smart, 200-foot game from start to finish, never letting the Penguins take control of the contest, let alone sway play to their side for more than a shift or two at a time. Yes, the Penguins had some zone time, but they were hardly able to make Brian Elliott sweat, generating just eight high-danger scoring chances, with only one coming in the final 20 minutes when they should've been pushing hardest.
The reason the Penguins found themselves in a desperate position late was because of some timely execution and gorgeous passing plays by the Flyers top two lines. After a scoreless opening frame, the Flyers found the back of the net early in the 2nd. Joel Farabee kicked the play off with a nice pass from the neutral zone to Sean Couturier on the right side of the ice. Coots skated to the face-off circle, then whipped a filthy cross-ice pass to a streaking Jake Voracek on the left wing. Jake the Snake used Tristan Jarry's momentum against him, cutting back from left to right and burying a backhander underneath his left pad, giving the Flyers a 1-0 lead!
Nine minutes of stout defensive play and four minutes of ineffective power-plays later, the Flyers would strike in similar fashion. Claude Giroux fielded the puck right at the center ice dot and flung the puck off the right boards into the Penguins zone. James van Riemsdyk and Travis Konecny were both charging at the puck with a head full of steam. The two wingers communicated however, and Konecny took charge of the puck while van Riemsdyk crashed the crease, turning an already dangerous chance into a clear-cut 2-on-1. TK threaded the needle with a pass that had more sauce than an Italian dinner, finding James van I-think-I've-got-my-swagger-backsdyk for a tap-in through the 5-hole of Jarry.
Philadelphia continued to dominate the d-zone the rest of the way. Gradually, the Penguins began to threaten a little bit more as the game progressed. Elliott made some truly impressive saves, stopping a last-second slapper from Crosby to the end the 2nd, then said "Not today, Domer boy!" on an A-plus one-timer bid from Notre Dame product Bryan Rust halfway through the 3rd, the last best chance the Penguins would have to light the lamp.
Justin Braun would make it a hat-trick of "J's" on the scoresheet with a long-range empty-netter just as Lou Nolan announced the final minute of regulation. 59.3 seconds later after the goal horn sounded, the Orange and the Black played inside the Wells Fargo Center for the final time in January (the Flyers won't be back home until February 1), celebrating the Flyers second shutout win of the season - the first since Carter Hart blanked the Devils 4-0 in the home-opener on October 9th.
When I wrote about how all the Flyers have been is mediocre this season on Thursday, I probably should've chosen by words better. The Flyers actually haven't been mediocre at all this season. They've either been really good or really bad, and combined, it's averaged out to, well, "meh." Philly was at the peak of the good side tonight, whereas in the last intra-Keystone state battle, they were stuck in the deepest valley of the bad side.
Odds are they'll spend plenty of time in both the rest of the season. But there's no reason why the good can't outweigh the bad. The Flyers have naturally been flipping from good to bad practically every other week this season. So why can't this week be the good, the bye week act as a substitute for the bad, and ten days later, when the Flyers take the ice against these same Penguins in Pittsburgh, we return (or stay, I guess) to the good side?
The answer - why not? When the Flyers return, Michael Raffl will be back. Shayne Gostisbehere and Carter Hart might be too, and if not, they'll be very close to returning. If the Flyers can actually put Claude Giroux on the LEFT side of the ice on the power-play, why not? Yeah, I know it took them three tries to put him there, whatever, I'll take what I can get at this point.
If I could leave this series with one last point before the All Star/bye week break, it would be this. They're close to being good. I'm talking really good. Really close. This game proved it. The next one might prove they're close to being bad. I'm talking really bad. Really close. There are THIRTY-TWO games left in this season. The possibilities of how it will progress are endless.
At the end of the day, have some fun, try to stay positive, and remember - they CAN be great. In previous years, that wasn't the case. The Flyers fate was left up to the Hockey Gods themselves, pulling at this team like puppets on a string. Not this year. There is something different in this team. It may not matter in the end, but that doesn't make it false. Timshel, Flyers. May the best be yet to come.
The Flyers incredible play at home-ice has been amazing, but another area they've turned things around is against the Metro. They're 9-2-3 against teams in their division (per Jordan Hall), and are 4-0-1 against the two teams directly above them in the standings (Columbus and Carolina).
With Michael Raffl out for this game with a lower-body injury (he's officially listed as day-to-day, so I think he'll be back for the next game), the Flyers made a bit of a surprising move, recalling German Rubtsov. The Germ hasn't been amazing for the Phantoms, but he did have 4 points in his last 6 AHL games and was fine Tuesday.
Also per Hall - since the start of the 2016-17 season, Kevin Hayes' 14 short-handed points are the fourth most of anyone in the NHL.
Goal scorers are usually streaky, and James van Riemsdyk is finally heading in the right direction. He's got goals on back-to-back games for the first time since October 25-27 against Chicago and Columbus (scoring 3 goals in those games).
Speaking of slumpbusters, Jake Voracek had just one goal in his last 13 games (the OT winner against STL last week) before his beautiful backhand goal Tuesday.
With Braun's goal tonight, Flyers defensemen have now scored 33 goals. Only the Rangers have gotten more goals from their backend (38). And because of his groin injury, Braun has actually scored in three of the last five games he's played in.
We have a new POG Helmet Standings Leader!
Moose - 4
Raff, Da Snake, Gobs - 3
Steady Eddie, Teeks, Coots - 2
Starter, #OskarStrong, Phil, Snowman, Pitsy, Laughts, Timon, Hayeser - 1
1st - Brian Elliott (PHI) - Shutout, 0 GA on 1.83 xGA
2nd - Jakub Voracek (PHI) - Goal (10)
3rd - James van Riemsdyk (PHI) - Goal (14)
PHI - 1/31 @ PIT (31-14-5, L1) *Looks down* "Oh, hi there!"
PIT - 1/31 vs. PHI (27-17-6, W2)