FFR2 (Exhibition Edition): PIT 2, PHI 3 (OT) - Orange and Back
Who needs this stupid tournament when you can just give us the Cup already!
I've almost forgotten how to type this, but for the first time since March 8, the PHILADELPHIA FLYERS WIN, 3-2, in overtime, over the Pittsburgh Penguins! The NHL's hottest team in March picks up right where they left off in July, beating their Keystone State rivals in dramatic fashion.
Yes, today's game was just an exhibition. It didn't count for anything. It does nothing to decide what seed the Flyers get for the playoffs, or whether Pittsburgh beats Montreal and gets there, or whether they get Lafreniere (we all know that's happening if the Habs beat them). And I had work today, so I didn't get to watch any of it live. But who cares? Hockey is BACK, and we have all waited so long for this, and to have it end with the Flyers sticking it to their biggest rival is just oh-so sweet.
The Flyers lines for this game were a bit jumbled. The club was allowed to dress thirteen forwards and seven defensemen, meaning both Joel Farabee and Nate Thompson (the guys presumably battling for the final forward spot) dressed. Justin Braun and Robert Hagg got the day off on the backend, allowing youngsters Mark Friedman and Egor Zamula to play (as well as Shayne Gostisbehere, who was far from a regular down the stretch). And Brian Elliott relieved Carter Hart after forty minutes to get some game work in.
From what I saw on the highlights, this looked (and felt) a lot like a game that didn't count. Both teams spent a lot of time shaking off some rust, missing on some moves they usually make, and turning the puck over a little bit. However, I thought the Flyers looked good in the nine minutes of action I saw, and the rest of Flyers Twitter and analysts seemed to agree. The fact that there were only 43 shots on goal in regulation speaks to that.
The Flyers were probably the better team in each of the first two periods, dominating Pittsburgh in shot quantity in the first (65% 5-on-5 Corsi) and shot quality in the second (70.69 5-on-5 xGF%). However, it was the Penguins who drew first blood, with a mint-condition Jake Guentzel threading a cross-seam feed to second-stint Penguin Conor Sheary for a top-shelf score five minutes in.
The Flyers responded on a delayed penalty, with the captain finding our Selke finalist (and new dad!) Sean Couturier for a one-timer in the slot. Coots continued his career trend of scoring big goals via bank shots off Penguins blue-liners, as his shot hit Marcus Pettersson's skate and knuckled into the net. In the final minute of the period, Kevin Hayes broke the tie with a beautiful backhand goal after receiving an amazing feed in the slot from (checks notes) Evgeni Malkin, giving the Flyers their first lead in over four months.
No one scored in the second period, but that doesn't mean there wasn't some action. Kevin Hayes hit the post, the Flyers killed a penalty (in fact, they killed a penalty in each of the three frames), and the power-play got their first crack, failing to score but not to generate some good chances.
The third period was a different story. As you'd expect from a trailing team, the Penguins dominated play basically the entire period, outshooting the Flyers 12-3 and generating eleven scoring chances, compared to eight in the entire rest of the game. Brian Elliott held down the fort for a while, including a sweet save on a close-range backhander by Malkin, who had an up-and-down game.
Eventually, though, the Flyers defense buckled. A breakdown off a defensive zone face-off led to Malkin getting another point-blank chance. Elliott made another incredible save, but nobody picked up Jason Zucker, and one of the newest Penguins banged in the rebound to tie the score duces wild, sending the first NHL game in four and a half months to overtime, because why not?
The brief OT was pretty back-and-forth. Elliott made a good save on Bryan Rust's 3-on-1 bid, then Tristan Jarry stoned Kevin Hayes on a breakaway. But another 1-on-1 came just moments later when Travis Konecny curled a perfect home-run pass to the tape of Scott Laughton. Laughts made a nifty move, inducing Jarry off the near post and then effortlessly flicking the puck to the corner Jarry just vacated - "Alexa, play the Orange and the Black!"
While it was nice to see the Flyers return to action, and emerge victorious against a huge rival (and potential playoff opponent) at that, at the end of the day this is still just an exhibition game. It's nothing but a tune-up, an opportunity to shake off the rust, and for fringe players to make the final case for a starting spot.
Alain Vigneault has said that he plans to use the round robin games to test different players and line combinations. His sights are already set on the actual Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin July 11. Of course, these next three games are important - there's a big drop off between the best team the Flyers could play (Pittsburgh) and the worst one (Montreal), so positioning themselves well in the short term can only bode well for the Flyers long term success in these playoffs.
I'll talk more about the Flyers chances of going deep once the round robin is over and we know who the Flyers will be facing in their first playoff series in 28 months, but for now, the status quo remains from where the season left off. The Flyers are definitely a good team, albeit without as much of the star power or championship glamor as some (but not all) of the other round robin teams. Their incredible momentum from March may be gone, but their talent and resilience are not. AV is as prepared as any coach to lead his team into battle, and the Flyers are still in great shape to make this a summer for Philly to remember.
The first Lindy has to go to Oskar Lindblom himself. After kicking cancer's butt, Oskar (a pending RFA) signed a 3-year extension at a $3 million cap hit. Lindblom is one of the 31 players currently eligible to play for the Flyers, though he is still in Sweden right now (as far as we know). It's not expected (at least by me) that Lindblom will play in the 2020 playoffs, but the fact that it's even a possibility was unfathomable the last time I wrote this segment. #OskarStrong
Other than Lindblom, the most surprising player to make the Flyers bubble roster is prospect Egor Zamula. Zamula was in the midst of an outstanding junior season when he underwent what was thought to be a season-ending back surgery just after World Juniors in January. However, the young blue-liner impressed enough during Phase 3 that he was given the opportunity to make the trip. He's a long shot to play, but he certainly has some upside.
Even though Carter Hart played nearly 20 more minutes then Brian Elliott, both goalies faced similar workloads. Elliott actually saw more shots, stopping 13 of 14 compared to 11 saves on 12 shots for Hart. Despite missing some time during Phase 3 with an injury, Vigneault appears confident in the 21-year old Hart, who is still expected to be the Flyers starting goalie in these playoffs.
Shayne Gostisbehere underwent another minor surgery during the pause, but he's been one of the most consistently praised Flyers since Phase 3 began. It was good to see Ghost on the ice for just the second time since February 6, and even with Travis Sanheim in the lineup, Ghost quarterbacked the second power-play unit.
The Flyers round-robin schedule is as follows: Sunday at 3 PM against Boston, Thursday against Washington (time TBD), and Saturday against Tampa Bay (also TBD). They'll be the road team for the first and third games. And as the four seed, there's nowhere to go but up.
There were no three stars awarded for the exhibition game, so on to the next (literally):
PIT - 8/1 vs. MTL (31-31-9; Qualifier Round, Game 1)
PHI - 8/2 @ BOS (44-14-12)
*Advanced Stats via Naturalstattrick.com