The Philadelphia Flyers returned to action on Thursday night as they beat the Chicago Blackhawks 3-1. Three goals in the first 24 minutes, all by the first line, were enough to help Brian Elliott to a win in a 38-save effort.
There were plenty of takeaways from the game, from the top line continuing their dominance, Shayne Gostisbehere making history, Radko Gudas making his return, Travis Sanheim having one of the best games of his career, and many more.
Here are the top five storylines from last night’s front-loaded win, and a few extra quick hits at the end.
Top line’s three textbook tallies
The top line of the Philadelphia Flyers is one of the best in the league right now. Claude Giroux has been reborn since moving to left wing with Sean Couturier at center and Jake Voracek on the right side. The three have been producing all season long and on Thursday night they combined for seven points on three goals; the only three goals the Flyers scored in a 3-1 win.
All three members of the line had a goal, and all three players played a role in each and every goal. They executed their plans to perfection. Twice in the 1st period, and then once more early in the 2nd period to give the Flyers a 3-0 lead.
The first goal was the result of hard work by Couturier in the neutral zone, nifty stickhandling by Voracek, and a blast by Giroux. Couturier got free from Jonathan Toews and lifted the stick of Patrick Sharp as the puck moved up the boards. Voracek kicked the puck with his back skate up to his stick, then dipped back and slid a pass into the wheelhouse a waiting Giroux. Giroux released a rocket that beat Crawford on the blocker side to give the Flyers an early lead. Couturier didn’t get an assist on the play, though he probably should have, as he started it all off and his linemates finished it. They were just getting started.
The first goal showed what the top line can do on a quick rush from the neutral zone in, then the second goal showed what they can do once set up in the zone.
Couturier got the puck just past the red line from Shayne Gostisbehere and entered the zone with speed down the left wing. He got around Cody Franson with a subtle move, then stumbled after getting tripped by Franson, but carried on. Connor Murphy went down to take away the passing lane, and also impeded Couturier, but he still managed to get the puck towards the crease, and it went all the way across to Voracek on the right side.
Voracek got the puck across to the left point to Gostisbehere, whose centering pass to Giroux was knocked up into the air. Giroux gloved it down as Gostisbehere streaked down the boards, and then backhanded it up to Ghost. Voracek had moved down low, but then came back up towards the right faceoff dot and blasted Gostisbehere’s cross-ice pass into the back of the net for a one-time goal.
The puck movement and reads made by all five players on the ice were perfect. They had the Blackhawks out of sorts and they capitalized on their chance. But they weren’t done there.
The third goal of the night showcased how quickly this trio can make something out of nothing.
They actually had a rush just prior to their goal on the very same shift. But Voracek’s attempt to get the puck on net went wide, sending Patrick Kane on a rush the other way. Ivan Provorov and Robert Hagg did a good job of forcing Kane to move laterally, where he tried to bank a pass to Jan Rutta. Giroux checked him, Couturier poked the puck out of the zone, and Voracek took over at center ice.
He weaved into the zone and fed Giroux going down the left wing with Couturier crashing the net. Giroux put a drop pass onto the tape of Couturier’s stick, and he buried it. 10 seconds after Patrick Kane was looking to create something in the offensive zone, the Flyers’ top line took over and got the puck into the back of the net.
The Flyers’ top line really put on a clinic against one of the more well-respected lines in the league. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are one of the most highly regarded duos in the league, and the Flyers schooled them for three goals. Toews is usually the best two-way centerman on the ice, but he wasn’t on Thursday night when he was playing against Sean Couturier.
Couturier has been a force for the Flyers as their top line center and he has helped rejuvenate Giroux on the left wing and Voracek on the right. All three players feed off of each other and they executed to perfection on Thursday night.
Penalty kill comes up huge
The Flyers haven’t been killing penalties with ease in recent games, but that changed on Thursday night. The Blackhawks were 0-for-4 on the power play in 6:16 of ice time, including 1:44 of 5-on-3 time.
Their first chance came late in the 1st period when Travis Sanheim was called for interference. The Flyers had just gone up 2-0 a few minutes prior, and it opened up the door for Chicago. But Scott Laughton, Taylor Leier, and co. shut that door pretty quickly. The Blackhawks got absolutely nothing going on their power play, while the Flyers were actually able to get off two shots, including one high-danger chance from Taylor Leier. It was good for the Flyers to head into the locker room still up by two, and it set the tone for the rest of the game.
Just after the Blackhawks got on the board in the 2nd period to make it a 3-1 game, the door once again opened for them to make it a one-goal game. Radko Gudas was called for tripping on a hip check, and 16 seconds later Ivan Provorov accidentally lifted the puck out of the rink for a delay of game penalty. The tide was turning in Chicago’s favor, and it seemed like this could be the wave that knocked the Flyers over. But once again, it wasn’t. Even with their two best penalty killing defensemen in the box, the Flyers killed off the 5-on-3 and subsequent 5-on-4 chance.
Brian Elliott came up with a few big stops, and plays with his stick, but the work was done in front of him as well. Robert Hagg played 2:12 of the 2:16 shorthanded time, and came up with a good shot block off his hand. Brandon Manning and Sean Couturier also worked hard in the corner to keep the clock ticking and then Couturier stayed right with Kane around the zone, not allowing him to center the puck. It was a huge sigh of relief for the Flyers to kill off a lengthy 3-on-5 situation right before intermission.
Chicago kept pushing, though. They controlled play in most of the final two periods, and they got one more power play with just under six minutes to go in the game as Travis Konecny was called for tripping. A goal on this chance would’ve brought them within one in the final five minutes.
Hagg and Provorov did a good job on the back end, and once again Leier came up with a clear while shorthanded to kill off some of the penalty. Couturier and Wayne Simmonds helped keep the puck to the outside, and when the Hawks finally got a chance in the form of a shot by Artem Anisimov, Elliott had the answer. Scott Laughton then stole the puck in the neutral zone with 40 seconds left in the penalty kill, skated a bit, and dumped it in deep. The Blackhawks had a chance or two, but the Flyers did well to limit their opportunities on the power play.
Hagg led the way with an unbelievable 4:43 of shorthanded time, while Provorov, Couturier, and Manning all topped two minutes. The skaters did their jobs in front of him, but the penalty kill is only successful if the goalie does his job, and Elliott came up big when he needed to for the Flyers in this one.
Sanheim’s strong showing
Travis Sanheim had one of his best games of his young career on Thursday night. The young defenseman was active in the offensive zone, created rushes with breakout passes, and played well in the defensive zone and neutral zone to disrupt rushes. Sanheim had his old partner Radko Gudas by his side, which may have played a factor, as he led the team in shot-attempt differential with a corsi for of 55.88% (19-15) in 15:22 of 5v5 ice time.
Midway through the 1st period, Sanheim had one hell of a shift. He broke up a centering pass in the defensive zone, won a battle in open ice down near the corner, and joined the rush up the left side. He picked up the puck near the blue line and entered the zone on a rush. Sanheim waited patiently, faked a pass, and got past a prone Brent Seabrook to feed a netfront pass to Valtteri Filppula, but he tipped it just wide. Sanheim then got the puck at the side of the net and tried to jam it home, but Crawford sealed the post.
The shift showcased how Sanheim can make a good defensive play at one end, help get the puck out of the zone, and then use his offensive ability to join the rush and create a scoring chance. Unfortunately this one just missed by inches. He jumped up in the rush late in the 1st period as well, catching Crawford off guard with a quick shot that he had to fight off.
Sanheim had another good shift early in the 2nd period. He turned the puck over in the defensive zone, but then tied up his man along the boards and got the puck free to Gudas before regrouping. Sanheim recovered, then jumped up in the defensive zone and tipped the puck ahead to Dale Weise for a rush. They played give-and-go, with Sanheim alertly avoiding the defender’s stick on the rush, but Weise’s shot hit the post. Sanheim once again came within inches of picking up a point.
There’s one more play by Sanheim I want to highlight, and this one came early in the 3rd period. Gudas got caught in deep with none of the third liners covering for him, leaving Sanheim to defend a two-on-one rush against two pretty good players: Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane.
It was clear two-on-one from center ice, giving the two skilled forwards plenty of time to set up. Sanheim initially stayed in the middle of the ice, as Kane came down the left wing with Sharp in the middle, then as Kane reached the top of the circle Sanheim used his length to aggressively slide towards him, taking the passing lane away and forcing a shot. Sanheim didn’t just go down in the middle of the ice, he slid towards Kane, taking away any chance of waiting him out or getting past him to pass it.
Sanheim felt the learning curve early in the season, and he’s taken his bumps, but he is coming into his own as an NHL defenseman. He might still make a few mistakes along the way, but last night’s game was a sign of things to come for the young defenseman.
Gudas’ return provides defensive stability
Radko Gudas returned to action for the first time in a week after missing two games. He provided some stability on the back end, allowing the ice time to be spread out a bit more. Ivan Provorov certainly handled the load over the prior five games with Gostisbehere and then Gudas out, but Gudas was a welcomed addition.
Gudas had been having an up-and-down season before his minor injury, but he played well on Thursday night. He allowed Sanheim to join the rush, helped push play forward, and played solid defense. Having a physical presence in the lineup certainly didn’t hurt either, as he laid out Lance Bouma with a booming hit in the 1st period.
The Flyers had six NHL defensemen for a full game for the first time since October 24th. The six games between now and then either had a game misconduct (Ottawa), injuries in the game (Toronto and Chicago), or an AHL callup in the lineup (Arizona, Chciago, St. Louis, Colorado)
Going along with that, for the first time in a while all six Flyers defensemen played around the same amount. Of course there were still a few difference with Provorov (21:18) at the top, joined by Manning (20:39) and Hagg (20:28) due to penalty killing time, then Gostisbehere (20:27), but Gudas (17:49) and Sanheim (16:18) weren’t too far behind. In fact, five of the six defensemen played within 89 seconds of each other at even strength, from Manning (17:09) to Hagg and Gudas each at 15:40.
The defensemen did a good job as well. The Blackhawks pushed hard in the second half of the game, but the Flyers did a good job to keep them out of the high-danger areas. Chicago heavily out-attempted the Flyers at even strength 62-43, and overall 69-52, but the high-danger scoring chances were only slightly in favor of Chicago at even strength, 8-10 , and overall, 11-10.
Having a healthy defensive corps is huge for an NHL team. Even with their ideal seventh defenseman in Brandon Manning playing big minutes, they all played their role against Chicago. Hopefully it can stay this way and the injury bug will stay away for a bit.
Elliot near perfect in best start of season
Brian Elliott had his best start as a Flyer on Thursday night. He made a season-high 38 saves in the 3-1 win. His previous high on the year was 32 saves, in a 5-3 win on opening night, and in a 3-0 loss (two goals allowed) last time out in Chicago. There were quite a few big saves mixed in there as well.
The Blackhawks were peppering Elliott from the outside some, but they were getting good chances in close and off the rush as well. In total Elliott faced 69 shot attempts, 53 unblocked attempts, 39 shots, 30 scoring chances, 11 high-danger scoring chances, and only allowed one goal.
Elliott came up with big saves in big situations. He gloved down Panik’s chance from the faceoff dot on a rush after Dale Weise got beat in the 1st period with the Flyers up just 1-0. He did the same on another Panik chance early in the 2nd period from in close. Two great chances by Richard, but Elliott didn’t Panik.
Then of course there’s the lengthy 5-on-3 chance, when Elliott made a key stop and batted away a pass with his paddle. He also stopped a Brandon Saad partial-breakaway late in the 2nd period to keep the Flyers up by two.
It was good to see Elliott turn in back-to-back good starts. He was strong last time out in Chicago, but two quick goals cost him in a game that the Flyers couldn’t find the back of the net. He played well on Thursday night too, earning himself a win with a 38-save effort.
Elliott has been inconsistent this season, but hopefully two good starts in a row can be a sign of things to come for the netminder.
- The Flyers put their foot on the gas and didn’t let up in the 1st period and the beginning of the 2nd, but they took it off a bit too early as they just inched past the finish line. They haven’t been able to play a good full 60 minutes in the past few games, but tonight a good 30 was enough.
- Shayne Gostisbehere became the fastest Flyers defenseman to reach 100 points with his assist on Voracek’s goal. He did it in just 155 games.
- The second line did well to generate chances throughout the game. Travis Konecny in particular had a few, but Crawford robbed him in the 3rd period on one of his last chances.
- The fourth line once again was buzzing and nearly got a goal. They also got third-line minutes for the second straight game, as Scott Laughton played 12:22 (Leier 10:52, Raffl 10:28) at even strength to the third line’s nine minutes. That needs to continue.
- The third line left much to be desired, per usual. Dale Weise somehow got a odd-man rush chance and hit the post, but that was about it for the line besides a cycle here or there. There are some scorers in the AHL if the veterans don’t pick it up soon.
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