While a three-game stint in the press box seemed like an eternity with the Flyers’ offensive struggles, it truly lasted only a week and Gostisbehere was back in action before another weekend rolled around. After back-to-back shutouts, head coach Dave Hakstol apparently thought his team and this fanbase had enough of life without Ghost and decided that he would dress in place of Nick Schultz on Thursday night.
Gostisbehere was crisp, motivated and strong in just about every area in his return.
His defense stood out big time in the first few minutes, adding a few defensive highlights to his collection in the first half of the first period in particular. The knock on the 23-year-old defenseman since his arrival to the show last November has been his defensive game. While the Calder Trophy runner-up from last season dazzled with the puck, particularly in the offensive zone, some thought he left much to be desired on the back end of the ice.
Other than reading the play and dashing to break up passes into the zone and zone entries via carrying the puck, they had a point. Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov are the only two blueliners on the Flyers that boast world-class skating ability, yet Provorov is the only one that seemed to use it fully to his advantage to put himself in a position to make better plays. Gostisbehere has been out of position at times, and outmuscled on the puck at others.
More strength may come in time for the second year pro, but his positioning was as solid as his stick was active in his return to action on Thursday night. His efforts early on didn’t go unnoticed as Hakstol rewarded him with the second most ice time on the team (22:06), behind only Provorov (22:44).
This first standout play came on the rush as Gostisbehere broke up the play, bodied his opponent to win the first puck battle then poked the puck up ice to clear the zone. It was a tremendous flash of a sharpened defensive mind, good body positioning, an active stick and even -gasp- the strength to hold off an attacking player and win the puck battle along the boards.
And then, the true beauty of Gostisbehere. The Flyers hadn’t scored a goal in two games and had been particularly abysmal on the power play (0-for, obviously) until Ghost’s presence returned to the blue line. Gostisbehere waited for a lane to open at the blue line then ripped a strong wrister towards the cage.
Wayne Simmonds slid the puck beyond the goal line just before Brayden Schenn knocked the net off. The goal was reviewed and upheld and the Flyers officially scored on their first power play with Shayne Gostisbehere back in his rightful home at the point.
Gostisbehere was in good position on the following play, too. He tracked the play towards the net and forced a block shot with his body at the right angle and an active stick in close preventing too much movement. Unfortunately, the puck took an Islanders hop and landed softly in the slot where Casey Cizikas corralled it and fired on net. Thankfully, Mason was able to make the stop.
Gostisbehere wasn’t done blocking shots. He made the Fearless Play of the Game on this sequence in the Flyers’ end, dropping down to one knee to take the brunt of a hard slap shot by Adam Pelech and hobbling off of the ice after the puck cleared the zone. He stayed in the game, of course.
This play to singlehandedly break up the rush by being aggressive at the blue line, poking the puck free once with both hands on the stick and once with one hand on it before clearing the puck is a classic example of what we hope Shayne Gostisbehere can consistently bring on the defensive end on a nightly basis.
Of course, the offensive dynamic that Gostisbehere brings was what the Flyers missed the most during the trial separation. This fake at the blue line along with good foot movement gave him control of the puck with speed and plenty of room to attack the net. Nick Schultz isn’t sniffing open space on this play, that’s for sure.
Gostisbehere again creates his own space with a fake at the blue line. This time, he didn’t have Dale Weise with him to help with a give-and-go; it was all Shayne. He dips the shoulder and races down the wall after baiting the first defender, cuts towards the slot and fires a shot hoping for a stick or skate down low. He made something out of nothing, creating offense from a static offensive possession and giving the Flyers exactly what they had been lacking over the last few games.
The well-mannered, humble kid even got heated later in the game after Steve Mason got the brunt of a Brock Nelson cross check to the neck and went crashing to the ice. Shayne was the first to arrive on scene, giving Nelson several cross checks and letting him know that wasn’t going to fly.
Overall, it was a really solid performance for Gostisbehere in his return from the press box. He did register as a -2, but it was Radko Gudas’ lack of mental awareness after a rough change and Steve Mason’s inability to get his right pad to the correct spot that helped us arrive at that number.
He played strong two-way hockey. He had a few signature moves that sparked chances in the offensive zone. He blocked shots. He defended his goaltender in more ways than one. Welcome back, Shayne; it’s clear that this team needs you now more than ever.
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