Flyers grind for ugly win over Sabres to push streak to 5

Flyers grind for ugly win over Sabres to push streak to 5

BOX SCORE

It was a Flyers’ win with a capital “U.” 

That’s “U” as in ugly.

However, it was still good enough to beat the worst team in the Eastern Conference, the Buffalo Sabres, as the Flyers skated away with a 2-1 victory at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday night (see observations).

It’s the type of game the Flyers lost earlier in the season during their previous homestead when they came out sloppy against the lowly Arizona Coyotes in an eventual 4-3 loss in overtime.  

“I thought this was a boring game,” Jakub Voracek said. “Honestly, I don’t think we played good today, but we got the win, which is really important. You’re not going to play great every night. We played well when we needed to, but we can play a lot better, which is positive.”

Nothing was uglier than the game’s first goal when Brian Elliott attempted to play the puck behind his net. Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons intercepted Elliott’s pass and fed the puck to Ryan O’Reilly, who had a wide-open, unattended net in front of him.

“They came hard and a little miscommunication,” Elliott said. “Bad play on my part and we did a heck of a job of coming back and tying that up. That can go sideways in a hurry. We sorted it out, but our first period was kind of sloppy.”

After Elliott nearly made the same mistake again in the opening period, the Flyers rebounded to the tie game at 1-1 as Travis Sanheim scored his first NHL goal off a feed from Dale Weise (see highlights). However, even Sanheim admitted, the goal was a silver lining from a dark cloud that was looming over him defensively with failed clears and breakdowns in coverage.  

“I don’t think we were very happy with our first period, especially me,” Sanheim said. “Minus the goal, I thought that might have been my worst period of the season, but I think we bounced back and battled hard in the final 40 and came through with the win.”

“He’s been pressing for a little while, so I was so happy to see him get a smile on his face,” Weise said of Sanheim’s goal. “That’s going to do wonders for his game. You see a shift after he gets another chance there. I’m so happy for him.”

Sanheim’s season in some ways has mirrored that of the Flyers’ schedule — a yo-yo performance with bouts of inconsistency. Coming off a 10-game winless stretch, the Flyers have now won five straight. Throughout both streaks, head coach Dave Hakstol has stuck with Sanheim when some coaches may have wavered. 

“There’s always lessons along the way, especially for a young defenseman,” Hakstol said. “He’s had some bumps in the road that every defenseman is going to go through. Tonight’s maybe a little indicative of that. Travis is always honest with himself and the evaluation of his own play, and for me, that always helps keep his feet on the ground and move on to the next challenge.”

“I want to make hard plays and I’ve got to make sure the puck gets over our blue line,” Sanheim said. “It’s easier to sit back and say I could have done this, I could have done that. Going forward, I’ve just got to try and limit those mistakes and try and play a harder game.” 

The Flyers eventually produced the breakthrough goal late in the second period on a tic-tac-toe play started by Michael Raffl, who fed a pass to Voracek and then onto Valtteri Filppula for the one-time goal.

“Those are the best wins,” said Raffl, who played in his 300th career game. “You’re pretty happy when you win 4-1 and you play your best game. It’s easy to laugh, but that was a war out there and the last period, especially, but we came together as a group.”

Of the 14 one-goal games the Flyers have played this season, this was just the third time they earned a victory. Many of those games when they failed to earn a winning decision came after regulation.

“It’s all about confidence,” Voracek said. “Two or three weeks ago when we went into the third period, we would lose that game. Now it’s about making sure those loose pucks get out of the zone and don’t make any dumb decisions.”

“I think it’s huge. When we were in that streak, we blew a lot of leads late in games,” Weise said. “Minus the last two minutes where I think we sat back a little, I thought we did a good job of moving the puck forward, forechecking and not sitting back too much. It’s more of a mental thing to win those type of games.”

Flyers-Sabres observations: Second line continues surge

Flyers-Sabres observations: Second line continues surge

BOX SCORE

The roller-coaster ride that is the Flyers’ season saw the team extend its winning streak to five games after defeating the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1, Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

Rookie defenseman Travis Sanheim scored the Flyers’ first goal and his first NHL goal after taking a pass from Dale Weise and firing a perfectly-placed shot past Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner. 

After scoring three goals in the preseason, Sanheim finally scored No. 1 in his 28th regular-season game.

Valtteri Filppula scored the game-winner with 2:33 remaining in the second period.

Brian Elliott stopped 19 of 20 shots and has earned the win in every game during the current streak.

Michael Raffl played in his 300th career game.

• The Sabres scored the first goal 1:29 into the game when Elliott attempted to rim the puck around the boards from behind the net, but Zemgus Girgensons blocked it with his body that left Elliott in no-man’s-land. For whatever reason, Elliott elected to stay behind the net instead of retreating back to his crease, which left Ryan O’Reilly in front with a slam dunk empty-net goal.

• Roughly a minute later, Elliott was caught behind the net where he nearly did the same thing as he threw the puck straight into a Sabres player. This time, rookie Nolan Patrick was on the back side to protect the post, stop Sam Reinhart and save the goal.

• The Flyers scored first as the Patrick line had a good cycle game. Eventually, Weise fed a pinching Sanheim, who moved in from his left defense position. Instead of winding up for a big slap shot, Sanheim wisely directed the puck, which allowed him to pick his spot on the net. For Sanheim, it was his first NHL goal after he displayed what he could do offensively during the preseason.

“It feels great,” Sanheim said at the first intermission. “Obviously, it was a big goal in the game. I’m just excited to finally get the first one. Weiser was coming behind the net, and I saw my winger kind of cheat to the wall and I had a seam down the middle. He made a great pass, and I was pretty excited that it went into the back of the net.”

• There was a lazy penalty by Buffalo’s Kyle Okposo as he tripped Filppula behind the Flyers’ goal line. The Flyers’ second unit actually performed better than the first unit and had better success with its setup, including a quality chance down low as a result of quick puck movement.  

• Sanheim may have scored his first goal, but defensively his struggles continued throughout the night. He turned the puck over and then lost track of his man as Reinhart fed Evander Kane for a one-timer in the area where Sanheim was supposed to be stationed.

• Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere appeared to be in quite some pain as he left the ice with 1:57 remaining in the first period holding his left arm.

• Early in the second period, the Flyers’ No. 1 PP unit looked much better with a pair of prime opportunities. “Ghost” ripped off a slapper that sat on the crease for a split second. Wayne Simmonds was in front and tried to bang it home with no luck.

• It was a rough shift for Ivan Provorov as he was whacked in the face by his teammate’s stick. Seconds later, Provorov snapped his stick on an attempted slap shot and was caught up in the Sabres’ 2-on-1 the other way with Kane getting off a weak attempt that Elliott turned away with his right pad.

• As much as I like Jakub Voracek’s power-skating game with the puck, he’s definitely turnover-prone. He had a couple of turnovers in the first period and another at the 9:00 mark. On that same shift, Voracek broke in all alone on Lehner for perhaps then Flyers’ best chance of the second period. With Voracek, you have to take the bad with the good. 

• I’ve really liked the play of the Patrick line with Jordan Weal and Weise. Together they were buzzing in the offensive zone for most of the first two periods. They were in on Sanheim’s first goal and Weal had that extra gear in this game and looked determined to score. 

• The Flyers grabbed a 2-1 lead when the trio of Raffl, Filppula and Voracek all got involved. It initially started with Raffl’s strong forecheck when he eventually grabbed the puck as it came off the wall. Raffl then fed Voracek, who was stationed at the goal line, and finally to Filppula, who wristed a shot top left corner — a perfectly executed tic-tac-toe play.

“It was definitely an important goal,” Filppula said at the second intermission. “There’s not a lot of room out there. It’s a close game both ways, so it was good to get ahead before the third.” 

• After he was leveled to the ice in the Sabres’ zone, Travis Konecny took out his frustrations on Okposo and drove him hard to the ice.

Lineups, pairings and scratches

Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Wayne Simmonds
Michael Raffl-Valtteri Filppula-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Nolan Patrick-Dale Weise
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Travis Konecny

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Robert Hagg-Shayne Gostisbehere
Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Brian Elliott
Alex Lyon

Scratches: Forward Jori Lehtera (healthy) and defenseman Mark Alt (healthy).

Sean Couturier proving he belongs in Selke Trophy conversation

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AP Images

Sean Couturier proving he belongs in Selke Trophy conversation

VOORHEES, N.J. — By definition, the Frank J. Selke Memorial Trophy is awarded to the NHL forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game.

Since the day Sean Couturier arrived in the league as an 18-year-old rookie straight out of the June draft in 2011, the defensive element has always been part of his game. He was tasked with shutting down one of the league’s premier centers in Evgeni Malkin as a teenager and a fourth-line center. His commitment to defense was the primary reason the Flyers drafted Couturier eighth overall in 2011.

Of all the NHL’s major postseason awards presented in Las Vegas next summer, the Selke may be the one piece of hardware the Flyers have the greatest chance at claiming, as Couturier has refined his all-around game. The paradox of the award is how winners typically need respectable offensive numbers to receive serious consideration for what’s regarded as a defensive accolade.

The last 21 winners have all scored at least 20 goals, while 11 of the last 12 winners have racked up 50 or more points. Couturier has never reached either scoring plateau, which probably explains why he’s never finished higher than eighth in the voting. He’s currently on pace this season for 41 goals and 82 points.

“It would be a nice recognition,” Couturier said Wednesday. “Obviously, just getting your name thrown out there with those guys that are there every year, it’s kind of nice. It gives you that extra boost to kind of push yourself and try to be as good as you can.” 

This season, Couturier has proven he belongs in that elite conversation. Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs was a vintage Selke effort: winning faceoffs, including draws that led to goals, staying committed defensively while playing 1:35 of the final 2:12, preserving a one-goal lead.

Over his last 50 games dating back to last season, Couturier also owns an impressive plus-32 rating.

“I know some people don’t like the plus/minus. Five-on-five, if you’re in the plus, it's usually a good thing and you’re helping your team win," Couturier said. "My mentality is still the same: being solid, taking care of details and like I said, if you take care of details defensively, the offense will come and that’s always the thought process I’ve had.”

Another Selke measurable is faceoffs — an area in which Couturier has improved greatly over the past two years from a 48 percent success rate to winning 55 percent from the beginning of last season.

“It’s the one area of his game that he’s taken a lot of pride in,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I think if you look at the numbers in both faceoff dots, he’s done a real good job, as well as the neutral zone."

For an award voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, there’s almost no way to accurately assess the defensive play of 300-plus forwards without extensive video review, as most writers are solely covering the team in their city. So faceoffs, plus/minus, consistency on the penalty kill coupled with shorthanded goals can be areas that separate Selke candidates.

Currently, Boston’s Patrice Bergeron is the Selke gold standard as a four-time winner, and he’s finished first or second in voting in each of the past six seasons. Fair or not, Bergeron’s reputation alone will likely land him in the top three once again barring injury.

“When you look at (Anze) Kopitar, Bergeron and (Jonathan) Toews, I think Coots is up there with those guys,” Jakub Voracek said. “Without a doubt [Couturier is a Selke candidate]. He’s got 15 goals in 30 games. His stick is very good and he’s always one step ahead defensively. He doesn’t over-backcheck. He just knows what kind of responsibility that he has. You can see it on the PK, it’s really hard to get a puck through him. Those kind of players are very hard to find.”

Just ask the Flyers' organization. They haven’t had a Selke winner since Dave Poulin 30 years ago.