Flyers

Flyers-Capitals thoughts: Can big boys change trend vs. Washington in home opener?

Flyers-Capitals thoughts: Can big boys change trend vs. Washington in home opener?

Updated: 11:35 a.m.

Flyers (2-2-0) vs. Capitals (3-1-1)
7 p.m. on NBCSP, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports App; Pregame Live at 6

The Flyers are one of two NHL teams still yet to play a game in their own digs.

But that changes Saturday night.

The 2017-18 home opener is finally here as the Flyers welcome the Washington Capitals to the Wells Fargo Center after opening with four straight road games.

Let's get you set for puck drop with some thoughts before Game 5 of the season.

• Beginning with the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals have become a major thorn in the sides of the Flyers' big boys. In four games against Washington last season, Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek combined for one goal and one assist. In the first-round playoff series defeat two seasons ago, the four totaled a pair of goals and four assists in six games.

The Flyers are much deeper this season, but Giroux, Gostisbehere, Simmonds and Voracek remain the offensive focal points. They've been neutralized and outplayed by the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, while goalie Braden Holtby has represented a nemesis.

Can Giroux and company start to shift the unbalance? It must happen if the Flyers want to be more competitive with the Capitals this season, starting Saturday.

• Speaking of the Capitals, following more postseason failure, they're off to another hot start and look dangerous as usual, led by who else but Ovechkin. The Russian sniper scored 33 goals last season after three straight campaigns of 50 or more. Just when you thought maybe this was the start of him slowing down, the 32-year-old rips off nine goals in his first five games this season. Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kuznetsov are the NHL's early leaders with 10 points apiece.

• One positive for the Flyers is they haven't played since Tuesday. Meanwhile, Washington played the Penguins on Wednesday (lost, 3-2) and the Devils last night (won, 5-2), making Saturday the second game of a back-to-back set for the Capitals. The Flyers should have fresh legs and shouldn't be lacking for energy provided it's the home opener coming off a frustrating 6-5 loss in Nashville.

• Although it's early, we're already starting to see the benefits of the Flyers' improved depth. Through the team's first four games last season, six players had scored goals. This season, nine Flyers have already tallied a marker. Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick playing third-line roles? Those are first-round picks at 20 and 19 years old, respectively, giving the Flyers playmaking threats in the bottom six, something we didn't see much of at all in 2016-17 (see story). Just think about Tuesday's game. The Flyers nearly won a 6-5 slugfest against the defending Western Conference champs without a goal from Giroux, Gostisbehere, Simmonds, Voracek, Ivan Provorov, Jordan Weal and Sean Couturier. That's a good sign.

• The Flyers have lost four of their last five home openers. In order to win this one, they'll want to play with controlled aggression and puck discipline.

"Don't turn pucks over,” Simmonds said Friday of the Capitals (see story). "That's when they hurt you. They have a lot of offensive firepower on that team."

As the Flyers have seen, Washington is a team that doesn't need help to score. When it gets it, it tends to take advantage. The Flyers have already allowed five power-play goals for a 70.6 penalty-kill percentage, tied for 30th in the NHL.

• The Flyers' morning skate in Voorhees, New Jersey, was optional. Brian Elliott took the typical preparation of the starter and was the first off the ice, signaling he'll be between the pipes. Elliott is 6-5-0 with a 3.31 GAA and .888 save percentage in 13 lifetime matchups with Washington. Michal Neuvirth is 1-1-0 with a 3.14 goals-against average and .891 save percentage in three games against his former team. He was strong against the Capitals in the 2016 playoffs.

• Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen suffered an upper-body injury Friday and was placed on long-term injured reserve.

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets shut out Rangers

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AP Images

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets shut out Rangers

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sergei Bobrovsky made 36 saves for his 21st career shutout and Zach Werenski and Artemi Panarin scored in the Columbus Blue Jackets' 2-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Friday night.

New York ran into a hot goalie in Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner who notched his second shutout of the season in powering Columbus to its third straight victory.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was nearly as good against the increasingly aggressive Blue Jackets, stopping 40 shots on the night. The Rangers (11-8-1) lost their second straight following a six-game win streak.

After a scoreless first period in which both goalies made some slick, sprawling saves, Werenski found the back of the net with his sixth goal of the season 13:34 into the second.

Brandon Dubinsky lost the handle of the puck in the slot, and Werenski picked it up just inside the right circle and beat Lundqvist with a one-timer.

Columbus (12-7-1) was the aggressor in the second frame, outshooting the Rangers 19-9, and kept up the pressure in the third.

Panarin scored his fourth goal of the season on a power play 7:14 into the third period, rocketing a slap shot from the high slot that ricocheted off the bar and in.

The Blue Jackets are 9-1-0 this season when allowing two goals or fewer (see full recap).

Red Wings’ 3rd-period goals enough to top Sabres
DETROIT -- Tomas Tatar scored a go-ahead goal midway through third period and the Detroit Red Wings went on to beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-1 on Friday night.

Detroit's Luke Glendening broke a scoreless tie late in the second period. Ryan O'Reilly pulled Buffalo into a 1-all tie 5:50 into the third.

Dylan Larkin scored late in the game and Jimmy Howard had 19 saves for the Red Wings. They have won consecutive games at home for the first time this season.

Buffalo's Robin Lehner stopped the first 20 shots he faced and finished with 30 saves.

The Sabres have lost four straight, one away from their longest losing streak of the season, but were thankful they didn't lose more than a game in Detroit.

Jack Eichel went to the dressing room late in the second period after coming off the ice slowly, keeping weight off his right skate following a collision with Glendening, and making a brief stop on the bench. Buffalo's standout center was cleared to return at the start of the third period.

After a scoreless first period with a combined 14 shots, Detroit outshot Buffalo 13-4 in the second and took control without that translating to a big lead (see full recap).

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

Throughout the season, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes.

Dougherty
If Thursday night's 3-2 shootout loss in Winnipeg confirmed anything, it's the Flyers cannot break up their top line. They might not be able to score much, but their only scoring is coming from Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

The Couturier line accounts for 48 percent of the Flyers' offense, or 25 goals. Factor the defense and top line together, and that's 59 percent, as the blue line has produced six tallies this season.

Of the 21 goals the Flyers have scored that do not come from the top line or blue line, 12 have come from two players, Wayne Simmonds and Valtteri Filppula. Simmonds hasn't scored in 11 games, and Filppula has one goal in his past nine games.

Two lines have stayed intact since Day 1 — the Couturier line and the fourth line of Scott Laughton, Taylor Leier and Michael Raffl. Head coach Dave Hakstol has been hesitant about breaking up his fourth line, and rightfully so. Laughton, Leier and Raffl have chemistry, and they're almost always cycling in the offensive zone.

Nolan Patrick just returned after missing three weeks because of a "suspected" concussion and played sparingly against the Jets. He should help the Flyers' scoring woes, but he won't solve them. I think it's time to break up the fourth line, and based on the Winnipeg game, it looks like a possibility Hakstol is considering.

Here's why. Raffl played on the second power-play unit against the Jets, which was a first this season. Perhaps Hakstol didn't want to throw Patrick back into the fire and watched the rookie's minutes.

Breaking up lines Nos. 2, 3 and 4 is the best course of action. Travis Konecny is struggling with confidence, Jordan Weal hasn't been great, and those are two players the Flyers need to get going. It's time to end the Dale Weise in the top-nine experiment.

With what the Flyers have, here is what I would do:

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

Hall
There's no need to panic if you're the Flyers.

First, you finally have a no-doubt-about-it top line. Voracek, Couturier and Giroux have blended beautifully and are doing damage, as the Flyers entered Friday one of only three teams in the NHL with a trio of players over 20 points each. Don't break that up just because there's an imbalance below it. 

And second, it's a long season. Ups and downs are common and things can change quickly. Just look at last season. The Flyers ripped off 10 straight wins and scored the NHL's second-most goals through the first two months of 2016-17. As we all know, they didn't make the postseason and finished as a bottom-third goal-scoring club.

The Flyers simply need to continue experimenting with their middle six and see what eventually works best. A little patience was going to be required when you're relying on a 19-year-old rookie in Patrick, a 20-year-old still finding himself at this level in Konecny and a 25-year-old facing his first full NHL season in Weal.

And let's not forget, the defense is exceptionally young with two rookies (Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim), a 20-year-old leader (Ivan Provorov) and a third-year player coming off a sophomore slump (Shayne Gostisbehere).

But back to the forwards. 

If you recall, a stretch from Oct. 10-17 featured Filppula centering Weal and Simmonds on the second line, with Patrick centering Konecny and Weise on the third unit. It resulted in a pretty productive three-game span in which the Flyers picked up two wins and outscored the opposition 18-9.

I really liked the dynamic of that middle six. And the Flyers can now return to it with Patrick suiting up. He will be eased back into heavier minutes, but he can make a difference when healthy and comfortable. Patrick and Konecny can still play plenty of minutes on the third line with less pressure and potentially more favorable matchups.

We've seen Weal and Simmonds work well together, and Filppula adds smarts and steadiness down the middle.

But the important thing to remember is the Flyers are only 19 games into an 82-game grind. Scoring can come and go at times, and there's no reason it can't come down the line.

So, here's what I like best for the Flyers right now:

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