Flyers

Flyers Weekly Observations: The Wayne Train hasn't skipped a beat

Flyers Weekly Observations: The Wayne Train hasn't skipped a beat

Flyers hockey is finally back in our lives.

Feels pretty darn good to say that, right? It’s been too long.

You guys know what else is back?

Flyers Weekly Observations! Woo-hoo!

I know, it’s so hard to contain your excitement. I understand.

Anyway, the Flyers started things off with a bang with a hard-fought 5-3 win on opening night Wednesday in San Jose vs. the Sharks, endured a tough 2-0 loss Thursday evening vs. the Kings in Los Angeles and finished up the California portion of the trip with a strong 3-2 OT victory over the Ducks in Anaheim Saturday night.

Still sleepy from staying up for all those West Coast games?

That’s OK because there’s plenty to discuss after a busy first week of the season. Let’s hop right into it, shall we?

• Through all the change the Flyers have gone through both externally with player movement and internally with line changes, prospects filtering themselves into more prominent roles and veterans still in orange and black losing a step in the eyes of some, one constant has remained a driving force — Wayne Simmonds. He picked up right where he left off with his hat trick Wednesday at the Shark Tank. He was right there in his office in front of the net, deflecting two pucks from the point past Sharks goalie Martin Jones. His second tally on the evening was as stealthy as it gets as he tipped a chest-high shot right by Jones. But here’s the thing you have to like about his empty-netter to seal the victory — sure, it was an empty-netter, but Simmonds is trusted enough to be out there on the 4-on-4 as the Flyers desperately nursed a one-goal lead. He also played 3:30 of shorthanded time in that game. Yes, he’s a goal-scorer, but he’s the Flyers’ Mr. Do-It-All. He’s their steady rock. And that OT winner in Anaheim was just an another example of the complete player he is who possesses a heck of a wrister.  

• Let’s get into the kids now. Specifically, the ones who patrol the blue line. I questioned the decision to bring Travis Sanheim and Sam Morin to California only for both to be healthy scratches in the opener vs. San Jose. Sanheim eventually got in Thursday in L.A. (more on that in a bit) and stayed in for the OT triumph in Anaheim. But Morin has yet to suit up this season and play. What’s the point of having him there if he’s not going to play? These are important times in the development of a 22-year-old defenseman who already has to live with the pressures that come with being a high first-round pick. If he’s not playing with the big club, he should be getting reps in Lehigh Valley. The guy needs to be playing somewhere, not sitting somewhere.

• So, now, back to Sanheim, who made his debut at STAPLES Center on Thursday evening. The nerves were obviously there for the 21-year-old, especially early on as he tried to get his legs underneath him. And that’s to be expected. Try and put yourself in his shoes, or, in this case, his skates. You would feel the same way. The nerves should be there. But the game was a tougher one for Sanheim, as he tried to get adjusted to regular-season NHL speed and precision all night and wound up taking a bad four-minute high-sticking call in the third. He was critical of himself and his play afterward, saying he needed to be better. And you have to like that out of a kid, especially after his first game. He wasn’t happy just being there. He rebounded with a solid outing Saturday night in Anaheim. He can keep building and keep getting more and more comfortable in the NHL. He’s got the right attitude.

• Speaking of the kids, how about keeping Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny on the same line for a long, long time?

• One area that had my particular interest coming into this week was the goaltending. Both how each goaltender played and how head coach Dave Hakstol would rotate them because you just knew he would split the starts one way or another. I will say that I’m still not sold on the Brian Elliott-Michal Neuvirth tandem, but each was very solid in net this week in their respective starts. Elliott hung in there in a tough environment in San Jose and earned the victory with 32 stops. Perhaps his best one came in the first period when Kevin LeBanc found himself all alone with a loose puck in front of the net and Elliott stuck out the arm to make an impressive stop. Neuvirth was very good the next night in Los Angeles as he took a hard-luck loss with 25 saves. That incredible sprawling stop he made on Anze Kopitar, though? My groin hurts more and more every time I watch it. Elliott retook the reins Saturday in Anaheim and excelled with 21 saves in the OT triumph. So, while Neuvirth played well in Hollywood, Elliott is still the one with two victories. Knowing how Hakstol tends to ride the hot hand in net, don’t be surprised to see Elliott see the fair share of starts coming up. Speaking of goaltending, how good was Jonathan Quick on Thursday? When healthy, he’s got a legit claim to being the best goalie in the NHL.

• Have to like what we’ve seen from the Flyers’ newfangled top line of Claude Giroux on left wing, Sean Couturier at center and Jake Voracek on the right wing. The triumvirate opened the scoring on the season with Giroux’s first-period tally in San Jose and has combined for two goals, seven assists, nine points and 21 shots on goal on the young season. Keep that kind of offensive pressure up and the goal numbers will come. And remember, those three could still benefit from more time to jell together.

• Mr. NHL Schedule Maker did the Flyers no favors to start the season. The California hell trip is hard enough, but then two of those games were the opponent’s home opener. The cherry on top: a trip to Nashville for the Predators’ opener and Western Conference championship banner ceremony.  But, hey, coming out of Cali with four points ain’t bad by any stretch of the imagination.

Coming up this week: Tuesday at Nashville (8 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia), Saturday’s home opener vs. Washington (7 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia)

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