Keep the Flyers' potent top line off the scoresheet and there is a good chance you'll keep the entire team off the scoreboard.
That proved to be the case for the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night, as they relied once again on the two hottest players in the NHL to beat the Flyers, 1-0, at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations).
"Yeah, it's a really boring game they play," Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. "It's just a sit-back system. Those are the type of teams that you are going to run into. You have to adjust and make plays in a different way."
Wild netminder Devan Dubnyk stopped all 32 shots he faced for his second consecutive shutout while increasing his shutout streak to 136 minutes and 20 seconds. Jason Zucker scored the game's lone goal. Zucker has been Minnesota's only goal scorer over the past three games, amazingly scoring all six of the Wild's goals.
"I have no idea," Zucker said when asked how he scored his goal. "Honestly, it was an empty net and it had a lot of spin off the board. It went onto my stick and kind of just shot off. It was just a lucky bounce."
Wild defenseman Matt Dumba's shot deflected and then ricocheted off the boards behind the net right onto Zucker's stick.
“You’re just trying to get over there and cover, and it just went off me a weird angle and went in, Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott said. “It’s not something you want, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles I guess.”
Coming into the game, the Flyers knew Minnesota’s style would force them to grind away in front of the net and find a means to manufacture what is often described as a “greasy” goal requiring blue-collar effort. The Flyers found ways to get shots through traffic in the first period, but they couldn’t find those open lanes over the final 20 minutes, as the Wild blocked 11 shots in the third period alone.
“We didn’t finish on one. It was one of those nights where it wasn’t going to be easy to score,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We couldn’t find a rebound or a puck around the net to finish one of those. That’s kind of the way the night was both directions.”
Aside from the top line, the Flyers' fourth line of Taylor Leier, Scott Laughton and Michael Raffl was arguably the only other line that generated any sustained offensive pressure, and much of their work also revolved around containing the Wild’s top line of Tyler Ennis, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund.
Minnesota’s defense also protected Dubnyk in front of the crease, taking away the cross-ice pass and jammed up any open space. Credit much of that to shutdown defenseman Ryan Suter, who was on the ice for over 11 minutes in the final period.
“We had some really good sticks tonight,” Dubnyk said. “It felt Suets (Suter) was just eating pucks left and right.”
“I wouldn’t say it was a tough night,” said Sean Couturier, who had a team-high six shots. “I thought it was a grind out there. The shooting lanes are hard to find, so at first, you have to create that lane and then go to the net. It was a battle.”
The Flyers have now been shut out four times in their first 17 games, an NHL high, and all against Western Conference opponents. While there hasn’t been one proven formula for the opposition, it has to be concerning for the Flyers that when the Claude Giroux-Couturier-Jakub Voracek combination is held in check, there hasn’t been another line capable of stepping up and delivering lately.
Here are some of the droughts of the Flyers' skilled forwards:
Wayne Simmonds — 0 goals in his last nine games.
Travis Konecny — 1 goal in his last 13 games.
Jordan Weal — 1 goal over his last 14 games.
On the related topic of scoring, general manager Ron Hextall seemed to be the only concerned party.
"It's something we need to get better at, we've discussed it," Hextall said before the game. "Those guys you're referring to, we have a lot of good players there.
"For whatever reason, the chemistry just hasn't been there. They haven't been getting a ton of breaks, so hopefully, they can break through. We need more scoring from other parts and lines other than Couturier's line."
"Something has to break," Simmonds said. "So we have to work a little bit harder and a little bit smarter and hopefully, we get it going on Tuesday."
And the Flyers can only hope the end result is a little bit better Tuesday in Minnesota.