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Flyers Weekly Observations: As the top line turns

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Flyers Weekly Observations: As the top line turns

Only two games were played over the past seven days, but we still have plenty to talk about in the world where the Flyers roam.

Of course, we do … there’s always plenty to talk about with the Flyers.

The not-so-busy week gave the Flyers time to heal up. When the skates returned to the ice, we were shown glimpses of the potential the Flyers possess but also saw the deficiencies that could anchor them going forward.

The week kicked off in a big way Thursday with a commanding 3-1 victory over the visiting Chicago Blackhawks and swiftly ended with a thud thanks to a deflating 1-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild Saturday evening.

Let’s dive into this week’s main course, shall we?

• What you saw Thursday from the trio of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek, now that’s what an elite NHL top line looks like. The triumvirate made the Blackhawks look silly with the way they controlled the puck and had helpless defenders guessing the night away. Each player scored and each was sparkling in its own separate way. Giroux’s was a torpedo off a great Voracek steal and pass. Voracek's was a missile of his own off a threaded Shayne Gostisbehere cross-ice feed. And Couturier’s was the exclamation point of a lovely rush featuring a Giroux primary assist that was so good Corey Crawford’s head is still spinning and looking for the puck three days later.

Oh happy day, indeed. But … not so much two nights later as the Wild stymied the top line and the Flyers were left scoreless for a league-leading (?) fourth time already this season. There’s a theme here and it’s not the best one for the Flyers. Look, it’s great for them the top line is producing the way it is. But what about everyone else? The top line can’t score all the goals. That’s a recipe for disaster.

My colleague Tom Dougherty astutely pointed out earlier this week that Couturier’s scoring surge has been masking this secondary scoring wart. But as time goes on here, that mask will wash away. The top line has combined for 23 of the Flyers’ 50 goals thus far. That’s a whopping 46 percent. The unit has also combined for 60 of the 140 points the team has recorded. That’s good for 42.9 percent of the pie. This is not sustainable and something is going to have to change soon for the Flyers to find continued success. It’s not a coincidence they haven’t reeled together consecutive wins in almost a month.

• Is it time to worry about Nolan Patrick as a concussion has knocked the prized rookie out for the last couple weeks? I’ll put it like this: there is always worry about any concussion. But, sure, when a concussion has sidelined a player for this long, it’s worrisome. The plan is for Patrick to practice with the team Monday before the trip to Minnesota, but who knows from there. Remember he practiced back before the game in Toronto? GM Ron Hextall said prior to Saturday’s game Patrick hasn’t experienced any setbacks but is still trying to work back. It’s a scary thing because everyone responds differently to a concussion and you can’t push the envelope. The Flyers are rightfully being cautious with Patrick. Right now isn’t as important as the 19-year-old’s future.

• Wayne Simmonds hasn’t scored since he wired the game-winner Oct. 21 late against Edmonton, an uncharacteristic span of nine games. Hextall admitted Saturday evening Simmonds hasn’t been completely healthy in recent weeks but has been battling through for the team. And that has been evident as Simmonds hadn’t been his noticeable self over the last couple weeks. Something was just missing in his game. But this week, Simmonds was noticeable again. While he didn’t find his way onto the score sheet, he had that spark and jump that we’ve become accustomed to. And that’s excellent news for the Flyers. A healthy Simmonds obviously takes some of the scoring pressure off the top line, which is just what the doctor ordered right about now.

• Count this guy as one who thought Michal Neuvirth would take the lion’s share of starts in net this season. Well, that’s why they play the games, right? Brian Elliott has played very well in net and given the Flyers plenty of chances to win on most nights. In 11 starts this season, Elliott is 6-4-1 with a 2.73 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. Yes, Neuvirth’s numbers (2,17 GAA, .928 save percentage) are better, but that’s in only six games.

Elliott has the early trust of Dave Hakstol, who is notoriously fickle with his goalie decisions. And this was Elliott’s best week in a Flyers uniform yet. He was superb against Chicago, stopping 38 shots in the 3-1 win. His breakaway stop on Brandon Saad was excellent, as he waited Saad out and didn’t give him much real estate to shoot at. He followed that performance up Saturday with 27-save outing but took the hard-luck defeat after a bad bounce victimized him early in the third. Things can change with the snap of Hakstol’s finger, but it sure looks like Elliott has the No. 1 job on lock right now.

• The Blackhawks’ regular-season winless streak in Philadelphia, now at 14 since 1996, is just befuddling. How is that even possible? It’s like that 23-year winless streak the Flyers had at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit that was only snapped a few years back. I mean, it’s not like the Blackhawks have never won in South Philly … OK, I’ll just end that sentence and this column here for your health.

Coming up this week: Tuesday at Minnesota (8:00 p.m. on NBCSP+), Thursday at Winnipeg (8:00 p.m. on NBCSP), Saturday vs. Calgary (1:00 p.m. on NBCSP)

Brian Elliott shows Flyers what he's made of

Brian Elliott shows Flyers what he's made of

Ivan Provorov barely had time to settle in after his backhanded clear went out of play untouched for a delay of game penalty. It put the Flyers down two men for one minute and 44 seconds late in the second period with a two-goal lead and momentum fizzling.

The Blackhawks won the faceoff, set up and found Patrick Kane, one of the most lethal passers in hockey, at the goal line to the left of Brian Elliott. Before the puck arrived, Kane knew what he was going to do: feed former Flyer Patrick Sharp on the backdoor.

There was one problem for Chicago. Elliott was one step ahead of Kane, as the Flyers’ goalie made a subtle poke check to prevent a goal and the Flyers escaped unharmed.

Perhaps it was the six seasons Elliott spent in the Western Conference or the five years with the Blues. Whatever the reason was, Elliott out-anticipated a Hart Trophy winner.

“You definitely pick up on stuff, tendencies and stuff like that,” Elliott said. “They could be saying the same thing about me. If they’re on the winning end, you’d be asking them those questions. You just try to better each other every night and we came out on top.”

On Thursday night, Elliott produced his best effort yet in orange and black, turning away 38 shots as the Flyers beat the Blackhawks, 3-1, at the Wells Fargo Center (see story).

Elliott didn’t face much danger on the successful 5-on-3 kill, stopping the only shot he saw, a testament to the killers — specifically Robert Hagg, who logged a 2:12 shift that featured a big blocked shot. Shortly after Provorov exited the box, Elliott bailed out the Flyers once again. This time, it was a Brandon Saad breakaway with 22.9 seconds left.

Throughout, Elliott, whose unorthodox style, at times, is fundamentally a wreck to watch, was tracking pucks far greater than he has this season. He was patient in net, outwaiting Blackhawks shooters. He looked calm, and even when he didn’t, he looked in control.

There was a sequence during the third period in which Elliott staved off a shot that deflected twice. There was a sprawling stop on Richard Panik. He saw 16 pucks in the final stanza and answered each one. It was Elliott at his finest, and an Elliott that we hadn't seen in his first nine starts.

“I felt good out there,” Elliott said. “I thought we did a good job defensively to allow me to lock in on the puck, took away lanes, took away passes. That’s what you have to do against a team like that.”

Thursday was Elliott's second consecutive start against the Blackhawks after serving as the backup in the Flyers' previous two games. Elliott stopped 34 of 36 shots his last time out, a 3-0 loss in Chicago on Nov. 1.

In 10 games, Elliott is 6-3-1 with a 2.90 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. His 38-save effort Thursday brought his GAA below three for the third time this season — the first was after his second start and the other after his fifth.

Since allowing six goals against the Ducks on Oct. 24, Elliott has allowed just nine goals on 137 shots. He now has three straight 30-plus-save performances.

"You just want to keep getting more and more comfortable," Elliott said. "It's a process. It's not going to happen automatically. Sometimes you hit bumps in the road. You're only as good as your last game."

The Flyers are Elliott's third team in as many seasons. The 32-year-old signed a two-year contract with the Flyers on July 1 after spending the 2016-17 campaign in Calgary.

Last season with the Flames was a rollercoaster for Elliott. He had a 2.96 GAA and .889 save percentage after his first 20 games with Calgary, but he finished with a respectable 2.55 GAA and .910 save percentage.

This season hasn't been as lousy as his start last year, but it hasn't exactly been smooth. He's allowed six goals twice in 10 starts and has looked erratic at times. That's part of who he is as a goalie, though.

Elliott isn't fundamentally sound as a netminder. He has his own style and it can be cringeworthy. But throughout his career, he's proven to be a reliable goalie.

As part of a tandem with Michal Neuvirth, Elliott figures to give the Flyers two steady goaltenders. Through 16 games, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol has split it up 63/37 in Elliott's favor.

If Thursday's effort against Chicago is an indicator, Elliott's starting to find his footing with the Flyers and that is a welcomed sign.

"He's going to get better and better," Flyers center Sean Couturier said. "He's been pretty good so far this year. He's making the saves he needs to do to get the wins — that's what matters.

"He's probably getting more comfortable. You'd have to ask him. You're coming into a new town, new city, new team, you've got to get to know the guys, get to know the city. It's always a little change."

Flyers' top line delivers statement in win over Blackhawks

Flyers' top line delivers statement in win over Blackhawks

BOX SCORE

The Blackhawks want what the Flyers have right now.

A dominant No. 1 line.

The Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek trio scored all three of the Flyers' goals Thursday, dominating the Blackhawks' top line in the first 25 minutes of a 3-1 victory (see observations).

“When you get a chance to play against one of the top lines in the league, you get excited about it,” Claude Giroux said. “Coach told us that we were going to play most of the game against them. I think when you play with the same guys for a good amount of games, you feel more comfortable and the chemistry is more there.”

Giroux scored his ninth goal of the season 4:58 into the game on a perfect one-time feed from Voracek. A little more than seven minutes later, Shayne Gostisbehere teed up a similar pass for Voracek, who ripped home his fourth goal in his last seven games (see highlights)

Three goals, four assists and a plus-9 rating compared to Patrick Sharp-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane that finished with a minus-5 and no points. The Flyers' "Big Three" has combined for 60 points in the Flyers' first 16 games of the season. 

“It was a big matchup and a big challenge for us,” Couturier said. “We’re willing to go against anyone. We feel really confident about our game right now. We can outscore any line or any pairing. We've just got to keep going.”

“You’re talking about competitive people,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s three good players on that line and they’re all different, they play the game differently, they have different elements, different strengths, but the three of them together, big credit to them — it has worked well for our hockey team to this point.”

Hakstol assembled the Flyers' top line by transitioning Giroux from center to left wing during the second week of training camp, and the Flyers' head coach has yet to deviate from that trio this season. On the other hand, the Blackhawks are desperate to try anything. 

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville shook up his lines again, this time pairing Toews and Kane together with Sharp in an attempt to rekindle some magic from the glory days of their Stanley Cup seasons. The Flyers proved the experiment to be an utter disaster as it barely lasted 20 minutes before Quenneville pulled the plug and switched Sharp with the speedier Brandon Saad.

Hard to believe this was the same Chicago team that put up 10 goals on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins just a month ago. 

“[Ivan Provorov] and [Robert Hagg] did a great job against their top line and frustrating them," Gostisbehere said. "When you’re frustrating their top line, it’s kind of like cutting the head off a snake. The rest of the team will fold. I think we did a lot of good things out there of limiting time and space because they’re a skilled team."

Gostisbehere became the quickest defenseman to score 100 points in a Flyers uniform, reaching the milestone in 155 games

“Yeah, it’s awesome, a tremendous honor to do it but do it with my teammates and my coaches, they put me in those situations to go out there and get those points,” Gostisbehere said. “It’s huge. It’s a nice group effort — family support, everyone.”

After the Flyers jumped out to a 3-0 lead, they appeared to shift into cruise control and were outplayed over the final 35 minutes. Brian Elliott, who lost, 3-0, to the same Blackhawks just eight days earlier, bailed out the Flyers on more than one occasion with perhaps his best all-around game since joining the Flyers.

Elliott turned aside 38 shots and was vital in helping the Flyers kill off Chicago’s two-man advantage for 1:44 near the end of the second period.   

“It was huge," Elliott said. "They could have tied it up there at the end of the period and we would have been tied going in. Killing that off was big for our guys. We did a really great job. They didn’t do much on it. You keep things to the outside on that and they didn’t cross box us, so that’s good.”

When asked which save stood out the most, Elliott pointed to a pass he disrupted as the one play that was fresh in his mind.

“Taking away that pass from Kane in the 5-on-3 with my stick," Elliott said. "I was happy with that one because that’s an open net at the backdoor.”

“It’s big, to be able to get that at that time of the game and that situation," Hakstol said. "[Elliott] did a good job, made some saves for us. PK battled hard, big part of the game.”

The Flyers' win also marked the 14th consecutive regular-season win over the Blackhawks at the Wells Fargo Center, dating back to Nov. 9, 1996.

Quenneville might consider reuniting Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull on a top line if he thought it might bring the Blackhawks a win in Philadelphia.