John Boruk

Flyers have clear path to postseason but ...

Flyers have clear path to postseason but ...

It’s about to get real for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Real serious and potentially really hard. The Flyers have played the fewest divisional games of any team in the NHL.

That might be beneficial if the team located about 40 minutes off the shores of the Atlantic Ocean actually played in the Atlantic Division. The Flyers have hammered Atlantic teams this season: an 8-4-0 record including a win in Tampa and their most recent three-game series sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Whereas the Atlantic houses a collection of domesticated poodles and Pomeranians, the Metropolitan Division is more a breeding ground for vicious Dobermans and pit bulls.

And the Flyers are about to enter the teeth of that beast.

Dave Hakstol’s club plays 19 of their remaining 37 games against the rock-solid Metropolitan, the only 8-team division in hockey without a legitimate doormat or two. 

“It’s good or bad depending on whether you’re winning or not,” general manager Ron Hextall said.“It’s great taking points from other teams and adding to your total. It does put a higher importance on those games for sure. Every game is important, but certain games are just a little more important. Your lows can’t be too low. That’s the bottom line.

“They’re divisional games. They’re huge games for us, especially with how tight it is with that wild card spot,” center Sean Couturier said. “We’ve got to step up and be ready for the challenge.”

Unfortunately for the Flyers, their sore spot over their past two-plus seasons has been their play against the Metropolitan elites — the teams they’re typically chasing in the standings.

4-4-1 vs. Capitals
3-5-2 vs. Rangers
3-6-1 vs. Penguins
2-3-4 vs. Blue Jackets

Collectively, that’s a 12-18-8 record in the Dave Hakstol era with just a 4-9-6 mark on the road. Interestingly, defenseman Brandon Manning believes roster formation has been part of the reason behind the success of the Flyers' opponents.  

“Credit to them, I think they’ve done a good job of getting better every year,” Manning said. “You look at what Pittsburgh does with their turnover and still finding a way to win. Columbus is so much better and you look at Jersey, which hasn’t been the greatest team the past couple of years, but this year they have a really good hockey team. I think credit to those teams for finding a way to get better.” 

And if there’s a direct path to the postseason, then winning these crucial divisional games has to be the way to get there. Since the formation of the NHL’s current four-division alignment in 2013-14, the Metropolitan has sent 17 teams to the playoffs and only once has a team reached the postseason without a winning record within the division — the Pittsburgh Penguins finished 9-17-4 in the Metro in 2014-15. 

The Capitals, Rangers and Blue Jackets also have the luxury of rostering a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender in crucial divisional games, whereas, Hakstol will rely more on a platoon based on Elliott’s first-half workload and Neuvirth attempting to regain his early season form.  

“I haven’t studied the schedule that much in depth, but considering Moose started a stretch of 25 out of 30 games, that’s a real heavy workload,” Hakstol said. “I would expect the workload to be more spread out than that. We’ll find the best rhythm to be able and have both of them help our team.

“You need two goalies. I don’t care who you are,” Hextall said. “Look around the league. I said it before, there’s no Marty Brodeurs.”

Maybe not, but Saturday it all starts with Brodeur’s former team and with a back-to-back against the Devils and the Capitals this weekend. The Flyers' position within the division can change very drastically one direction or the other.

Pleasant surprises in a first for Flyers

Pleasant surprises in a first for Flyers

BOX SCORE

When asked what he thought about the current Flyers team prior to his retirement ceremony, Eric Lindros admitted he really didn’t know all that much regarding this year’s team. 

After Thursday night’s 3-2 win over Lindros’ hometown Maple Leafs (see observations), "Big E" and a sold-out Wells Fargo Center crowd learned something about the Flyers that no one in Philadelphia had been privy to.

The Flyers capped off their first win this season when trailing by two or more goals entering the third period. Interestingly, the only other third-period comeback that led to a victory was when they trailed this same Toronto team, 2-1, on Dec. 12. Prior to this game, the Flyers were 1-12-2 this season when trailing after two periods.

Certainly, the Flyers needed goal scoring, but more importantly, they also received a handful of momentum saves from goaltender Michal Neuvirth.

“Huge," Neuvirth said regarding his 29-save performance. “When we tied it, it was like, 'OK, here we go. You gotta be at your best right now.' So I was just focusing on the next shot. Just happy the way the guys responded in the third.”

Neuvirth had little, if any, margin of error after the Leafs scored twice in a 28-second span to grab a 2-0 advantage, but the Flyers' backup netminder provided a handful of momentum saves that allowed the Flyers to win in overtime.

• A minute after Wayne Simmonds tied the game at 2-2 with a shorthanded goal, Neuvirth stopped Auston Matthews and Connor Brown on back-to-back shots, including an impressive blocker save on Brown from up close.

• With 2:48 remaining in regulation, Neuvirth made the save of the game with the Leafs coming down on a 2-on-1. Neuvirth expected Nazem Kadri to shoot. Instead, he passed it to his left, forcing Neuvirth to make a full extension on Patrick Marleau, turning aside the shot with the tip of his right pad (see highlights).

• Neuvirth denied Matthews from in tight with another pad save just 10 seconds into overtime. That save created a 2-on-1 scoring chance resulting in Sean Couturier’s game-winning score. 

“At least three 10-bell saves by Neuvy. He was tremendous,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We generated a lot in the third period, but when you give up those chances against, Neuvy stole the show in my opinion and you need those saves sometimes to win games. For me, he was first star.”

Neuvirth and the rest of the Flyers needed an initial spark and 19-year-old rookie Nolan Patrick was surprisingly the one to provide it. After taking a shot that hit the side of the net and caromed behind it, Patrick chased down Mitch Marner, stole the puck and fired a quick shot on goaltender Frederik Andersen for his first goal in his last 25 games.

“I tried to forget how many games it was in a row without a goal and just keep playing,” Patrick said. “I thought I was playing some good hockey lately and I knew it would come.”

A minute and 52 seconds later, Simmonds tied the game at 2-2 with the Flyers' second shorthanded goal of the season, extending his point streak to six games.

Struggling to find the right overtime combinations, Hakstol elected to go with the trio of Couturier, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov to start the extra session. Couturier continued his magical run and now has 11 goals in his last 12 games, while also providing five game-winning goals in the Flyers' last 10 victories. 

“He’s hot. We keep calling him ‘Rocket,’" Simmonds said, referring to Hall of Famer Maurice “Rocket” Richard. “You just keep giving him the puck and he’s going to find the back of the net. When you’re hot, you want to keep giving it to a guy like that. Hopefully, he’s going to continue to score for us.”

More Couturier goals and more game-changing saves, and the Flyers will find themselves rocketing up the standings.

Flyers go from running on E to comeback for 'Big E'

Flyers go from running on E to comeback for 'Big E'

BOX SCORE

On a night when a sold-out Wells Fargo Center crowd celebrated “Big E,” the Flyers responded with an equally big ‘W’ by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-2, in overtime to sweep the three-game regular-season series. 

Sean Couturier scored his 26th goal just 18 seconds into the extra session on a feed from Travis Konecny.

The Flyers trailed, 2-0, after the first two periods, but erased that deficit in the first 3:25 of the third period.

Nolan Patrick opened the scoring in the third with his third goal of the season. 

Wayne Simmonds scored his 16th goal of the season and the second shorthanded goal for the Flyers this season, which tied the game at 2-2. Simmonds now has a point in six straight games (four goals, two assists).

Michal Neuvirth stopped 29 of 31 shots as the Flyers’ backup netminder has now won his last two starts.
    
• The Leafs snapped a scoreless tie in the second period when Shayne Gostisbehere attempted to keep the puck in the offensive zone. Gostisbehere missed it completely, and with Ivan Provorov already pinching, only Couturier was back at the blue line. Couturier couldn’t catch Connor Brown, who broke in all alone on Neuvirth and beat him through the five-hole for a 1-0 Toronto lead. “Ghost” has to make sure that puck doesn’t squirt past him. 

• Just 28 seconds later, the Flyers surrendered another goal on a fluky play as Jake Gardiner harmlessly shot the puck on net from the left circle. Neuvirth made the initial stop, but the puck popped up straight in the air. Unfortunately for the Flyers, Robert Hagg couldn’t prevent Frederik Gauthier from getting a shot off. Neuvirth either lost track of it or the puck was tipped on the way to the net, but it put the Flyers down 2-0.

• The Flyers finally came to life when Patrick scored perhaps his most impressive goal of the season. After his initial shot from a sharp angle was turned aside and bounced behind the net, Patrick tenaciously chased down Mitch Marner, stripped the puck and turned to fire a shot that caught Frederik Andersen by surprise. Patrick continues to improve his play and show more jump in the offensive zone. He had a strong first period and followed it up with a goal.

• Neuvirth made the save of the game off a 2-on-1 when Patrick Marleau had a wide-open net. Neuvirth went post to post and was able to extend his right pad just enough to kick away Marleau’s shot.

• The Jori Lehtera interference penalty was absolutely ridiculous. The referees allowed both teams to play without much officiating and then whistled Lehtera for a penalty they had no business calling. 

• It was a tight-checking game in the opening five minutes. The only sustained pressure came from the Leafs’ top line of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman. The Flyers had a good look when Claude Giroux was able to feed Provorov, who came into the high slot untouched. However, Provorov’s one-timer hit Andersen in the chest.

• There was a great save from Neuvirth that started after Jakub Voracek was caught stick handling too much just inside the Leafs’ blue line. That led to a 2-on-1 rush with James van Riemsdyk leading the rush up the left side. Neuvirth did a fantastic job of anticipating the pass to Tyler Bozak, who was cutting down the middle of the ice.

• The Flyers worked a power play in the final two minutes of the opening period as Hyman tripped up Gostisbehere unnecessarily. “Ghost” unleashed a slap shot early that handcuffed Simmonds, who was looking for a shot where he could extend his hands a little bit more. Gostisbehere also had a prime opportunity as he broke in underneath the Leafs’ coverage for a quality scoring chance. 

• The Flyers continued to play with fire as they gave Toronto a shorthanded opportunity. Overall, it was a pretty good first period for the Flyers, who have struggled to score in the first 20 minutes with just five goals over their last 11 games. 

• Interestingly, Dave Hakstol had Lehtera as one of his penalty-killers. Lehtera, who’s not exactly fleet of foot, had a chance to jump on a loose puck and clear the zone, but simply couldn’t get there quick enough. Overall, the Flyers’ PK did a solid job of pressuring the Leafs from the top of the circle to the blue line, not allowing them to setup and ultimately no shots on goal.   

• If you enjoy the defensive part of the game, then you would have loved watching Couturier battle with Matthews. Couturier refused to give Matthews any room to maneuver with the puck. The Matthews line was clicking earlier this season when the Flyers faced the Leafs in Toronto, but not so much in mid-January.

• There was a very good save sequence from Neuvirth around the 12-minute mark of the second period as the Leafs had several whacks right around the crease area. Neuvirth stood his ground, looked calm and maintained his positioning for any rebounds.

• The Flyers came up empty with two of their best scoring opportunities from the high-danger area in the span of a minute. First, Konecny missed wide of the net, and then later, Jordan Weal’s shot was blocked by Leafs defenseman Gardiner. For Konecny, that’s a shot he has to bury.

Lineups, pairings and scratches

Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny
Michael Raffl-Valtteri Filppula-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Nolan Patrick-Wayne Simmonds
Tyrell Goulbourne-Scott Laughton-Jori Lehtera

Defenseman
Ivan Provorov-Shayne Gostisbehere
Robert Hagg-Andrew MacDonald
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches: Forwards Taylor Leier (healthy) and Dale Weise (healthy), and defenseman Travis Sanheim (healthy).