Robert Hagg

Brian Elliott's case for Flyers MVP

Brian Elliott's case for Flyers MVP

While it didn’t hit the most screeching of halts, the Flyers’ recent sleigh ride of success did a few road bumps this week before the clock struck Christmas Eve.

The six-game win streak is a thing of December past now and the Flyers hit the holiday break losers of three of four games this past week.

The streak was snapped Monday with a 4-1 defeat at the hand of the visiting Los Angeles Kings. The winning ways returned Wednesday with a hard-fought 4-3 at home over the Detroit Red Wings. Then is right back on the losing track Friday with a dud of a 4-2 loss to the lowly Buffalo Sabres. And then the week was capped with yet another loss in Columbus, this one a 2-1 decision in a shootout.

You might have some holiday cookies or some eggnog to get to, so let’s not wait any longer and hop right into this week’s Flyers observations.

• As we sit here at the holiday break, a popular exercise is to look back on the first three months of the season and try to name a Flyers MVP thus far.

Sean Couturier rightfully could be at the top of many observers’ lists with his team-leading 16 goals. Claude Giroux is back to his point-producing self with 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points. Jake Voracek is tied for the NHL lead with 36 assists and leads the team with 44 points. And Ivan Provorov is an indispensable rock on the blue line. But my vote would go to netminder Brian Elliott.

Elliott has been a tremendous, steadying anchor for a Flyers team that has lost its way more than once this season. On the campaign, he’s 13-8-7 with a .916 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against average. But he’s been so much more than that. He’s given the Flyers chances to win almost every night in and night out. That’s all these Flyers could ask for and more with an offense that has struggled so mightily at times. Even during the brutal 10-game skid, Elliott was rock-solid in net.

But he proved his worth to the team again this week as he was solid against both L.A. and Detroit and superb against both Buffalo and Columbus in losing efforts. Thursday in Buffalo, he stopped 33 of 35 shots faced, many of which were supreme testers. Yes, he let a leaky one in, but that happens to every goalie every now and then. Against Columbus, his 11th straight start, no less, he took a hard-luck shootout loss with 35 saves on 36 shots faced. That’s all been a microcosm of what he’s done all season. He’s held the Flyers above water to be where they’re at as of Sunday, just four points out of a playoff spot.

• What an ugly effort Friday night in Buffalo. Save for the final five minutes of the second period and the late, two-goal flurry in the third, the Flyers were overmatched by a struggling Sabres club that entered the contest as the worst team in the Eastern Conference.

Not even Elliott’s heroics in net could save the Flyers from a pitiful loss that saw the Sabres out-compete them at almost every turn, including a 1 for 5 power-play effort that doesn’t rightfully depict how bad it was.  

Look, bad losses are going to happen all throughout the season, but that one was just inexcusable. Those are games the good teams — *cough* the playoff teams *cough* — win. That kind of effort just isn’t going to work for these Flyers. They don’t have enough to get by like that.

• The loss in Buffalo left such a bad taste in Dave Hakstol’s mouth he decided to throw his lines into the proverbial blender and shake things up.

The biggest change saw Wayne Simmonds moved off the first line and 20-year-old Travis Konecny bumped up to that spot. It’s an intriguing move and one that is worth trying.

Despite recent success, the Flyers are still yearning for offense. And Konecny has oodles and oodles of offensive talent that’s just waiting to get unleashed. Playing alongside such skilled players as Couturier and Giroux can only help unleash that offensive firepower in the second-year winger.

Now, Konecny has found himself in Hakstol’s doghouse a time or two for his high-risk, turnover-increased style of play. But that’s where being alongside Couturier and Giroux can also help. Those two players are so defensively responsible that it can allow Konecny to have more offensive freedom to roam and therefore enhance his creativity.

He didn’t have shot on goal in Columbus, but Konecny was very noticeable on his new line. This is a big opportunity for him, and it’s up to him to capitalize on it.

• It was a week of ups and downs for rookie defenseman Robert Hagg.

On Wednesday, he ripped home his first NHL goal when he powered a slapper from above the circle through Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard and then earned the Ric Flair victory robe from his teammates.

Things did not go as well Friday in Buffalo when Hagg, normally steady as can be, endured perhaps his worst game as a Flyer. He had an awful giveaway that led to a breakaway and eventually an Evander Kane penalty shot Elliott had to stop. Then he took a bad holding penalty on Zemgus Girgensons moments after. That all set the stage for a rough outing overall.

With as good as Hagg has played, it’s tough to remember sometimes that he’s a rookie. Games like Friday in Buffalo harsh reminders. But such is the life of a rookie in the NHL.

• You guys know who’s pretty good? That Sergei Bobrovsky guy, that's who. Sheesh.

Coming up this week: Thursday at Florida (7:30 p.m. on NBCSP), Friday at Tampa Bay (7:30 p.m. on NBCSP)

Hagg nets 1st goal as Flyers hone killer instinct

Hagg nets 1st goal as Flyers hone killer instinct

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He’s been hitting anything that moves all season. However, for the first time Wednesday night, Robert Hagg finally struck the most elusive target on his hit list.

The back of the net.

Coming into the Flyers’ game with the Red Wings, Hagg had attempted 79 shots - 37 of those were saved and the other 42 hit the opponent’s body or just missed everything altogether.

“It’s fun, especially with a win,” Hagg said following the Flyers’ 4-3 victory over the Red Wings (see observations). “I was just closing my eyes and hoping for the best. When I looked up and saw the puck go in, there was a lot of emotion coming out. I had few chances earlier this season, so to see that one go in feels pretty damn good.”

While Hagg may have wondered when that first goal would eventually go his way, goaltender Brian Elliott started to sense something different in the practices leading up to this game.

“Actually, the last couple of days I’ve noticed his shot has had a little more zip on it,” Elliott said. “It doesn’t go unnoticed on my end, but that was awesome.

“You saw up and down on the bench the guys celebrating really hard for that one. When a guy with his kind of grit brings it every night and takes the cream in the corner, it’s awesome to see those type of guys get goals.”

Hagg’s second-period, game-tying goal came just two minutes after the Red Wings had taken a 3-2 lead. The marker allowed the Flyers to make a strong third-period push against a Detroit team that had played the night before.

“It’s kinda funny,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “He had to answer a bunch of questions about not scoring goals over the past couple of days. I wished you guys would have asked him about it a month or two ago, but his game has been the same as its been over the last month, month and a half.”

Hagg has been a defensive staple since earning his roster spot straight out of training camp. He hasn’t missed a game or a chance to nail an opponent. Hagg’s 117 hits rank second in the NHL, while he’s also helped stabilize the Flyers’ second defense pairing in his tandem with Shayne Gostisbehere.

Perhaps what made the night complete for Hagg was his late-game assignment with the Flyers clinging to a third-period lead. Throughout the final period, Hagg was matched up against fellow Swede and Red Wings captain, Henrik Zetterberg, who Hagg admired while learning the game of hockey in Uppsala, Sweden.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Hagg said. “When I grew up, he was a big star over here. To get a chance to play against him was pretty awesome.”  

“That’s a matchup we changed as we went through the game,” Hakstol said. “That wasn’t our initial matchup on the back end, but those two (Hagg and Gostisbehere), as we went into the middle part of the game we made that change.”

Hagg and the Flyers were able to offset another sluggish, inconsistent first period with a tightly-played, defensive-minded third period when they limited the Red Wings to just four shots on net. Locking down leads over the past few weeks has contributed to the Flyers’ turnaround, which has allowed the team to go from dropping 10 straight to now having won seven of the last eight games.

“You saw the guys putting their bodies on the line,” Elliott said. “Gudy (Radko Gudas) probably had more stops than I did tonight. Provy (Ivan Provorov) took one in the second period that looked like it took him down a little bit. Putting their bodies on the line, and we know that these points are big. Every little play means a lot, especially when you’re trying to close out games in the third period.”

A milestone night for Flyers to end homestand

A milestone night for Flyers to end homestand

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The Flyers closed out their five-game homestand Wednesday night with a 4-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.

Claude Giroux assisted on three of the Flyers’ goals. 

Rookie defenseman Robert Hagg scored his first NHL goal.

The Flyers held the Red Wings to one shot on net over the final 10:56 of the third period.

Making his ninth straight start, Brian Elliott turned aside 25 of 28 shots to improve his record to 13-7-6.

The Flyers finished with a 4-1-0 mark on the homestand and are 15-12-7 overall. They play back-to-back road games in Buffalo and Columbus on Friday and Saturday, respectively, as they head into the Christmas break. 

• The Flyers’ defense looked very leaky in the first five and a half minutes. Caught up in a line change, the Red Wings found the Flyers’ defense flat-footed at their own blue line as Gustav Nyquist got behind Travis Sanheim and Radko Gudas. Once again, Elliott was there and bailed out his teammates. 

• Midway through the first period, Anthony Mantha attempted a breakout pass from behind his net, but snapped his stick and the puck dribbled right to Sean Couturier in front of the crease. It was a heads-up play by Jimmy Howard to react as Couturier set up Giroux for a one-timer and that failed to connect as the Flyers had a prime opportunity to score the game’s first goal.

• There was another Flyers’ turnover that saw Hagg’s pass picked off by Andreas Athanasiou in the neutral zone. A few seconds later, Hagg pushed the puck along the boards and it popped out to Athanasiou, who fired a slap shot on Elliott.

• The Flyers had sloppy in the neutral zone again, as Athanasiou jumped on a loose puck. Shayne Gostisbehere jumped up to play his man, Athanasiou and his blazing speed raced past Hagg and broke in on Elliott. However, Athanasiou lost control of the puck and was unable to get off a good shot.  

• Giroux found the soft spot in the high slot and unleashed a one-timer that Howard snared. On the ensuing faceoff, Nolan Patrick won the draw as the puck came out to Gudas, who fired a shot that popped up and over the net. Dale Weise beat Jonathan Ericsson around the net and then wrapped it around for a goal as Howard was late to cover the post.

• Travis Sanheim coughed it up in the neutral zone as he tried to skate the puck over center ice. The Flyers’ neutral zone play was brutal in that opening period. At least a half-dozen turnovers. The Flyers were credited with just three giveaways in the first period, but it certainly felt like a lot more than that.

• The Flyers allowed a brutal goal in the final seconds of the opening period as Dylan Larkin sent a cross-ice saucer through the defense. Andrew MacDonald swiped at it, but came up empty. Martin Frk snapped off a perfectly-placed and timed shot over Elliott’s blocker side shoulder. One way or the other, MacDonald has to prevent that pass so the Flyers get out of the period without allowing goal.

• The Flyers have been very good over the past eight games of eliminating stick penalties. However, Jordan Weal was whistled for a double minor high-sticking penalty after he caught Frans Nielsen up around his face along the Flyers’ bench, and it proved costly. 

• The Red Wings converted on the four-minute power play as Mike Green half-cocked a slap shot and placed it perfectly to Elliott’s blocker side. Elliott was screened on the shot and failed to pick it up off Green’s stick.

• While I still think Travis Konecny tries to do way too much with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, he drew a holding penalty on Ericsson along the boards that set up the Flyers with their first power-play opportunity of the game.

• The Flyers had some brilliant passing as Giroux sent a puck cross-ice to Jake Voracek, who in turn sent a touch pass down low to Wayne Simmonds for an easy tap-in goal. Howard simply couldn’t react fast enough and the Wings’ PK just couldn’t adjust that quickly.

• The Flyers failed to build any momentum off their game-tying goal, as just 40 seconds later the Wings forced them into another turnover when Valtteri Filppula turned the puck over behind the goal line. Henrik Zetterberg jumped all over it and sent a centering pass to a wide-open Nyquist on a play that Ivan Provorov should have covered.

• Kudos to rookie Hagg, who scored his first NHL goal on a big slap shot that beat blocker side.

"It feels pretty good,” Hagg said after the second period, “I had a few chances earlier this season, so to see that one go in feels pretty damn good."

• The Flyers opened up the scoring in the third period with a play that looked somewhat similar to their power-play goal earlier. It was all set up by Giroux’s thread-the-needle pass to Simmonds, who fed it over to Couturier. Couturier needed a second whack to push it past Howard for the goal. Giroux’s passing in this game was some of the best I’ve seen from any player all season. It was Couturier's 16th goal of the season, a new career-high.

• Aside from Giroux, Dylan Larkin may have been the second-best player in this game. The Wings’ top center was all over the ice, as he forced turnovers and created plays. He nearly made the Flyers pay for their sloppiness in their own end, but Hagg was there to block Larkin’s shot.

• The Flyers had some great pressure late in the third period started by the top line and then continued by the second line. In all, the Flyers spent about 1:15 in the Red Wings’ zone.

Lineups, pairings and scratches

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

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Robert Hagg-Shayne Gostisbehere
Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Brian Elliott
Alex Lyon

Scratches: Taylor Leier (upper body, day to day) and Mark Alt (healthy).