Wayne Simmonds

Flyers Weekly Observations: As the top line turns

usa-claude-giroux-flyers-blackhawks.jpg
USA Today Images

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)

Flyers show up too late in OT loss, allow Coyotes to notch 1st win

Flyers show up too late in OT loss, allow Coyotes to notch 1st win

BOX SCORE

On a night when hockey fans were decked out in the Halloween spirit, the Flyers reverted yet again to their Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine.

A disastrous start coupled with a furious finish and capped with an overtime turnover allowed the Arizona Coyotes to earn their first win of the season, beating the Flyers on Monday, 4-3, following the worst start (0-10-1) in NHL history (see observations). Coyotes defenseman Alex Goligoski sealed Arizona’s first win for new head coach Rick Tocchet. 

“They’re definitely a better team than what people give them credit for,” Wayne Simmonds said. “We didn’t play a good game at all. It wasn’t a good first period. It wasn’t an ideal game for us.”

Rookie defenseman Travis Sanheim fumbled a puck at Arizona’s blue line, which allowed the Coyotes to break down the ice and convert a 3-on-2 at the other end, as Goligoski’s one-timer easily beat Flyers netminder Brain Elliott with 15 seconds remaining in OT (see highlights).

“Three-on-three is tough,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We made a decision instead of taking the puck to the net, we had a little bit of a bad roll, a bad hop with the puck, and they take it over, come back hard and make the play for the goal.”

For the third time in their last nine games, the Flyers also spotted their opponent a 3-0 lead before mounting a serious comeback. However, considering their winless opponent and a failure to bring energy on home ice, this early deficit was nearly inexcusable.

“As a group, we were too far below the bar,” Hakstol said. “I think we had eight shot attempts in the first period. In our own end, we weren’t quick and hard defending through the entire period. I’m not taking anything away from our opponent, they played hard. We didn’t start the hockey game where we wanted to be and where we needed to be.”

The Flyers also failed to capitalize on Arizona goaltender Scott Wedgewood, who was making his first start since March 2016. Almost inexplicably, the Flyers didn’t have a single shot on net from their forwards until Claude Giroux was able to fire off a quick wrister 3:39 into the second period. Since the Flyers generated little pressure until the final 20 minutes, they were also unable to fully take advantage of the NHL’s worst penalty kill, scoring a goal on their only power-play opportunity of the game in the third.

“I’m not too sure,” Giroux said, trying to put a finger on the team’s early mistakes. “It’s really frustrating right now. The game goes pretty quick. That’s why it’s good after games to go look at the game film and see your shifts and see what you did wrong, and correct that.”

“Yeah, we were very fortunate [to earn a point]," Sean Couturier, who scored a pair of goals in the loss, said. “We didn’t play very good at all in the first two periods. We battled back but it was too big a hole to complete the comeback. It’s a huge point, I guess.

“Once we were down a goal or two goals, the crowd got into it and it kind of got frustrating for everyone. It was tough to get back into it, but in the third we battled.” 

With the recent injury to Shayne Gostisbehere and with Samuel Morin not ready for action, as well, the Flyers had to turn to Mark Alt, who was given notice at 11 a.m. Monday that he would be in the Flyers' lineup for his second career NHL game (see story). Alt finished the night with 16:54 of ice time and a minus-1 rating after he and fellow rookie Sanheim failed to communicate on the Coyotes' first goal.

“There was a change and we kind of got stuck on the same guy,” Alt said. “Yeah, it’s tough, because you never know how the game is going to start out. You just have to pick up and roll with it. There’s going to be an adjustment, for sure. At the same time, you want to come in and be ready to go and try and eliminate as many of those hiccups as you can.” 

Notes and tidbits
• Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov registered three assists for his second-career three-point game. He now has five points (one goal, four assists) over his last three games. The Flyers' No. 1 defenseman continues to log some monster minutes, setting a new career high with 28:06 of ice time.

• Couturier extended his point streak to four games (five goals, three assists). The Phoenix, Arizona-born Couturier scored twice, including his first power-play goal since April 2, 2016, a span of 82 games. With a team-leading nine goals, Couturier is on pace to shatter his single-season career high of 15 goals scored in 2014-15.

• According to the NHL’s stats department, Monday’s game marked just the second time in franchise history in which the Flyers scored two goals in the final minute of regulation to tie the game. The other instance came on Feb. 3, 1980, when Reggie Leach and Rick MacLeish scored 33 seconds apart in a game that ended in a 3-3 tie.

Flyers Notes: MacDonald's injury putting Flyers in tough spot

usa-andrew-macdonald-vs-preds.jpg
USA Today Images

Flyers Notes: MacDonald's injury putting Flyers in tough spot

TORONTO — This can’t be the Andrew MacDonald effect, can it?

Eleven goals surrendered over the past two games.

Prior to MacDonald’s injury, head coach Dave Hakstol had his defense pairings configured to specifications. Ivan Provorov with MacDonald, Shayne Gostisbehere and Robert Hagg along with Travis Sanheim and Brandon Manning splitting time with Radko Gudas.

Whether it's MacDonald's absence or just poor play, something has gone awry. Ever since Tuesday’s game against the Ducks, Hakstol has been furiously trying to find the right combinations so the Flyers can resume normalcy on their blue line.

“As soon as Mac goes out, jumble, jumble” general manager Ron Hextall said. “We always go through preseason trying to figure out what our lines are and what our defense pairings are, and it’s hard. It’s hard, you only have eight games, and you don’t get a great feel. Two games ago, we didn’t have a very good game. Was it your pairs or was it one of those games? 

“You hope we correct it right away, and guys get familiar with each other, but a lot of these guys haven’t played together much and that’s the reality. There’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no excuses, that’s for damn sure, but Thursday night toward the end, they looked like they felt comfortable together so we’ll see.”  

One of the biggest changes that came out of Thursday’s game in Ottawa was the Provorov-Gostisbehere pairing, where the two players switched sides periodically to take advantage of their offensive instincts and awareness.

“I think Ghost and I see the game similar, definitely on the offensive side,” Provorov said. “It was easy to play with the puck to do all those switches and passes, finding each other in the neutral zone and in the offensive zone. We’ll try and continue to get better and see what happens.”  

Losing the shield
For tonight’s game in Toronto, Wayne Simmonds will finally ditch the extended face shield that has protected the lower part of his face, most notably his dental work after losing teeth after taking a stick to the face in a game against the Predators. Simmonds says breathing had been an issue and the shield has a tendency to fog up, which has impaired his vision when looking down at the puck. 

Simmonds is hoping it will improve his concentration and focus as the Flyers' second line was arguably one of the team’s worst in Thursday's 5-4 loss to the Senators in Ottawa. 

“We’ve got to be better,” Simmonds said. “I think over the past few games, (Jordan) Weal was out for a couple and he got back in and our chemistry was a little bit off. We just got to find a way to get it back. We’ve got to figure it out quick.”

No suspension for Gudas
As expected, the NHL did not hand down supplemental discipline Friday against Gudas for his check on Ottawa defenseman Chris Wideman. Gudas was slapped with a five-minute major for charging, and with that, a 10-minute misconduct for a hit that appeared to be rather routine.

“Radko hits hard. He hits as hard as anybody in the league,” Hextall said. “His hits are impact hits. If one of our other 17 skaters makes that hit (Thursday) night nothing comes of it. Exact same hit, exact same body position, everything. It’s just that Radko is so strong that his hits make an impact, and at times, it’s not fair.” 

Knowing Babcock
A typical Maple Leafs practice day doesn’t usually make headlines within the Toronto media, but Friday’s intense but abbreviated workout was unusual coming off a lethargic 6-3 loss Thursday night to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Despite the Leafs' 7-3-0 record, Babcock put his team through an intense, hard-skating 24-minute session and then ordered every player off the ice in a move to help them conserve their energy for tonight’s game against the Flyers. No Flyer is more familiar with Babcock’s motivations than center Valtteri Filppula, a 2002 third-round pick who played in Detroit under Babcock from 2005-13.

“I think he’s really good with details,” Filppula said. “He gets the guys to play the system really well. Obviously, he’s had some good players too, and you always need that to be a good coach, but I think he prepares the team really well and I think that’s his strongest suit.”

Projected lines & pairings
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Filppula-Simmonds
Matt Read-Jori Lehtera-Travis Konecny
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl

Provorov-Gostisbehere
Sanheim-Gudas
Manning-Hagg

Brian Elliott
Michal Neuvirth