Flyers

Brian Elliott's outstanding effort goes to waste

Brian Elliott's outstanding effort goes to waste

BOX SCORE

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Shut out for nearly 58 minutes on Friday night, the Flyers got goals from Michael Raffl and Shayne Gostisbehere on the closing shifts but couldn’t finish the comeback job in a 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

Buffalo’s Robin Lehner stopped 33 shots and engaged in a goaltending duel with Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott (33 saves) for two scoreless periods before goals from the Sabres' Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane in the third built a 2-0 lead. Jack Eichel added two empty-net goals. 

The Flyers entered the night three points out of a playoff spot, having won seven of eight since the 0-5-5 skid that included three shutout losses. The Sabres are the lowest-scoring team in the NHL and have the worst record (9-19-7) in the Eastern Conference.

Raffl scored on a power play after the Flyers pulled Elliott to gain a 6-on-4 advantage with 2:10 remaining. Gostisbehere whistled in a wrist shot from the right circle with 38 seconds remaining, in between Eichel’s goals.

O’Reilly broke a scoreless tie four minutes into the third period when his shot from the behind the red line on the left side of the net burrowed behind the right pad of Elliott and into the net. Kane made it 2-0 with 8:52 left in the game when he deflected a high shot past Elliott.

• Elliott got his 10th straight start in net and played in his 400th NHL game. He entered the game 12-2-1 in his career against the Sabres

Elliott showed little sign of fatigue — or dizziness from standing on his head — while making 16 saves in the first period. He swatted away Kane, Buffalo’s leading scorer, on a penalty shot early in the first and slid across the crease to stuff Sabres star Jack Eichel at the doorstep on a power play later in the period.

With Michal Neuvirth (lower body) not yet cleared to return and rookie Alex Lyon yet to make his NHL debut, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol is leaning on Elliott to play every night. 

“He’s been real good for us, he’s feeling good, he’s feeling strong and there’s no reason we wouldn’t go back to him,” said Hakstol on Friday, morning while noting he had not yet decided who would start Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back in Columbus.

Hakstol said before the game he had not yet made a decision on who would start Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back in Columbus.

• The Flyers scored on the power play for the seventh time in nine games but struggled to create scoring chances on multiple opportunities with the man-advantage before falling behind 2-0.

Playing 5-on-3 for 40 seconds during the third period, the Flyers did not put a shot on goal. The best chance on what turned out to be a 3:20 power play came when Jake Voracek shot high on a one-timer from the right circle.

The Flyers put four shots on net during two power plays in the second period, but none challenged Lehner. He had to make just one save on the Flyers' second opportunity, while the Sabres cleared the puck three times. 

Buffalo has been perfect on the penalty kill over its previous five games.

• Jake Voracek assisted on both goals to bring his NHL-leading tally up to 36. He has a point in five straight. Claude Giroux also had two assists and extended his point streak to four games.

• Voracek shared some of the secret sauce fueling the Flyers’ recent surge following Friday’s morning skate.

“We got drunk,” Voracek told NHL.com reporter Joe Yerdon. “That helped. We sat down together, talked about some stuff we wanted to do better. We had some heart-to-hearts and it worked out so it was good.”

• Coming off a game in which he scored his first NHL goal, defenseman Robert Hagg made a couple rookie mistakes in the first period. Hagg’s giveaway in the neutral zone sent Kane on the breakaway that led to Gostisbehere’s takedown and the ensuing penalty shot. Hagg also took a hooking penalty in the period.

• Jori Lehtera replaced Taylor Leier (upper-body) on the fourth line for the second straight game. Defenseman Mark Alt was a healthy scratch.

• This was the Flyers’ only trip to Buffalo this season. They defeated the Sabres 2-1 at Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 14 and wrap up the season series in Philadelphia on Jan. 7.

• At Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium, where the Sabres played from 1970-96, chairs in the cheap seats were painted orange. On Friday night, the color was smattered around several sections near the ice at KeyBank Center, with Flyers fans surely finding good prices on the secondary market from disgruntled Sabres’ season-ticket holders

• The Flyers play for the seventh time in 12 days Saturday night at Columbus before getting a four-day break. It will be Hakstol’s 200th game behind the bench. 

Grading the Flyers' defensemen at the bye week

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AP Images

Grading the Flyers' defensemen at the bye week

Throughout the first half of this season the Flyers have been relatively injury free on defense, but as a group, they’ve regressed from last season. However, under assistant Rick Wilson and new coach Scott Gordon, we’re beginning to see signs of improvement. 

After breaking down the goaltending on Monday, we grade out the Flyers blue line.  

Radko Gudas

Grade: B+ 
Stats: 2 g, 11a, +10, 18:00

Dare I say that Gudas has been the Flyers steadiest defenseman this season. While some writers like to use Corsi as a barometer for puck possession, I like to utilize goals against/60 minutes during 5-on-5 play to determine the strength of a player’s overall defense. Gudas’s 1.76 goals allowed/60 min. is the best of any Flyers defenseman…by far. Perhaps most impressively is how Gudas has adapted his physical game without taking foolish penalties.

Offensively, Gudas’s philosophy seems rather simple. When given the opportunity just put the puck on net as he leads the team with 16 rebounds created at even strength while contributing 13 points - a nice total considering he barely strays from the blue line.

Robert Hägg

Grade: B
Stats: 4g, 9a, +5, 17:43

Hägg has gained a reputation as such a hard hitter, that other teams forwards have altered their forechecking approach with the Flyers defenseman on the ice.  Hägg had his most consistent month in November and has cut down on some of the positioning flaws in the defensive zone that were a problem area in his rookie season.

Hägg has even chipped in some additional offense this season. His 15 primary points (goals, first assists) at 5-on-5 is second on the Flyers behind Travis Sanheim’s 16, and he’s currently on pace to finish with seven goals and 22 points, which would more than double last season’s totals. 

Travis Sanheim

Grade: B-
Stats: 4 g, 11a, -6, 17:56

I like the decision from assistant coach Rick Wilson in placing Travis Sanheim on the top pairing Ivan Provorov. Not only was the Provy/Ghost combination simply not working, but it has given the Flyers a chance to see how much responsibility Sanheim can handle.  Sanheim was tested early against the opposition’s top forwards with a -12 rating in 13 games, but has had periods of steady play. Has seen his ice time jump by five minutes from October into January. 

Overall, Sanheim has made a conscious effort to refine the defensive aspect of his game with improved positioning, but can still get beaten one-on-one and along the boards. Would also prefer to see Sanheim on one of the two power play units.

Ivan Provorov

Grade: C-
Stats: 4g, 13a, -14, 24:54

It’s beyond baffling to see Provorov’s struggles with his puck management this season. It began over a 10-15 game stretch last season, and it’s been a problem area for the entire season. The new coaching staff has worked on eliminating some of those errant passes and making that first pass up the boards. Provorov’s 3.28 goals allowed/60 min. at even strength is up significantly from 2.18 last season. 

For a player many expected to work his way into the Norris Trophy conversation, it’s been quite the regression offensively as well. Provorov is projected to finish with seven goals after leading all NHL defensemen with 17 last season. As he simplifies his game, look for Provorov to have a much better second half.

Shayne Gostisbehere

Grade: D+
Stats: 5g, 15a, -12, 20:12

Everything came together for Gostisbehere last season, and conversely, nothing worked over the first few months of this season. Ghost was an NHL-worst -18 when head coach Dave Hakstol was fired. Since then, he’s had much more favorable matchups and has settled in playing alongside Andrew MacDonald as the team’s third pairing.

However, the most alarming aspect to Gostisbehere’s season has been his lack of efficiency on the power play, so much so, he’s no longer part of that top unit. Last season, he averaged 7.03 pts./60 min. on the PP compared to just 2.86 this season, a 59 percent dropoff. A big reason to Gostisbehere’s lack of success on the power play has been a failure to get pucks through traffic and his shot on net.

Christian Folin

Grade: D+
Stats: 0g, 1a, +4, 16:13

A true stay-at-home defenseman, you just hope that Folin After some obvious struggles in the opening month, Folin has settled in, but still can’t be counted on to play extensively. Interestingly, Scott Gordon and staff are much cautious in their use of Folin than Dave Hakstol and Gord Murphy were. After averaging over 17 minutes in October and November, Folin is playing just under 13 minutes in January. 

Will be interesting to see how much the Flyers utilize Folin over the second half of the season with Phillippe Myers possibly getting a look with the big club. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to invest in Folin as he won’t be with the team beyond this season and the Flyers can fill that role with a Phantom next season.

Andrew MacDonald

Grade: D
Stats: 0g, 5a, -5, 17:55

Quite frankly, MacDonald came back way too early from a lower-body injury he suffered during an off-season workout and that seemed to throw off the first half of his season. Has been limited to 27 games and has been a healthy scratch as a result of ineffective play. More turnover prone than last season, MacDonald has also really struggled early on with the penalty kill this season.

Last season was the first time MacDonald TOI dipped below 20 min/game, and this season it’s a career-low 17:55. Hasn’t been nearly as active jumping in offensively as well. Zero goals in 27 games with no shots on net in 10 of those games.

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Flyers weekly observations: Sean Couturier on tear, Wayne Simmonds trade chatter, more

Flyers weekly observations: Sean Couturier on tear, Wayne Simmonds trade chatter, more

The Flyers are playing arguably their best hockey of the season.

Now they won't be playing again until next Monday.

Let's get into some observations on the state of the organization:

• Imagine where Sean Couturier would be if he had a full training camp and preseason?

Scary good.

Remember, he played just one exhibition game because of an offseason injury suffered to the same right knee in which he tore his MCL during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Couturier was good enough to go by opening night but the first two weeks of the regular season were like his preseason — trying to find his legs, his conditioning, his rhythm.

Understandably, he didn't race out of the gates, putting up three goals and no assists through his first 11 games. Since then, he has 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) over his last 35 games and leads the Flyers with 19 goals on the season.

He's projected to finish with 33 goals, which would be a new career high and awfully impressive considering all the circumstances. In a season needing positives, the 26-year-old center has been one of the biggest, showing general manager Chuck Fletcher he's a clear part of the solution moving forward.

• Last week on Sportsnet's "Tim and Sid" show, Wayne Simmonds was a topic of discussion, with Sid Seixeiro making an interesting point about a possible trade partner for the Flyers ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline.

"I think the Leafs need Wayne Simmonds," Seixeiro said.

"Toughness is enough guys who are willing to go in the blue paint. … The Leafs don't have enough of those guys, this is a player in Simmonds … he goes to those areas."

Toronto is a team with a slew of offensive weapons. Still, head coach Mike Babcock has highlighted a missing element to the Maple Leafs, who many are considering as a Stanley Cup contender.

Via Sportsnet's Luke Fox, here's what Babcock had to say Jan. 7 following a 4-0 loss to the Predators:

Being heavy isn't getting on a scale and measuring yourself; it's a state of mind. I think we can do a better job there. And I think we can get better defensively so we can spend more time offensively and have the puck more. We got a lot of work to do.

It's heavy on offense. It's having the puck. It's getting the puck back all the time. It's checking it back. It's putting your work in front of your skill. It's being determined offensively, not coming down, having a rush and being one-and-done. It's multiple-shot shifts.

It's having some jam.

Sure sounds like Simmonds, who would not only bring that heaviness, but also provide leadership and experience to a relatively young roster.

Toronto has the talent, prospects and picks to intrigue the Flyers.

• Speaking of trades, the 2017 Brayden Schenn deal continues to look better and better for the Flyers.

The club received two first-round draft picks in the exchange with the Blues and used them on prospects Morgan Frost (27th overall — 2017) and Joel Farabee (14th overall — 2018).

Frost on Sunday went off for five goals after scoring four points (two goals, two assists) the night prior. Yes, that's seven goals and nine points in two games.

Last season, the 19-year-old center put up 112 points in 67 regular-season games with the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. This season, he has 30 goals and 45 assists through 38 games.

Meanwhile, Farabee, an 18-year-old goal-scoring winger, has 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) in 20 games as a freshman at Boston University.

Prospects are only prospects until they prove themselves in the NHL, but the future looks exciting — and not all that far away — for these two picks.

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