Flyers

Flyers 2, Penguins 1: Stunning the rival in final seconds of regulation, overtime

Flyers 2, Penguins 1: Stunning the rival in final seconds of regulation, overtime

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH — The Flyers love last-minute comebacks against the Penguins.

James van Riemsdyk scored with 18.8 seconds remaining in regulation that earned the Flyers a point before Sean Couturier won it in overtime, 2-1, Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

The Flyers took their regular-season series against the Pens, 3-1, while also pulling within six points of the second wild-card team, Columbus.

Here are my observations from PPG Paints Arena:

• JVR has 10 goals in his last 11 games, including the goal that may have saved the Flyers' slim playoff chances.

• After the disaster Friday in Toronto, I thought it was vitally important for the Flyers to establish a strong defensive presence and tighten up their play in the middle of the ice. They were able to do that, limiting the Penguins' chances in the first period while keeping shots to the outside.

• However, the second period was a Pittsburgh shooting gallery as it had the Flyers pinned into their zone. Nick Bjugstad raced by Travis Sanheim, who may played the longest shift (2:37) in his professional career as the Flyers' defenseman simply couldn’t get off the ice and was almost paralyzed out there.

Leave it to Carter Hart to come up with his best period since his personal eight-game winning streak. Pittsburgh had 31 shot attempts (18 on net) in that second period.

Hart finished with 41 saves, tying his career high.

• Teddy Blueger is no Evgeni Malkin, but with the Penguins' star center out with an injury, it was Blueger filling in as the Penguins' second-line center. Sometimes Malkin can go dormant at even strength, but you have to be completely aware of where he is on the power play.

Without Malkin, the Pens' power play didn’t have that lethal look to it. Coming into this game, Pittsburgh’s power play had scored five goals over the last three games.

• Of course, I wrote this earlier in the game and it’s Blueger who scored the game’s first goal. The Penguins' center had done absolutely nothing up to that point and was the recipient of a rebound that fell right to his stick.

Scott Laughton had Blueger pinned against the boards, lost him for just a split second and was victimized by the rebound goal. 

• Flyers interim head coach Scott Gordon appeared to be conserving Claude Giroux in this game. The Flyers' captain was a game-time decision, feeling under the weather, and he played just 4:40 in the first period, but 7:29 in the second and a whopping 9:38 in the third.

• What a weird sequence of events to start the second period with the Flyers successfully challenging the initial call of goaltender interference. I thought the off-ice officials made the right determination in ruling it a good goal, and the on-ice officials also made the easy review in determining the play was offsides.

However, the on-ice officials actually erred twice. I’ve never seen two successful challenges on the same play. Very bizarre.

• Defensively, playing without their No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang, the Pens' blue line was a major difference in this game as it negated the Flyers' chances with excellent coverage and some very good breakout passes that didn’t allow the Flyers to set up their neutral-zone defense. 

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Chuck Fletcher, Matt Niskanen see a Flyers team ready to pop

Chuck Fletcher, Matt Niskanen see a Flyers team ready to pop

At first, Matt Niskanen was "a little surprised" and caught "a little off guard."

He had just been traded by the Capitals, a team with which he won the 2018 Stanley Cup and experienced fond memories, and was now headed to a division rival.

But after Niskanen spoke with Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher, his emotions slowly started to shift. Fletcher wanted Niskanen to believe in the Flyers' situation and how the accomplished defenseman could be integral to it taking off.

"He said he likes their team, he felt that they're ready to pop," Niskanen said Friday in a conference call after being dealt to the Flyers (see story). "He kind of feels the same way that I do about the group there — young talent, they're close, just need to add some more pieces along the way. 

"It sounds like he's trying to put together a real good team and we'll see where that takes us. But I'm excited to be there. Trying to be a real solid piece for what they have there already. They have a lot of talent, these guys can play and put up some goals, and maybe get our goals against down — so maybe that's where I come in, to help out with that. I'm excited for that challenge."

From the start, the Flyers fell well short of expectations in 2018-19, which put Fletcher in the team's GM chair. The 82 points were the Flyers' fewest in a full season since 2006-07 and the club hasn't made the playoffs in consecutive years since 2010-12, when it last won a series.

In this league, things can change quickly, though. 

"We're all close," Fletcher said on April 18.

The Flyers went 0-4-0 against the Capitals in 2018-19 and were outscored 18-9, but Niskanen remembered looking at one of his teammates during the regular-season series and saying, "Man, they should be doing better than they are."

Fletcher sees Niskanen as the type of player to change that narrative.

"This is a guy that has played over 1,000 games in the NHL when you factor in his playoff experience," Fletcher said Saturday on a conference call. "He's a guy that commands respect with how he plays and how he prepares, he shows up every day.

"I'll give Ron Hextall and Chris Pryor (former general manager and assistant general manager) a lot of credit here — we have some top-end young talent on that back end, and I think the goal right now is to try to surround them with the right people and add some talent back there, as well."

Niskanen didn't need a whole lot of convincing by Fletcher. The GM's message only helped build the excitement for the former Capital and Penguin who has played 38 career games against the Flyers.

"Over the last few years they've gotten younger. I like their team," Niskanen said. "They have dangerous people, they've added young players with a lot of promise, hard to play against.

"They have good people, dangerous players, talented forwards, a young group of D that can really play — they're just young, I think. They're on the upswing. It was hard to play against the Flyers. Good organization, they play the game hard, they play to win. A lot of promise there. I'm excited about that."

With the Capitals' first-round exit in the 2019 playoffs following their Cup run the previous season, Niskanen said he has been training for over a month now and feels much better physically. He knows about the Flyers' defense. He referred to the group as "young studs" multiple times (see story).

So, yeah, as tough as the trade is, Niskanen believes in Philly.

"I've been fortunate to be on real good teams," he said. "I've been around and I know what good hockey looks like, I know what a good culture looks like. I'm not going to be a rah-rah guy, but I think with my résumé, my words hold a little bit of weight, especially with young players. 

"They have a good team and I'm not going to come in and ruffle any feathers, but I think my word will hold some weight. I'll come in and try to have real good practice habits and have a good attitude, bring a good work ethic, and hopefully I'll be another piece to what they already have there."

And potentially make the Flyers pop.

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Flyers place Andrew MacDonald on unconditional waivers for purpose of terminating contract

Flyers place Andrew MacDonald on unconditional waivers for purpose of terminating contract

Chuck Fletcher is certainly putting his mark on the Flyers' defense.

A day after trading Radko Gudas for defenseman Matt Niskanen, the Flyers' general manager placed Andrew MacDonald on unconditional waivers Saturday for the purpose of terminating his contract.

MacDonald is expected to go unclaimed and the Flyers will buy out his contract. In 2019-20, the 32-year-old MacDonald was entering the final year of a six-year, $30 million deal. His cap hit was a hefty $5 million. MacDonald was signed to the deal in April 2014 by then-general manager Paul Holmgren.

Per spotrac.com, the move will result in a total buyout of $3,833,333 with a base salary of $1,916,667 over each of the next two years.

The Flyers are taking on significant money with Niskanen (as well as reportedly retaining some of Gudas' cap hit) and are in the process of negotiating with soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Kevin Hayes, so Fletcher said the MacDonald move was about maximizing the team's cap flexibility. Fletcher, who spoke Saturday via a conference call, obviously feels there is more work to do this summer, outside of Niskanen and Hayes.

It was a difficult decision and it was solely cap related. I've had a couple of good conversations with Andrew — one at the end of the season and another one again today. This guy is a consummate professional. We asked a lot of Andrew and by that I mean he was a player that played the left side, played the right side, he'd be a healthy scratch and then we'd put him back in the lineup. We asked him to play with young players and mentor them and bring stability to our back end.

He's just a quality person and a guy that played a very effective two-way game for our team, but we are in a cap world and we made that tough decision today to try reallocate some of those dollars to maximize our chance to stay in the hunt on some players over the next couple of weeks.

MacDonald was banged up this past season and became a healthy scratch, as well. He played just 47 contests and saw 16:24 ice time per game, the lowest of his career.

He was often the butt of criticism among the fan base — in large part because of the contract — but inside the Flyers' locker room, he was a true professional and one of the most respected players by his teammates.

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