Heading into the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, everyone is looking up at the Flyers.
For the first time since 2000, the Flyers will be the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed in the postseason after winning the round robin of the NHL's return-to-play 24-team tournament.
They punctuated their climb Saturday night with a 4-1 win over the Lightning at Scotiabank Arena in the Eastern Conference's hub city Toronto.
Nicolas Aube-Kubel had a big game with two goals, while Joel Farabee and Tyler Pitlick tallied markers, as well.
After going 3-0-0 through the round robin, the top-seeded Flyers will face the 12th-seeded Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs.
Back in 2000, the year of the Flyers' five-overtime playoff classic with the Penguins, the team lost the Eastern Conference Final to the eventual champion Devils in seven games.
Twenty years later, it's the No. 1 seed again.
"We're excited here," Farabee said postgame in a video interview. "We're ready to go dancing."
• Just how impressive were the Flyers in the round robin? They swept the Bruins, Capitals and Lightning by a combined score of 11-3.
Pretty darn good tune-up for the Flyers as the real deal begins next week. They've always been a confident team, particularly from January on, but this was a measuring-stick round-robin tourney and they turned heads.
The Capitals and Bruins finish the round robin Sunday (noon ET).
1. Flyers — 3-0-0, six points
2. Lightning — 2-1-0, four points
3. Capitals — 0-1-1, one point
4. Bruins — 0-2-0, zero points
• NBC Sports analyst Keith Jones mentioned at intermission how the Flyers come at their opponents in waves. Their depth was excellent through the round robin and will be arguably their biggest difference-maker in a playoff run.
In the round robin, Claude Giroux went scoreless, James van Riemsdyk went scoreless in two games, Jakub Voracek had an assist in two games, Sean Couturier had a few assists, Travis Konecny (two assists) didn't have to score a goal, Kevin Hayes (four assists) didn't have to score a goal, and the Flyers convincingly earned the No. 1 seed.
• Carter Hart, who turns 22 years old next Thursday, looks primed for the first round.
The Bruins had an NHL-most 100 points during the regular season. The Lightning scored an NHL-best 3.47 goals per game. Hart totaled 57 saves on 59 shots in matchups with those clubs.
• In 2018-19, Aube-Kubel got his first taste of the NHL ... hardly. Called up from AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley, Aube-Kubel went scoreless in a nine-game stint with the big club, playing only 5:35 minutes per night.
“It’s pretty hard, especially when you spend some 15 minutes without playing, 10 minutes without playing, so it’s really hard for the legs," Aube-Kubel said in February about the limited minutes last season. "When you’re out there, you’re just so stressed about not making a mistake that you don’t really show anything.
“Last year, I didn’t really get a good chance to show what I could do. I’m glad this year … even in my first game, I got put in a good situation with good players and it worked out for me.”
In 2019-20, the Flyers eventually summoned Aube-Kubel in mid-December. The new coaching staff has done a solid job of giving him opportunity but also constantly keeping him motivated. It's resulted in a hungry, hard-working, forechecking winger who gave the Flyers a monstrous boost against the Lightning with the club's first two goals.
In a game against the loaded Lightning, the 24-year-old Aube-Kubel was one of the best players on the ice. During training camp last month, he mentioned how his style of play suits the playoffs. It sure looked like it Saturday. The Flyers would love that type of effort and jolt throughout the playoffs.
• It appears the Flyers avoided what would have been a costly injury right before the first round.
Travis Sanheim left the game 22 seconds into the second period after taking a hit from Blake Coleman. It looked Sanheim was nursing his wrist or arm after the check as he went up the tunnel.
Fortunately for the Flyers, Sanheim returned later in the period.
• An injury scare like that creates a reminder of the Flyers' young, promising stable of blueliners. Playing his first round-robin game, Shayne Gostisbehere reminded everyone of his game.
If Gostisbehere is the Flyers' seventh defenseman, he did everything to potentially shake that status moving forward. Gostisbehere, who has had to undergo arthroscopic surgeries on both of his knees in 2020, had a good camp and said he has felt "10 times better" compared to during the regular season.
Against Tampa Bay, he looked like his mobile, confident, making-things-happen self from the blue line, recording two assists and a plus-2 rating. Gostisbehere made a sharp play to help create Aube-Kubel's first goal and showed his vision to assist Farabee's goal, which was a big one as it extended the Flyers' lead to 3-1 in the middle frame.
"That was a hard pass from Ghost, it takes a special skill set to be able to one-time that," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said postgame in a video interview. "Great play by Ghost but also great shot by Joel."
The 27-year-old offensive-minded defenseman displayed good instincts defensively, as well.
A performance like that will have Vigneault thinking, that's for sure. The sixth and final spot on defense will come down to Robert Hagg and Gostisbehere. Hagg likely has the slight edge for now, but Gostisbehere has drawn much closer and should be called upon if the Flyers don't have a positive start to the first round.
• With Voracek out (undisclosed issue), Farabee jumped to the first line. Given he opened the tournament fighting for a spot in the lineup and likely the bottom six, this was a golden opportunity for the 20-year-old rookie winger.
He took advantage of it pretty well, scoring a goal and tallying an assist. His game allows him to scale the lineup but he truly stands out when he's with talented players. Good stuff from him and he's pushing for a bigger role, especially depending on the statuses of Voracek and Michael Raffl (undisclosed injury), who missed the final two games of the round robin.
"You look at our lineup, we have such great depth," Farabee said postgame in a video interview. "Ghosty and I are sliding in, we've got guys sliding out, coming back in, it just goes to show how good of a team we are and how deep we are."
• The power play never really got going during the round robin as the Flyers finished 0 for 11 through the three games. That will have to be better over a course of a best-of-seven series.
• The Flyers caught some breaks throughout the round robin, but give them credit for taking advantage of those breaks.
They didn't face Vezina Trophy finalist Tuukka Rask in the 4-1 win over the Bruins. They didn't see James Norris Memorial Trophy finalist John Carlson in the 3-1 win over the Capitals.
Against the Lightning, they avoided Steven Stamkos (lower-body injury), who had 66 points in 57 games during the regular season. In the first period, Tampa Bay also lost stud defenseman Victor Hedman (undisclosed injury), who is also a finalist for the Norris Trophy.
These games weren't necessarily close, though, either — the Flyers did damage against three of the best clubs in the NHL.
• As the No. 1 seed in the first round, the Flyers face the 12th-seeded Canadiens, who upset the fifth-seeded Penguins in the best-of-five qualifying round, taking the series 3-1.
The Flyers went 2-1-0 against Montreal in the regular season, with a 3-2 overtime win Nov. 7, a 4-3 overtime victory Nov. 30 and a 4-1 loss Jan. 16.
The first round of the playoffs is scheduled to begin next Tuesday. The Flyers' schedule is to be determined.
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