The Philadelphia Flyers are going to the playoffs, but before we look forward to the Game One on Wednesday against the Penguins, let’s look back at the moves coach Dave Hakstol and general manager Ron Hextall made in the final week of the regular season.
Jori Lehtera vs. Islanders
Much like Chris VandeVelde before him, Jori Lehtera has become a veteran fourth-liner that’s found himself in Hakstol’s favor. On Tuesday, the love continued with Lehtera remaining in the lineup and Scott Laughton sitting in the press box.
Despite problems on the scoresheet for Laughton, I believe the switch was health related rather than coach’s choice. Hakstol admitted on Monday that it was likely to be just a game that Laughton sits out; something he never did for Jordan Weal this year or for Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny last season.
But having Lehtera on the ice after the Flyers tied the Islanders at four Tuesday proved costly. As Ivan Provorov pinched, Shayne Gostisbehere was left as the lone defender with Anthony Beauvillier and Matthew Barzal on a 2-on-1.
Gostisbehere moved to Beauvillier and Lehtera lost the foot race to Barzal, letting the Islander score the eventual game-winner. It is important to mention that Barzal is one of the fastest players in the league and whether it was Laughton, Sean Couturier or most Flyers forwards, the sensational rookie was likely to win the race.
However, after tieing the game and fighting back from a three-goal deficit, putting the fourth line out isn’t a great way to keep momentum. In fact, except for one goal, Hakstol used Lehtera or Valtteri Filppula, the two bottom-six centers, on the following shift every time according to The Athletic’s Charlie O’Connor.
Neither player or lines are going to keep up the momentum after scoring a goal and aren’t usually strong enough to turn the tide the other way when letting up one. Lehtera is fine for a 12th or 13th forward for this team, but Hakstol needs to use him as such.
New Look Lines, Weal Scratched
With just two games left in the regular season and playoffs not clinched, Hakstol decided to switch up his first line for the first time in months. In his second game back from injury, Michael Raffl was moved to the first line and Travis Konecny was moved to the third. Jordan Weal was scratched to make room for the shuffling and Laughton’s return to the lineup.
Two games later, it’s fair to say that the first line has been succesful in the box score. Raffl had three points, including two goals, Claude Giroux had four even-strength points and Couturier had three even-strength assists.
But I’m not so sure that the top trio is better or even as good as the line including Konecny. Raffl can dig pucks out of board battles and isn’t a liability in any way, but he needs offense created for him. Konecny is an offensive sparkplug on every shift.
I do view the shift as one to get some scoring created in the bottom six. Unfortunately, neither Filppula or Wayne Simmonds are the players they’ve been over the past few years. Konecny has been creating chances, but his linemates haven’t been helping enough.
With the Flyers facing the Pittbsurgh Penguins in the postseason, Philadelphia will need to match the Pens’ top three forward lines as best they can. It’s possible that Konecny can help that, while the pairing of Couturier and Giroux continue scoring with Raffl
As for Lehtera over Weal, I shared my thoughts on Lehtera earlier. The decision isn’t as egregious against the Hurricanes or Rangers, but it looks like the move will stick against the Penguins. That’s an unfortunate game plan with the Flyers needing any offensive help they can get against the deadly Pens.
Brian Elliott vs. Rangers
With Elliott healthy, the 32 year old needed to play against the Hurricanes Thursday. Petr Mrazek has been a disappointment since the team acquired him and Alex Lyon is an AHL starter but not quite NHL backup yet.
With such a crucial two points on the board and playoffs around the corner, Philly’s best bet was Elliott. The Flyers pulled out a win, but Elliott had one of his worst games in the orange and black.
The third Hurricane goal, where Jordan Staal scored from a bad angle, was a travesty and the other two were probably ones Elliott would make saves on if he were at the top of his game.
With one game left and a single point on the line to make playoffs, the Flyers had a mini goalie crisis. Lyon was sent back to the Phantoms Thursday and the inconsisent Mrazek was the only other healthy goalie besides Elliott.
But Hakstol never wavered from Elliott, confirming Friday that the longtime Blue would get the start Saturday against the Rangers.
Personally, I was a fan of the decision. If the Flyers made the playoffs, Mrazek couldn’t be trusted for a seven-game series. The team needed Elliott ready for the postseason and the only way that was going to happen is if he had a good game Saturday.
He proved every bit of that true, making 17 saves, including some tough ones in the first period, to shutout New York 5-0. In the process, the Flyers made the playoffs and hopefully put to bed any goalie issues.
Patrick on First PP Unit
When Wayne Simmonds was injured in late February the biggest loss most assumed would come on the power play. Simmonds is one of the best net-front presences in the league. In the past five years, he’s hit double-digit in man advantage goals alone.
To replace him, Nolan Patrick was promoted to the front of the net on the first unit and even made a beautiful pass against the Boston Bruins in one of the games. However, when Simmonds returned, the rookie was back on the second unit.
Tuesday against the Islanders Patrick was back in Simmonds’ spot and responded by scoring two goals and leading the desperate comeback that fell short.
The Flyers weren’t awarded a power play against the Hurricanes, but Patrick was still on the first unit against the Rangers hinting that the change may be a permanent one.
Patrick has certainly found some success in that spot lately but it’s hard to argue against the consistency and history of Simmonds. I think Patrick can bring a little more skill than the former King by moving the puck around, though.
The move also helps the second unit which has never been dangerous this year. If it can get the puck down low, Simmonds may be able to convert on some chances that the unit missed out on before.
I’m fine with the switch even if it’s one that won’t have lasting success. Patrick won’t deter the top unit and if things go wrong, it’s easy enough to correct.
Of course, in the long run this probably isn’t a good sign for Simmonds. The Flyers may have found a replacement for him in the area he’s most dangerous at. This only lends fire to the burning debate over Simmonds’ contract that ends next summer.