Brian Elliott was stellar in net, the top line continued its offensive dominance and a pair of rookie defensemen played like seasoned veterans for the Flyers on Thursday night.
The result? A 3-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks at Wells Fargo Center.
Funny how that works.
Elliott finished with 38 saves on 39 shots. Sean Couturier (one goal), Claude Giroux (one goal, two assists) and Jakub Voracek (one goal, two assists) combined for seven points and factored in on each of the Flyers’ three tallies. Most importantly, Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg each played a key role in the victory.
How? Glad you asked. Let’s break it all down:
This was unquestionably Sanheim’s most complete game in a Flyers uniform. He didn’t show up on the scoresheet but there were several plays where he easily could’ve notched a goal or an assist. In the first period alone, Sanheim made a gorgeous hesitation move off a rush to get the defender to go down to the ice. He showed great patience before he dished the puck over to Valteri Filppula but he couldn’t finish it off. Sanheim continued to press forward and actually picked up the puck off the back wall and attempted to stuff it back door but was denied. You have to love his progression over the past two weeks. He’s been taking shifts over. Early in the game, he made a gorgeous stretch pass to Travis Konecny to start a breakout. When the play dissolved, he regrouped behind his own net and made a quick deke to avoid a forechecker before starting up ice. You feel safe when he has control of the puck now. Sanheim is making intelligent decisions on when to pinch or join a rush, too. He set up Dale Weise (we’ll get to that) with a perfect touch pass in the second period. Then, in the third frame, he appeared to be gaining some speed pressing forward but Scott Laughton made an errant pass that deflected back towards the Flyers’ blue line. Sanheim, alertly, cut back and made a nice poke check that sent the puck into the corner. He finished off his man with a hard check along the boards and Radko Gudas swung by to pick the puck up. Good stuff all around.
I don’t even know where to start with Hagg. He simply looked great against Chicago. There were several occasions where the young Swede calmly jumpstarted breakouts that led to quality scoring opportunities. He was also tremendous with his stick work, especially in the neutral and defensive zones. He broke up at least four or five potential odd-man rushes with his anticipation of what the Blackhawks were going to do. Hagg just has great vision of the ice overall. He tends to disrupt plays before they even begin. That makes him incredibly easy to play with. Dave Hasktol clearly trusts the first-year NHLer, too. Hagg logged over 20 minutes of ice time on Thursday, including four minutes and 43 seconds while shorthanded. He was credited with one shot, five hits and two blocks. He even had a clean takeway on a penalty kill late in the third period. He was patrolling the corner off a faceoff and stole the puck before clearing it the length of the ice. Have his advanced stats looked good? Not quite. Has he looked out of place? Absolutely not. Remember: Hagg has just 16 NHL appearances to his name. He’s still figuring some things out. But he sure did look like he knew what he was doing against Chicago. That’s a great sign for the future.
It would’ve been easy to put Voracek or Giroux in this spot, wouldn’t it? The answer is yes. Each player recorded a goal and two assists in the win. But points aren’t everything. If you go back and watch the Flyers’ first two goals closely, you’ll notice both plays started with Couturier. The 24-year-old freed up the puck in the neutral zone after fighting off two Blackhawks on Giroux’s ninth marker of the season and was actually the one who allowed the zone entry to occur. The NHL should take a second look at the sequence because it appeared Couturier got the puck up to Voracek, too. If that’s the case, he should be awarded a secondary assist. And how about his work in the corner and in front before Voracek’s tally? Couturier fought hard the entire shift to keep the offensive-zone pressure alive. His play away from the puck has been incredible all season long really. He’s reading defensemen exceptionally well and knows where he needs to be on the ice. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise that he joined in on the scoring in the second period. He parked himself in front and buried Giroux’s feed for his 10th goal in 16 games. It took him over 40 games to record 10 goals a season ago. Insane. My favorite play by Couturier, however, came with 10 seconds left in the game. Chicago pulled Corey Crawford and was charging full speed to gain the zone. Not on Couturier’s watch. He smartly stepped up at the blue line and made a strong pokecheck to end the rush. He’s clearly feeling it and is exuding confidence night in and night out. It’s been one of the best storylines in the early going.
There was only one Flyer who did not play at least 10 minutes on Thursday. Care to guess who it was? I think you know where I’m heading with this. Weise logged just 9:06 total of ice time and was on the ice for Chicago’s lone score. When your number isn’t being called often, you need to make the most of every shift. Weise hasn’t been doing that. It was apparent against the Blackhawks. In the second period, Weise had all the time and space in the world with a clear shooting lane in front of him off an odd-man rush. What did he do with it? He forced a pass into traffic that put an abrupt end to the scoring threat. He’s got to get a shot off there. You don’t want to be that annoying fan who screams, “SHOOT” all game long but in the case you would’ve been justified. Earlier in the game, Sanheim made an incredible dish to Weise on the attack but he rung one off iron. That’s a bit of bad luck but he took entirely too long to put the puck on net. Part of the problem is Weise’s usage, however. He is what he is: A decent fourth-line winger. The Flyers, however, already have an above-average fourth line which is playing very well. So why force Weise into a third-line role if you know he’s not skilled enough to fill it? That’s on the coach.
The Flyers had nine giveaways against Chicago. Filppula had four of them. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how the veteran center’s night went. He just couldn’t get anything going. Whether it was on a breakout or in open space, it didn’t matter. When Filppula had the puck, it eventually, one way or another, resulted with the Blackhawks heading the other way. His worst turnover of the night came in the opening frame at center ice. Filppula stopped in the neutral zone and attempted a quick cut back dangle but wound up getting his pocket picked with all three Chicago forwards baring down on him. There was just under 30 seconds left in the period when he committed the blunder but the Blackhawks did cleanly enter the Flyers’ zone and went on the attack for about 20 seconds. Goals in the final minute of a period can be backbreaking. If you don’t have an open teammate or a lane to skate through, just chip it deep and cycle back. It could’ve been a different game if the Flyers would’ve conceded a goal there. Filppula knows he won’t get away with that often.
Gudas wasn’t awful in his return to the lineup but he did have a few hiccups. After missing two games in eight days with an upper-body injury, the bruising defenseman showed some signs of rust. One play that stood out was in the second period. Gudas was pinching in the offensive zone but lost the puck in his feet in open ice. He was caught flat-footed and Chicago pounced on him to force a turnover. It led to a 2-on-1 the other way but Gudas was bailed out by Sanheim, who played the odd-man rush exceptionally well. Sanheim was aggressive on the puck carrier, attacking Patrick Kane while also positioning his body in a way that would make a pass attempt to Patrick Sharp on the far wing impossible. With Gudas hustling on the backcheck and Sanheim pressuring, Kane was forced to put a quick shot from the outside perimeter on net. Elliott easily turned it away. Later in the game, Gudas got a little mesmerized by the puck in the neutral zone and Brandon Saad blew past him and cut towards the middle of the ice before getting a quality scoring chance on Elliot, who again was up to the task. Gudas needs to be more responsible on those plays as he does not have the foot speed to recover after he gets burned. It wasn’t all bad though. He recorded a shot, two hits – including a booming shoulder-to-shoulder check on Lance Bouma in the first period- and one blocked shot as he was eased back in the defensive rotation with 17:25 of ice time.