When you play against a team like tonight's Flyers opponent, the St. Louis Blues, sometimes you've got to be ready to win a dirty, ugly game that doesn't feature a ton of scoring and necessitates taking advantage of your opportunities when they come to you. Y'know, the type of game that one would say you often have to play to win in the playoffs**.
The Flyers -- who have struggled in the past trying to play those kinds of games -- played a game like that tonight, against the top team in the Western Conference. Granted, it was against a team that's had some scoring issues of late, and the Flyers were left scrambling around their own zone a bit at times, frequently having to clear out rebounds and occasionally letting Blues players get unmarked for shot attempts that would end up juuuust missing the net (or hitting the post).
But there's something to be said about not letting the best team in the Western Conference hit the lamp once in 65 minutes of gameplay. There was some pretty solid (if not shaky at times) goaltending from Ray Emery, which was augmented by one of the best jobs the Flyers have done in a while at clearing out the area in front of the net when rebounds got loose.
Of course, there's the other side of the coin. The Flyers put a goose egg on the scoreboard for just the fourth time this season and first time since December 2, thanks largely to the efforts of Ryan Miller, who redeemed himself after a subpar effort when these teams played ten days ago by picking up his first shutout of the season. He stopped all 31 Flyers shots in regulation/overtime and both of the ones he faced in the shootout. Such is the result of playing a tight, defense-heavy game like the one the Flyers played (though he did make some fantastic saves, including two in overtime).
All in all, and shootouts notwithstanding because thank God they're gone in two weeks, playing the two best teams in the league to a draw in back-to-back games is pretty encouraging, I think. This wasn't a super high-consequence game for the Flyers, but it was another one that was a decent test of how they could stack up against a really good team. I think they showed they've still got work to do on that front, and Claude Giroux even said after the game that he thinks "we can learn from them" when they play opponents like the Blues. But I think they've also showed they can at least hang with almost any team in a game, and it sounds like they've got confidence that they can do so as well. That's a nice thing to be able to think -- for both the players and fans of this team -- going into the playoffs.
** You could say that this is debatable, given everything that happened the last time the Flyers won a playoff series. But that kind of seems like the exception to the rule.
* The Flyers started this one about as well as one could have expected, getting chances and shots from just about all of their four forward lines within the first five minutes or so of the first period. Space can be hard to come by against a team that swarms like St. Louis does, and at least through that part of the game, the Flyers were making it look easy. Odd-man rushes, transition chances, all of that. That didn't quite last, though, as St. Louis had the better of the flow of things in the game's final 55 minutes or so.
* As mentioned above, Ray Emery played what was a pretty solid game -- hard not to when you stop the other team from scoring for 65 minutes. That said, it did seem like he was letting a few too many rebounds out and maybe wasn't doing the best job of tracking the puck at times. He got some help from the Blues (who had trouble connecting and jumping on rebounds at times) and the post (which came up big two or three times). But again, a lot is to be said about the Flyers' defense, which was often there to clear out the front of the net when the situation called for it. The Blues had their chances, but the Flyers typically did a decent job containing them once it looked like things were getting dangerous.
* The power play was only called upon twice tonight, once in the first period and once with five minutes left in regulation. It did not look good. In particular, with a chance to score a huge goal late in the third, the Flyers had just one shot attempt, and that was an unthreatening shot from the blue line by Andrew MacDonald that got blocked. Credit to an aggressive Blues penalty kill, but man, that top unit misses Kimmo Timonen, who fortunately should be back on Thursday.
* Meanwhile, as it often does, the penalty kill came up huge. Twice in the third period -- once without the best PKer on the team, Sean Couturier, and once with 1:24 remaining in regulation after a Claude Giroux high sticking call. St. Louis managed just two shots on net across its three power plays, which is quite impressive for the Flyers.
* The Flyers' top line was all over the place when it was on the ice, but it didn't really seem like it was in a good way that often. Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Jakub Voracek combined for eight shots on net and even more attempts, but it just seemed like they were having trouble all night just getting a hold of the puck and keeping it on their sticks. I don't think they were bad, necessarily, just a bit sloppy with the puck in ways that maybe cost them a few chances.
Giroux, in particular, seemed a bit off -- he straight-up whiffed on two big shot attempts, and he held the puck juuuust a bit too long on a 2-on-0 in the first period (on which two Blues defensemen ran into each other and fell down) before passing it over to Michael Raffl, who was stoned by Miller. He said after the game regarding that sequence that he "got too excited" and admitted that "maybe I should've just taken the breakaway".
Tonight and Sunday mark the first time since December 31 and January 2 that he's been kept off the scoresheet for two straight games. Not something I'm worried about long-term, but let's hope for a big game from him on Thursday against a division rival in Columbus.
* Erik Gustafsson's first game in a month seemed like a pretty active one, at least from my observation. Only two total shot attempts, but he was up in the zone a lot and was pretty on-point in the defensive end as well. He'll probably head back to the press box after this game with Timonen back on Thursday, but his speed and effort were appreciated tonight.
* Every game Ryan Miller plays against the Flyers either ends with him playing like ass or playing like God. We got the latter tonight. God, that guy is annoying.
* Three points out of four in two games against the top team in the Western Conference is a good sign, especially compounded with some of the other efforts in recent weeks (two wins over Pittsburgh, a win over Chicago, and Sunday's SO loss to Boston). Job well done, all things considered.
Flyers can come pretty close to printing playoff tickets with a win over Columbus on Thursday. Get it done. Go Flyers.