It's always easy to frame a cheap narrative for the first game back from a break.
If the team wins, then clearly the break allowed them to clear their heads and rest their legs. If the result is a loss, the team obviously developed rust in the interim and suffered from a flat start, dooming them to a disappointing defeat.
Ray Emery got the start in goal, as Steve Mason was battling illness in addition to just returning from injury. But it became apparent quickly that Mason wouldn't be staying on the bench tonight. Emery just didn't have it, giving up a painfully weak goal to kick off the scoring and then allowing a rebound on a pretty weak wrist shot to end up right in the slot and soon after, into the net.
In came Mason to bail out his team. The Flyers had actually gotten off to a decent start in the game before Emery started giftwrapping goals to Arizona, so it wasn't surprising to see Philadelphia continue to carry play. Mason just allowed the team to focus on a comeback and know that they had a reliable netminder backing them up.
Wayne Simmonds quickly potted a power play goal, and then R.J. Umberger tied the game in the second on a beautiful snipe of a wrist shot. Not to be outdone, Michael Del Zotto one-upped Umberger with an even better wrister, giving the Flyers their first lead of the game. But a long stretch pass from Shane Doan to Tobias Rieder with less than a minute left in the second period evened it back up again.
After a third period and overtime that proved exciting but ultimately fruitless for both sides, the teams squared off in a shootout. Long the Flyers' greatest nemesis, the shootout was far more kind to the team tonight. Steve Mason was perfect, stopping all three Coyotes shooters, and Wayne Simmonds provided the skate-off game winner on a sick deke right in front of Mike Smith.
In the end, it was a game that the Flyers deserved to win. They outshot, outchanced, and outpossessed the Coyotes throughout, and only a terrible performance by Emery early and a fantastic game by Smith stopped the Flyers from taking this one in regulation. All in all, it was a solid first game back.
A few more observations on the game tonight:
- Some made the case that the decision to bench Emery early was intended to spark the team, and Berube may even argue that after the game, to avoid throwing his goalie under the bus. But to my eyes, it looked like Emery just was not sharp at all, and the coach recognized it and realized that he needed to get Emery out of there ASAP. Kudos to Berube for not hesitating.
- Petr Straka showcased good speed and aggressiveness in the neutral zone - both great attributes for a young player to have. Berube understandably limited his (and Ryan White's) minutes in tonight's game, as their line was essentially the fourth line in terms of usage. But he's definitely got skill. We'll see if he gets a couple games in the NHL to show what he's got over a larger sample.
- The possession statistics may not have shown it tonight, but Matt Read finally looked fast again. He had a few controlled zone entries, used his speed to pressure puck carriers in the neutral and defensive zones, and created a few scoring chances as well. I'd hate to chalk this up as a "lost season" for Read - he still has a little less than three months to prove that his first half struggles were primarily due to his high ankle sprain.
- Wayne Simmonds might be turning into a solid shootout option. Or maybe it's just a small sample. Regardless, he's clearly got some moves, so let's enjoy it now for however long it lasts.
- Both Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek exit the game with points. Ho hum.
- I've been a skeptic most of the season even as he's been undeniably useful, but man, Nick Schultz looked good tonight. Rather than simply being a passive observer on his pairing, Schultz was stepping up into the play, carrying the puck and proving to be a legitimate threat in the offensive zone. If the Flyers are smart, they'll look to move him at the deadline to a team looking for a stabilizing force on their third pairing for a playoff run, as it's tough to see him being a long-term asset for the team, but who knows what the organization is going to do with him.
- Only three penalties were called all game. That's not to say that it was a clean one - the refs had plenty of opportunities to blow the whistle and send players from either squad to the box. But they chose not to do so, and it resulted in a fair game all around. Neither team could complain, because they were both getting away with a relatively equal number of infractions.
- With both Michael Raffl (illness) and Scott Laughton (likely concussion) out of the lineup, the trio of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Vincent Lecavalier and Chris VandeVelde basically became the third line. And truthfully, they looked pretty good even in increased minutes. Bellemare and Lecavalier even had a great shift together in overtime.