The Philadelphia Flyers may have only lost to the New York Rangers by one goal on Monday night, but the score belied the true lopsided nature of the game. Only a stellar performance from Steve Mason kept the game close, as the rest of the squad struggled to establish much in the way of scoring chances or even sustained offensive zone pressure.
Tonight, on the other hand, had a number of positives.
Aggressive forechecking is clearly going to be a key aspect of the Dave Hakstol Flyers, and it was on full display tonight. The forwards kept the pressure up in the New Jersey zone even after losing possession, attacking the puck carriers as quickly as possible. When the tactics were at their best (particularly in the second half of the first period and first half of the second period), the Flyers forwards came in waves, totally sapping the Devils of any speed even if they were able to successfully exit their own zone.
Not only were the Flyers able to irritate the Devils' blueliners, they also protected their own defense, which was exposed on Monday night against New York. Craig Berube recognized the weakness of his blueline last season and regularly preached to his forwards the necessity of active backchecking, but the effort was often inconsistent. It also ran counter to the passive neutral zone strategies that Berube's team employed.
With Hakstol, on the other hand, aggressiveness is at the center of his entire coaching strategy. It remains to be seen if the forwards can execute in the regular season against better teams than the Devils, but at least tonight, the results were promising. The Flyers led in the possession statistics throughout despite little in the way of score effects, supporting evidence that Philadelphia was the better team at 5v5.
In fact, only the goaltending did not improve from Monday, although it was always going to be difficult to top Mason's fantastic effort against the Rangers. But aside from a few great saves in the first period, Michal Neuvirth looked shaky through his two periods of action. The Flyers have high hopes for Neuvirth to be a dramatic upgrade over Ray Emery as backup goaltender, but it's clear that the Czech still needs a bit more work before he is regular season ready. Jason LaBarbera also underwhelmed, with an egregious overtime turnover that soon ended up in the back of the net the lowlight of his night.
But an improved effort from the rest of the team helped keep the Flyers in the game throughout. Chris Porter tallied a first period goal even after being waived earlier this morning, and Wayne Simmonds scored yet another goal from his office right in front of the net on a five-on-three power play.
With only one preseason game remaining, the team's comfort level seems to be growing just in time for opening night. Combine that with the total lack of injuries and the night proved to be a moderate success, despite the outcome on the scoreboard.
A few more observations on the game:
- It's not time to panic quite yet, but the apparent first defense pairing of Mark Streit and Nick Schultz has been severely underwhelming so far in preseason. While other pairings are supporting the forwards' aggressive forecheck by moving forward and essentially cutting the rink in half at the red line, Streit and Schultz still are playing the passive, "sit back and keep them to the outside" style of the Berube era. The tactic results in a large gap between the forechecking forwards and backtracking defensemen, which allows opposing forwards to skate in at full speed if they are able to elude the forwards. Hopefully Streit and Schultz can clean this up on Friday.
- On the other side, Michael Del Zotto is having a blast playing for Dave Hakstol. Del Zotto is similar to Shayne Gostisbehere as he knows defensive zone coverage is his biggest weakness, so he's jumped at the chance to prevent cycles before they begin. Del Zotto has increased his aggressiveness in the neutral zone more than any other returning Flyers defenseman. By cutting off the angles on slow-moving rushes, MDZ forced quite a few turnovers and dump-ins tonight.
- R.J. Umberger continues to spark cautious optimism among Flyers fans that injuries and not the aging curve caused his disastrous 2014-15 season. The forward was never a dynamic offensive weapon in his prime, but Umberger had a size/speed combo that allowed him to retain possession while under pressure and to create scoring chances. On more than a few occasions tonight, Umberger outskated Devils in the offensive zone while chasing down loose pucks and advancing the cycle.
- In one of his last opportunities to impress the coaching staff before final cuts, Scott Laughton looked fine. He didn't stand out offensively, but Laughton was one of the team's more tenacious forecheckers. I'm still not convinced that his offense is ready to manifest in the NHL, but he's clearly ready to hold his own at this level. If he stays, it's because Hakstol and Hextall believe that he'll learn more in a limited role with the Flyers than in a first line role on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
- Matt Read didn't show any lingering effects from his injury on Monday, and neither did Jakub Voracek. Barring a disaster on Friday, the only two players that fans should worry about are Sean Couturier and Michael Raffl, at least from an injury standpoint.