Five! Five wins in a row! The process may not have been excellent, but the result will more than do. Let’s take a look at what we learned.
1. We should talk about that first goal...
... but I do not want to.
Inside the first two minutes of the game, the puck was chipped behind the net, and Elliott left his net to retrieve it. A simple enough play, made terrible by the fact that he passed it straight to a Sabre, then got caught behind the net, and O’Reilly sent it into the goal, while Sanheim made a diving attempt to save it, to no avail. It was, on the whole, kind of an all systems failure, but Elliott had to make a better play. Should Sanheim have not been blocking him in behind the net? I mean, yeah. But Elliott shouldn't have passed straight to a Sabre, either.
It was an ugly, but fluky play, one that we shouldn't expect to see--OH MY GOD HE DID IT AGAIN.
Minutes later, Elliott went back behind the net to retrieve a puck, again handed it off to a Sabre, and again was slow getting back out front. Luckily, this time he had Patrick there to block the shot and bail him out, but oh man, was that almost bad all over again.
After the early snafus, Elliott was able to tighten up his overall play, stopping 19 of the 20 shots he faced in total. With the team in front of him putting in solid work to clog up the area around the crease, they did well to make Elliott's job just a little bit easier.
2. Travis Sanheim!
After taking part in the horrible breakdown that led to the O’Reilly goal, Sanheim was able to get back on track with ease, and this time in his own zone. With the puck cycling around, but the Flyers unable to get set enough (in their eyes) to put up a shot, they sent the puck out to Sanheim between the faceoff circles, who rifled it in and past Lehner, for the first Flyers goal of the evening, and his first goal of his NHL career.
And honestly, it was a long time coming. Though not without his hiccups and mistakes, Sanheim has been making great progress in the NHL, getting settled well, and doing the little things well. There have been more than a handful of games, to date, where it looked like he might pick up his first goal, or deserved to. It wasn't an absolutely stellar complete performance, but all the same, it was nice to see him rewarded for the work he’s been doing, as the work has been good.
3. Defense again
Much of last night’s game felt reminiscent of Tuesday’s against Toronto, with the tight defending and relatively easy breaking up of plays. The first period saw the most of this, the greatest struggle to establish momentum, but it was an issue that never fully dissipated, one that was carried throughout the game. The Flyers themselves defended well, but were also well defended against. They held the Sabres to 1.6 expected goals, and were held to 2.14 themselves.
Throughout the season to date, they Flyers haven't fared terribly well against this type of slowed down, tight checking game, but it was encouraging to see them finding a way to adapt to this style. Just a few weeks ago, the outcome of this game may have been very different. But the adjustments are being made, they're finding a way to make something out of this style, and that's certainly a step in the right direction.
4. Checking the numbers
Some numbers for you: As noted above, the Flyers accrued 2.14 expected goals for the game, while registering 27 shots and an adjusted CF% of 51.79 percent at 5-on-5. This made for what was in many ways a close to even game, perhaps when it really shouldn’t have been. The Sabres just flat out aren’t very good. The Flyers should have skated circles around them, right? What’s going on here?
Well, one issue is an old one that has haunted them on and off throughout the season. Shot quality.
The good news? The Flyers are generating chances in close to the net, and those generally have a better chance of going in. The bad news? They leaned pretty heavily on shots from around the points, which do not have great chances of going in. We’ve been through this time and again, so there’s not much else to say. The Flyers had a bit of a rough night last night, in part because, even as they were outshooting the Sabres, the quality of the chances weren’t doing them any major favors in helping them as they aimed to pull far ahead.
More good news? We’ve seen them clean up this area before. So hopefully they can do that again.
5. Cleaning up
I put this section heading in my outline about midway through the second period, when the Flyers had been able to draw two penalties, while not taking any of their own.
Well, that balance was shifted a bit, as a Filppula hooking call late in the second would send the Sabres to the power play, but the overall idea that I wanted to get at remains.
By and large, the Flyers have really tightened up their personal discipline. During the losing streak, they were taking many more penalties in a game and shooting themselves in the foot. A big emphasis fell on tightening up on this, and the results have spoken for themselves. Even with a penalty kill that is more or less middling, they have been able to make use of the best penalty killing strategy of all--just not taking any penalties.
And while it’s an area that may feel more or less tangential to other areas of overall play, it's one whose resolution has not gone unnoticed, has still made a difference.
6. The second line gets rewarded
After getting, to put it lightly, numerically thrashed in the first period, the second line of Raffl-Filppula-Voracek came back in a big way in the second. The matchup against Buffalo's O’Reilly line wasn't an easy one, but they were able to get something going in the second.
A late-period shift saw them at their best; keeping Buffalo hemmed into their own zone, they were able to start generating solid, sustained pressure. A near-miss came close to letting them extend the lead, but the shot was blocked. And the attempts had to keep rolling.
But wait! A nice move kept the Sabres from clearing the puck out of the zone, and the push stayed alive. The puck found its way from Voracek to Filppula, who sent it in from the right faceoff circle with speed. It was a goal that, in retrospect, given the amount of pressure generated in the sequence, you could see coming a mile away. It was a trial to get there, and it was certainly well earned.
7. Loosening up in the third
After a dominant second period effort, the Flyers loosened up some in the third period. And not in a good way. They entered the second intermission with a 21 to 13 edge in shots, and held an adjusted CF% of 72.39 percent at even strength. They had seized tight control of momentum through the second period, but let up in the third.
The Flyers were still able to hold onto that edge in possession, but allowed seven more shots from the Sabres across the period, and a fair amount of sustained pressure. Defense didn’t fall apart completely, but they had the chance to take the wind out of Buffalo’s sails and really seal the game off for themselves, and they just weren’t quite do that. The key saves at key times kept them covered, but the chances they gave away had the chance to bite them back in a big way. And they’ll be looking to avoid sitting back like this, late in games, in the future.
8. Third period deployment
Something of a hot button topic of late, Hakstol’s lineup and ice time decisions late in games have garnered a fair amount of criticism since the tail end of the losing streak. In some ways, the third period of last night’s game went as expected, as players like Konecny and Sanheim saw their ice time cut a bit. They weren’t exactly stapled to the bench, but they were used somewhat sparingly.
But a pleasant surprise also came out of last night’s final period, as Nolan Patrick showed that he had taken a step up in the coach’s eyes, and was given just under four minutes of ice time, through the end of the game. And while this still suggests a bit of sheltering, it’s also a big step up from the closer-to-zero minutes he’s played in some recent third periods. And, sure, his play hasn’t been stellar, to date, but at least he’s being given the opportunity to learn as he goes and figure things out, rather than just from watching at a distance.
9. Finding a way to win
To sort of summarize and simplify this game, the sentiment would be that it wasn't a pretty one. Voracek noted, plain and simple, that they didn't play a great game last night. He even went on to say that it was a "boring game." And, honestly, he wasn't wrong.
But, as we gestured to above, what's worth noting is that they were still able to pull a win out of this lackluster performance. Before, they couldn't even pull a win out of an impressive performance. But the tides have changed.
And, of course, process matters, and you don't want to see a team consistently putting up that type of performance, no matter the results. But the team now finding ways to win games--rather than finding and more inventive ways to lose--despite the underlying performance isn't nothing.
10. The only damn thing I know
We touched on Travis Sanheim's performance in the second point, above. He had a fine enough night, and tallied his first NHL goal, in the process. Which is great news. And we knew all that.
But there's something you may not have noticed.
After Sanheim's goal, there was a roaring cheer. But when it subsided, there was another sound that lingered. Soft, it was but a hum by the time it reached my ears. It was easy to miss, but I recognized it immediately.
It was Steph Driver, screaming in the distance. Rejoicing as another large adult son earned his first goal.