Well that was fun! If you had “Flyers beat defending Western Conference Champions by a 3-goal margin” as the season-opening headline, well, let’s just say you and I were not in the same head space. But they did it, and one player who had both an obvious, and not so obvious, impact on the game at times was Travis Sanheim.
Sanheim immediately made his impact felt in his first two shifts with quick breakout passes and even quicker decisions to step up and the blue line to deny entries. However, it was an offensive play on his third shift that saw this defenseman make his first direct impact on the outcome last night; a primary assist on the first goal of the season.
That’s great and all, but how’d he end up leading that rush? I’m glad you asked! It was actually all set up by a great play in the defensive zone by Jakub Voracek.
After Voracek spins around the pinching Golden Knights’ defenseman Jon Merrill (#15), Sanheim’s offensive instincts kick in and he immediately actives and quickly catches up to Oskar Lindblom, giving Voracek another target to pass to. Had Sanheim not activated, this likely turns into a nothing-play. Nick Holden, the lone Golden Knight defending this rush, showed pretty good gap control on this play, and had Voracek attempted to pass the puck to Lindblom, it likely would have failed. Sanheim joining the rush turned it into a two-on-one situation, and a perfect pass led him to his first assist of the season.
Merrill wasn’t the only defenseman to pinch and fail the keep the puck in the zone though, in fact Sanheim did that exact thing later in the period. However, not only did he have a forward backing him up in Claude Giroux, Sanheim actually recovers the puck himself thanks to his strong skating ability.
Sure, Paul Stastny isn’t the fastest skater anymore, but it’s still an impressive play nonetheless. He acts like a forward back-checking and is able to get his stick in the passing lane and break up the pass, sending the Flyers in the other direction. He’s not really “targeted” here like a defenseman would normally be on an attempted zone entry, but the end result was still a failed entry pass by Stastny and a takeaway for Sanheim.
On other occasions he was targeted like a defenseman usually is, and the results were mixed. For the most part he was able to disrupt the puck carrier on entries, but the Golden Knights were still able to maintain possession of the puck and stay on the attack.
Sanheim’s positioning allows him to make a great defensive play against Max Pacioretty to steal the puck, but with Stastny’s support on the original entry, and his close proximity to the puck, Sanheim attempts to clear the zone to avoid a defensive zone turnover. However, that’s exactly what happens as Holden is able to hold the line, eventually allowing Vegas to start a cycle.
Other entry attempts were cleanly denied though, like this stretch pass from Jonathan Marchessault to William Karlsson late in the second period.
The angle makes it impossible to see, but it’s fair to assume that Sanheim must have been able to close the gap on Karlsson quickly to immediately steal the puck. We see Karlsson take off at full speed at the very beginning, well, at least his helmet take off at full speed, and by the time the pass reaches the intended target, Sanheim is right on top of him and Karlsson has no space to work with at all.
His play in the neutral zone was integral to the Flyers’ success last night, and it’s no surprise that both he and his defensive partner, Radko Gudas, each had a team-high 58.82 CF% at 5-on-5 and were on the ice for no goals against.
Alternatively said, Sanheim finally shows signs of breaking the PDO curse, because goals certainly could have gone in while he was on the ice.
Look, you never want to see your defenseman fall down while the opposing team is entering the zone, but it was almost nice to see Sanheim make a mistake that didn’t end up in the back of the Flyers’ net for once.
There was another instance where Sanheim attempted to make a pass off of the boards to Gudas but instead saw the puck bounce right towards the side of the Flyers’ net where William Carrier almost cut the Flyers’ lead to two. This came with just over one minute remaining in the game and surely would be remembered a lot more if the Golden Knights’ had staged a late game comeback.
In the end, Sanheim and Gudas played like they did during their time together last season, albeit in somewhat sheltered minutes, and should eventually become the team’s middle pair as the season progresses. Last night was a step in the right direction for both of them, especially Sanheim after his tumultuous rookie season that included an almost month long seat in the press box.
Data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick