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Flyers 4, Blackhawks 3: A new era begins with a victory

There was so much to like here folks, and we’re going to get to all of it.

Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

In the first Philadelphia Flyers regular season game outside of North America, and in the debut of new head coach Alain Vigneault, the team came away with a 4-3 victory. There was so much to like about this win, folks. Carter Hart looked sharp, the new-look defense had a productive game, and the shuffled forward lines made an impact. It’s one game and one game only, but that was a very good showing to open the season.

All data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

The Metrics

5v5 Corsi-For: 56 CF, 57.73 CF%, 58.44 CF% SVA

Oh that is most definitely the good stuff right there. The way the Flyers opened this game up, the way they dominated the second period, and the almost perfect third period. The second period was their shining moment of the game, with the Flyers putting together a 19-8 CF period. Getting sustained offensive zone time from a relentless forecheck, and a stifling defensive effort.

Something that gradually improved over the game was the play in the neutral zone, and that was abundantly present in the second. Seemingly every Hawks rush was met with a sea of Flyers either waiting on them and knocking the puck back out to center ice, or stealing it and starting a rush of their own. Something that certainly helped these numbers — and is something we’ll touch on later — is the low-to-high passes, or lack thereof for that matter. The cycle game was working extremely well and it kept the Hawks on their heels.

Last season, and throughout the Dave Hakstol era, Flyers teams turtled going into the third period with a lead. They would consistently get killed in Corsi, and it typically resulted in blowing the game or at least going to overtime to pick up the win. Yesterday, the Flyers out-Corsi’d the Hawks in the third period, a period they lead in its entirety. Given what we’ve watched over the past few seasons, it feels just a bit more important.

5v5 shot quality: 31 SCF, 12 HDCF, 62.48 xGF%, 61.83 xGF% SVA

Oh it just keeps getting better and better, folks. Under the Hakstol era, the Flyers were capable of dominating in Corsi, but most of the time they’d dominate with shots from the perimeter. That was far from the case in this game and man was it nice to see. It was mentioned previously but it’s worth expanding on, the Flyers did not rely on low-to-high passes to generate shot attempts. This was a cycle dominated effort and it resulted in passes from below the goal line, and passes to high percentage areas. It resulted in this heat map:

It truly does not get much better than that. That’s a whole lot of red near the slot area and not at the point which, to me, is a surprising occurrence. We’ve been so accustomed to seeing the Flyers enter the offensive zone, get the puck down low, pass to the point, and settle for an unscreened point shot. This was an entirely different method of attack, and a much more aggressive one. Sharp angle shots from down low, wraparound attempts, all of it just seemed all so new.

Again, it’s one game and maintaining this strategy and effort against better teams and for an extended period of time is key to their success this season, but this was a fantastic way to start the season. Oh and possibly the most impressive aspect of it? The Flyers expected goals-for percentage in the third period was 85.68. It bears repeating that at no point in the third were the Flyers ever trailing, which means they were getting the better scoring opportunities despite playing with a lead.

Now that could be misconstrued to say, “Well that means they were taking unnecessary risks, and it could burn them in other games.” The crazy thing is, the Flyers were generally playing a conservative game for most of the third. They were sitting back on defense and dumping the puck in most of the time on zone entries. But they did it so well that they took advantage of the over-aggressive Hawks, and got prime scoring chances out of it by turning defense into offense.

Five Observations

1. The backcheck was marvelous

I know I’ve talked a lot about how different this game looked than the games under Dave Hakstol, but I don’t think I’m done yet. Yesterday’s game was one of the best team backchecking efforts I have seen in quite some time. Now, that could be recency bias or what have you, but it doesn’t change the fact the backcheck was very noticeable and in a good way. In a one game sample size, this wouldn’t be something to take as a sign of change in how the team plays.

However, this was something noticeable all preseason as well. Vigneault has worked these guys hard in training camp and preseason, and one would have to imagine the backcheck was something he keyed in on.

2. Travis Konecny wastes no time proving his worth

Well, he took about six and a half minutes, but who’s counting? Konecny was a force to be reckoned with vs. Chicago, scoring two goals and would have been a hat trick if he didn’t miss a perfect feed from Sean Couturier. The first goal came at the result of the forecheck that was insufferable, and Konecny showcasing his underrated shot. He steals the puck on a pass attempt from Dennis Gilbert who was just having a very rough go-around handling the puck, and then snipes on Corey Crawford.

If you missed the game yesterday, and are only seeing that goal for the first time, you probably think that’s a really nice goal. Well Travis Konecny laughs at your thoughts and proceeds to one-up himself with this dazzler.

I mean by-god Travis, you didn’t have to do em’ like that! But he did and it was glorious in every way. Konecny was superb in this game if that wasn’t already blatantly obvious, and his metrics only hammer that point home. He had the second highest CF among forwards only to Claude Giroux at 65.38, and the fifth best xGF at 72.04. By the way, the fact a 72.04 xGF percentage is only fifth best on the team, tells you just how good the entire team looked.

In fact, Konecny’s entire line was excellent. A new-look line featuring him, Sean Couturier, and Oskar Lindblom was arguably their best vs. Chicago. The first line featuring Giroux and Jakub Voracek centered by Kevin Hayes was fantastic as well, but I’d give the edge to Couturier’s line. Vigneault received some criticism for breaking up Giroux and Couturier — and once again this is just one game — but that decision panned out at least for that one game. Konecny would not be the only one from his line to score, as Lindblom added a goal of his own that one could only describe as “coocoo”

3. Carter Hart answered the bell

He did give up three goals, and the first one he probably should have stopped, but Carter Hart was fantastic in this game. Defensively, the team was much better in their own zone than we’ve been accustomed too, but when they had their moments, Hart was up to the task. Overall, he stopped 28 of 31 shots, and made the big saves when he needed to.

Hart becomes the youngest goalie to win a Flyers season opener in team history at the age of 21. Getting off on the right foot is so huge for this team but especially for Hart, and that began yesterday, he certainly looked ready for the challenge. Here are some of his best saves from the effort:

4. Strong game from the bottom six

The decision to put Carsen Twarynski and Connor Bunnaman on this roster over Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost was ah, well not exactly well received to put it lightly. However, their two lines were fantastic yesterday and made a big impact on the game. The third line featuring Scott Laughton, Twarynski, and James van Riemsdyk were the Flyers’ best line in terms of shot quality, posting the highest xGF percentage at 89.45.

The fourth line of Michael Raffl, Bunnaman, and new guy Tyler Pitlick was exceptional as well albeit in a different way. The third line was great in shot quality, not so much in quantity of attempts and attempts allowed. It was vice versa for the fourth line which drove play at a solid rate, but struggled getting high quality attempts. If the bottom six can continue playing as they did yesterday, just imagine how good they will be when Nolan Patrick returns to the lineup. To close on the bottom six, Raffl also did this in the game:

5. The d-pairs looked ... kinda good?

Along with the forward lines, the defense pairs received their fair share of criticism as well. Ivan Provorov was on the top pairing with Justin Braun, Travis Sanheim and Matt Niskanen on the second, and Shayne Gostisbehere with Robert Hagg on the third. Despite a turnover from Provorov that lead to the Alex Nylander goal, I thought he and Braun looked good together. Not as good as Braun and Ghost did in preseason, but good nonetheless. Sanheim with Niskanen was solid as well, with Niskanen making a big play on a two-on-one rush lead by Patrick Kane.

As for the third pair, they had their moments, but I think it was clear this was the weakest pairing. Gostisbehere looked fine, and even though Hagg didn’t look awful, he didn’t look all that good either. Sanheim and Niskanen were the top pairing in Corsi, followed by Braun and Provorov. The good news at least with the Hagg and Gostisbehere pairing, was that it saw the least amount of 5-on-5 ice time out of the pairings. While it may not be too ideal for Gostisbehere to receive just over 15 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, he’ll be getting plenty of work on the top power play unit.

The good news was that Hagg saw the least amount of ice time from the defensemen, something that I don’t think would have happened if Hakstol was still the head coach. Again, it’s one game, and Vigneault could very well play him 20 minutes in the home opener (Big Al I beg you don’t do that to us), but this was a good sign.

Bonus observation! Things just feel ... different, don’t they?

So this has nothing to do with the game, but with what I saw after the game. In Voracek’s press conference after the game, Vigneault crashed the conference and started joking around with Jake and the media, and it was the most meaningless altercation. Except for the fact it was everything the past four years of Flyers hockey wasn’t.

A coach having personality doesn’t make him a great coach, but after almost four seasons of Dave Hakstol being the most lifeless and bland character behind the bench, seeing Vigneault with that big grin and messing around, just felt right. At the end of the day, wins are the only thing that matters for this team. We need to see a winning product after the hell we’ve been put through for the past decade, but it’s one step at a time to having fun again with this team, and that moment brought back the fun.

The “That’s so Flyers” moment of the game

It’s a little awkward picking this in a win, and to be fair there really wasn’t an egregious moment, but Alex Debrincat scoring late in the second to bring the Hawks within a goal again felt about right. Konecny had just scored that beautiful goal, and the Flyers looked to be coasting into the third with a two goal lead. How naive to think it would be that simple. Debrincat would score, but thankfully it did not come back to bite the Flyers in the end.