After the conclusion of a tortuous six-game road trip where they went 1-4-1 without a regulation win, the Philadelphia Flyers finally return home. The Orange and Black won’t catch a break upon returning to the Wells Fargo Center, however, as their first game in Philadelphia since Festivus will be the second game in a back-to-back against the powerhouse Washington Capitals. A return home for a team with such a drastic difference in records for games at home (13-2-4) compared to games outside the city (9-13-2) would seem like a surefire victory, but considering the opponent and without the services of a top-four defensemen it’s not guaranteed this game will go any smoother for the Flyers.
With the team struggling out west, head coach Alain Vigneault decided to shake up the lines before yesterday’s contest against the Carolina Hurricanes rolling with Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny as the top line, James van Riemsdyk-Kevin Hayes-Nicolas Aube-Kubel as the second line, Tyler Pitlick-Michael Raffl-Jakub Voracek as the third line, and a fourth line of Scott Laughton-Mikhail Vorobyev-Joel Farabee. The result was a 5-4 overtime loss where the Orange and Black were thoroughly outplayed in the first period and fortunate for Travis Sanheim’s incredible individual effort to tie the game in a third period where Carolina otherwise took away anything the Flyers did offensively. Despite benefitting from a Travis Konecny shot leaking through James Reimer just 37 seconds in and Michael Raffl making it a two-goal advantage before the contest was nine minutes old, Philly managed to exit the first period tied and were down by two early in the second.
On defense, Philly had to roll without Justin Braun in the lineup, who is expected to be out until late January/early February with a groin injury. Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen remained the team’s top pair, but Phil Myers jumped up to the top four with Sanheim while the third pair was Shayne Gostisbehere and Robert Hagg.
Although they combined for a 50 Corsi-for percentage (shots on goal, missed shots, and shots that were blocked) and 51.7 expected goals-for percentage (quality of chances), the tandem of Sanheim and Myers found themselves on the ice for three goals against. Myers was at fault for not staying with Lucas Wallmark on the Hurricanes’ opening goal and was just a tick late in recognizing Warren Foegele darting to the net to receive Jordan Staal’s precise cross-ice pass on their second goal, but neither he nor Sanheim can really be at fault for Joel Edmundson’s blast from the point getting past Brian Elliott in the second period. Myers did have a nice pinch to start the play that led to Sanheim’s game-tying goal. As for Ghost and Hagg they had a good night at the rink with a 55 corsi for percentage together in 12:22 of ice time at 5-on-5 while being out there for the Flyers’ other three goals.
The Caps also played last night, as they decimated the Ottawa Senators 6-1 in D.C. Alex Ovechkin scored his 25th and 26th goals of the season to move into a tie with Teemu Selanne for 11th all-time in goals while T.J. Oshie also recorded a two-goal performance to increase his season total to 18. With Ilya Samsonov in net last night it means the Flyers will most likely be facing Braden Holtby tonight, who comes into the tilt with an 18-7-4 record despite a lowly .902 save percentage and 2.99 goals against average. On top of those numbers it looks like the Flyers will be catching Holtby at the right time since he has an .885 save percentage in ten games since the start of December and hasn’t posted above an .893 save percentage in any of his last four games.
Players to watch
1. Carter Hart
Welp, the Flyers are back home meaning Carter Hart is allowed to stop pucks again. With the exception of a 40-minute relief appearance for the final two periods of the loss to the Los Angeles Kings where he stopped 13 of 14, the recent disastrous road trip illustrates the difference in how well Hart does at home and on the road. Outside of that relief appearance Hart started three games where he allowed 14 goals against and posted an .818 save percentage before concluding his time out west by being pulled in the first period against the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday with three goals against in a 3:42 span. Before tonight’s game here are Hart’s home and road splits this season:
Home: 11-1-2 with a .947 save percentage, 1.49 GAA, and one shutout
Away: 2-9-1 with a .850 save percentage, 4.01 GAA, and zero shutouts
Whatever it is that’s causing him problems on the road seems non-existent at home. Regardless of what has forced these splits the Flyers will need Hart to have a big game tonight.
2. Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Phil Myers
I’m grouping these two together because they’re a pair of players who will be playing higher up in the lineup than normal in a critical divisional game. An argument can be made that Nicolas Aube-Kubel deserves to be in the top six and there’s one for Myers being a top-four defender, but at the moment they’re a forward looking to stay up with the big club (for whenever Morgan Frost is called back up or if Nolan Patrick returns some point soon) for the rest of the season and a blue liner looking for consistent playing time. NAK has seemingly been a net positive since being called up from Lehigh Valley and helped the squad earn a point last night with a goal in the second period, while Myers has struggled to prove to AV he should clearly be in the lineup over Hagg over the last few weeks and didn’t put an end to that argument last night. Both would be doing a great service to their future workloads by being effective in a positive manner tonight to help Philadelphia grab two points against a team they’ve struggled to score against in recent meetings.
Two big questions
1. Can the Flyers score against the Caps at even strength?
Speaking of, the Flyers have gone 147:38 against Washington without scoring a 5-on-5 goal. Fortunately they only needed one goal in their only meeting with the Caps so far this season to earn a point, but the only puck Philly put past Holtby on November 13th was a Giroux power-play goal off the rush. Washington is a loaded team and are strong defensively, but they aren’t that dominate defensively that the Flyers should be going games at a time without converting once at 5-on-5. With the recent play of Holtby and the fact the Caps are also coming off a game last night, as well as the fact they should be motivated to make up the ground they lost out west, a goose egg at full strength will be inexplicable.
2. Will the penalty kill stop Ovechkin?
The Caps only rank tenth with the man advantage this season, but they still have Ovechkin working from his office in the left circle. The Flyers’ penalty kill has vastly improved from the last few seasons to the 2019-20 campaign, but recently they have been handing goals to the opponents while shorthanded. With five power-play goals against over their last ten penalty kills spanning the last four games Philadelphia has dropped from the top of the PK ranks to going into tonight’s action ranked 12th with an 81.1 success rate. On top of the recent struggles the penalty kill will be without Justin Braun, who has logged the third-most 4-on-5 time this season on Philly’s blue line behind Provorov and Niskanen. It might sting at even strength as well but considering Braun and his PK partner Sanheim are one and two in corsi against-per-60, unblocked shot attempts against-per-60, and shots against-per-60 among the 85 blue liners to play 75 minutes or more at 4-on-5 this season the Flyers may look a little more sloppy than usual down a man. Hagg looks to be Braun’s replacement on the kill, as he was paired with Sanheim on Carolina’s lone power play last night and has the fifth-most 4-on-5 time among Flyers’ d-men this year.
Flyers’ projected lineup
Giroux - Couturier - Konecny
JVR - Hayes - NAK
Pitlick - Raffl - Voracek
Laughton - Vorobyev - Farabee
Provorov - Niskanen
Sanheim - Myers
Gostisbehere - Hagg