The Philadelphia Flyers looked like a team on a mission during the round-robin tournament. They took down their three opponents with ease en route to clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Flyers’ depth is one of their biggest assets in the playoffs, and it creates plenty of possibilities for the coaching staff to choose from.
Prior to the Flyers’ first round-robin game against the Boston Bruins, I posed three questions that the Flyers will need to answer during the tournament. They mostly answered them, but there are some things that are still up in the air.
Let’s revisit those questions one by one.
Question: What will the bottom-six forward group look like for Game 1?
Answer: We still don’t really know – but that’s a good thing.
Alain Vigneault stuck to his word and used various line combinations throughout the three round-robin games. The Flyers used 14 forwards in total, with Joel Farabee and Connor Bunnaman each playing in the final two games after being healthy scratched for the opener.
Injuries to Michael Raffl and Jakub Voracek kept Farabee and Bunnaman in the lineup, while Vigneault also healthy scratched James van Riemsdyk for the middle game in an attempt to motivate him a bit.
Vigneault also said on Monday that he won’t be disclosing the Flyers’ lines during practice. While it’s frustrating for fans and media, it makes sense. Any upper hand you can get in the playoffs is a good one, and that doesn’t allow the opposition to prepare for a certain set of lines. It keeps them guessing.
Now, going into the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal as the No. 1 seed against the Montreal Canadiens, the Flyers may have more options than we thought in the bottom six.
The only thing that we truly know is that the second line of Scott Laughton, Kevin Hayes, and Travis Konecny should be sticking together. They were the only line to play together in all three games for the Flyers due to their consistency.
If Voracek is able to play in Game 1 after skating in practice today and being listed as a game-time decision for Wednesday, the top line should revert back to Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Voracek. I am almost certain that would be the case, but the top line looked a lot better against the Lightning than the Bruins or Capitals, which came with Farabee on the right wing.
Could Farabee stay there while Voracek slides down to the third line? I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s possible. That would spread out the wealth against a shallow team in the Canadiens who had Dale Weise and Jordan Weal on their fourth line in the play-in series.
Let’s assume that Voracek is able to play and that the top line does stick together. In that case, the top-six group is as expected:
Giroux - Couturier - Voracek
Laughton - Hayes - Konecny
There are then leaves plenty of options for the bottom two lines. We can assume that Derek Grant and Nate Thompson will be the two centers, but at the wings we could see any combination of van Riemsdyk, Farabee, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and Tyler Pitlick.
That doesn’t even include the injured Raffl, who doesn’t have a timeline, Bunnaman, who held his own but will likely be a healthy scratch, or the forgotten Morgan Frost, who won’t play but I wanted to mention simply to show how deep the Flyers forwards are.
I would guess that both van Riemsdyk and Farabee are on the third line, with Aube-Kubel and Pitlick on the fourth line.
If that is the case, here are the Flyers’ four lines:
Giroux - Couturier - Voracek
Laughton - Hayes - Konecny
van Riemsdyk - Grant - Farabee
Aube-Kubel - Thompson - Pitlick
If Voracek is unable to play, I would assume that the Flyers would stick with what worked on Saturday against the Lightning.
Question: Can Shayne Gostisbehere play himself into the lineup?
Answer: I sure hope he did.
While the Flyers’ offensive lines were in flux throughout the first two round-robin games, the defensive pairs did not change until the third game. Shayne Gostisbehere was a healthy scratch for the first two games, but finally got a chance against the Lightning.
He took that chance and ran with it.
I wrote an in-depth breakdown of Gostisbehere’s game that I highly suggest you check out, so I won’t write too much more on that now. However, I will look at the Gostisbehere vs. Robert Hagg debate, since it seems like one of them will be the sixth defenseman while the other will be a healthy scratch.
Before the round robin I explored the idea of splitting up the second pair of Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers to balance things out with Gostisbehere, but that pair has played extremely well, leaving only the third pair as an option.
Hagg has been a solid depth defenseman for the Flyers throughout his career. With Gostisbehere struggling this season, Hagg (and Mark Friedman) stepped right in to fill the gap. Hagg did a good job, but got a bit lucky throughout the season.
Hagg’s Goals-For Percentage of 62.26% (33-20) was much higher than his Expected Goals-For Percentage of 45.63% (22.87-27.25), in large part due to an on-ice save percentage of .946 and on-ice shooting percentage of 11.22%. That equates to a PDO of 1.058, which is quite high. Hagg lucked out by having the Flyers’ goalies play better behind him – and no, that isn’t because of Hagg. It’s simply luck.
Hagg was also the Flyers’ worst defenseman in terms of allowing shot attempts, with 58.36 shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes. That was the 48th-worst CA60 among defenseman with at least 600 minutes played at 5-on-5. Sure, that might not seem that bad, but the Flyers allowed 8.38 more shot attempts per 60 minutes (CA60 Rel) with Hagg on the ice than without him on the ice. That was the third worst in the league, behind only Nikita Zaitsev and Jordie Benn.
He doesn’t do himself any favors offensively, either. The Flyers had 10.51 less shot attempts per 60 minutes (CF/60 Rel) with Hagg on the ice than without him, also the third worst in the league. Those two things combined give him a CF% Rel of -8.88, the worst in the league among defensemen with 600 minutes played at 5-on-5. It’s not only shot attempts, either. Hagg had the worst Expected Goals-For Percent relative to his teammates (xGF% Rel) with -8.72.
Gostisbehere, while having a down season, outperformed Hagg in those categories.
That isn’t even the main argument, however. I think that it would be really tough to take Gostisbehere out of the lineup after his game on Saturday night. He was directly involved in creating two goals and used his aggressiveness to push play in the right direction.
Hagg wasn’t at his best in the two round-robin games. He was on the ice for both goals against – with both of them going in off of him. He was also on the ice for 1.08 Expected Goals Against – Niskanen and Provorov allowed less despite playing 20 more minutes – and had an Expected Goals-For Percentage of 38.58%, the worst on the team.
The only argument I could see for Hagg is if Vigneault wants a more defensive defenseman against the Canadiens. If that’s the case, Gostisbehere may be the healthy scratch – but he shouldn’t be.
Here’s what I closed out the question with in the original article:
When he’s on his game, Gostisbehere is simply too skilled to keep out of the lineup. But he may need to show that he’s at the very top of his game to earn a spot in the Game 1 lineup.
In my opinion, he did just that.
Question: How do Carter Hart and Brian Elliott look after four months off?
Carter Hart and Brian Elliott could not look better after four months – five for Elliott – off. The only goals they allowed through two games bounced in off of a defenseman’s skate, and the goal that Hart allowed against Tampa Bay came on a Lightning power play where the Flyers’ penalty kill looked out of sync.
Hart started out the round robin by making 34 saves, including some tough ones through traffic, in a 4-1 win against the Bruins. The only goal he allowed was a puck that was thrown into the blue paint and pinballed in off of Hagg’s skate. Hart was tracking the puck well and looked like he was on his game.
Elliott got the nod against the Capitals. The Flyers only allowed 17 shots, but that included a breakaway and a few quality chances. Elliott made 16 saves en route to a 3-1 win.
Hart then closed the door on the Lightning with 23 saves in a 4-1 win to lock up the top seed in the East.
The Flyers do have a back-to-back set scheduled for Game 4 and Game 5 of the series, so we could see Elliott get one of those games for the Flyers. It’s great to see Hart and Elliott both on top of their game, especially Hart as he enters his first NHL playoffs.