The Philadelphia Flyers are back. After a long four months off, a few weeks of training camp, and an exhibition game, the Flyers are ready for games that count.
The Flyers kick off today in Toronto against the Bruins, and while seeding is important, the three round-robin games also give Alain Vigneault and the coaching staff some time to iron out the lineup for Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs.
Let’s take a look at three questions the Flyers will try to answer during the round-robin tournament.
What will the bottom-six forward group look like for Game 1?
The Flyers’ forward depth is one of their biggest strengths, but there are only so many spots in the lineup – 12 to be exact. With so many forwards deserving of playing time in the playoffs, Vigneault and Co. have plenty of options – perhaps too many – to consider for the Game 1 lineup next week.
Vigneault tried a few different line combinations throughout training camp in Voorhees, and he went with the following lines for the exhibition game against the Penguins on Tuesday:
Claude Giroux - Sean Couturier - Jakub Voracek
Scott Laughton - Kevin Hayes - Travis Konecny
James van Riemsdyk - Derek Grant - Tyler Pitlick
Joel Farabee/Michael Raffl - Nate Thompson - Nicolas Aube-Kubel
The top two lines looked pretty good, but the bottom six was a mixed bag. The fourth line couldn’t really get much chemistry going with Farabee and Raffl rotating on the wings.
Vigneault may have seen that as well based on the changes he made later in the week. The Flyers practiced on Friday and Saturday with a slight change to the bottom two lines. JVR and Grant were joined by Aube-Kubel on the third line, with Pitlick sliding down to the fourth line with Raffl and Thompson. Farabee has become the odd-man out, at least for the first game against the Bruins.
The top line is locked in. The second line is likely going to stick together as well. Laughton may slide back to center, but he’s played well enough with Hayes and Konecny to earn another look on the second line.
The bottom six provides a lot of different combinations. Grant and Thompson appear to be the bottom-six centers, but the wingers are mostly interchangeable. It wouldn’t surprise me to see any of Pitlick, Farabee, Raffl, or Aube-Kubel on the third or fourth line.
Vigneault and the Flyers will have three games to find their best lineup for Game 1 of the playoffs, and even then it might not be set in stone. Nevertheless, one of the biggest things for the Flyers in these three round-robin games is figuring out how the bottom-six group will look when the first round of the playoffs begins.
Can Shayne Gostisbehere play himself into the lineup?
The forward position isn’t the only place that the Flyers have great depth. They also have seven – or eight if you include Mark Friedman – quality defensemen for six spots in the lineup.
Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen are the top pair, with Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers as the second pair. Sanheim and Myers have played together a lot this season, and a lot for the Phantoms as well, but it may be beneficial to split them up. After a lackluster performance against the Penguins, they could be on a shorter leash. The third pair is where the debate starts.
Shayne Gostisbehere and Mark Friedman were the third pair for the exhibition game, and they played well. However, the third pair in practices and for Sunday’s game against the Bruins appears to be Robert Hagg and Justin Braun.
Having a Hagg-Braun pair isn’t too surprising. They played a “bend but don’t break” style for the Flyers in the second half of the season and can be viewed as a solid pair with two defensive defensemen.
But that leaves Gostisbehere out in the cold.
Gostisbehere has certainly had more downs than ups this season, but he brings an offensive dynamic that Hagg and Braun simply don’t. He feels healthier now than he ever has, and the coaching staff has noticed his work during training camp. Unfortunately for Ghost, he’ll likely have to play himself into the lineup – or worse: wait for a mistake from Hagg to get a shot.
I have to imagine that Gostisbehere will play in at least one round-robin game. It will likely be on the third pair with Braun, but if the Sanheim-Myers pair does get split up (which I think is worth exploring), he could be with Myers.
|Provorov - Niskanen||938||53.3|
|Sanheim - Braun||362||53.4|
|Gostisbehere - Myers||114||56|
A bottom-four defense of Sanheim-Braun and Gostisbehere-Myers would give the Flyers three pairs that are more balanced, with Gostisbehere maybe needing to be sheltered a bit. Those pairs had success in the regular season and could find it again in the playoffs.
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.
How do Carter Hart and Brian Elliott look after four months off?
Everyone knows that a goalie can make or break a playoff run. The Flyers know this all too well, but luckily they shouldn’t have to worry about their goalie breaking their playoff run ... right?
Carter Hart will start the first round-robin game on Sunday against the Bruins, with Brian Elliott starting at least one of the other two games against the Capitals and Lightning. Both Hart and Elliott played in the exhibition game, with Hart making 11 saves on 12 shots through two periods, and Elliott making 13 saves on 14 shots in the third period and overtime.
They were both tested a bit, and neither showed any major signs of rust. Hart may have made the save on the goal he allowed during the season, but it was a nice shot on an odd-man rush, so you can’t fault him too much. Elliott allowed a rebound goal, but also had a few great saves to keep the Flyers ahead.
The Flyers are going to need Hart and Elliott to pick things up where they left off in the regular season. It shouldn’t take too long to get into the swing of things, but Hart is one of the Flyers’ X-factors in his NHL playoff debut.
The Flyers have three games to sort things out and get ready for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. They play the Boston Bruins on Sunday at 3 p.m. before taking on the Washington Capitals on Thursday, and Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.