With Matt Niskanen inactive for Game 6 as he served his one-game suspension, it wasn’t much of a mystery who would be filling in for him in the lineup. Shayne Gostisbehere, despite seemingly lacking the trust of the Philadelphia Flyers coaching staff, was once regarded as one of the better young defensemen in hockey, and it would have been astonishing for him to not see action as the Flyers tried to close out their series against the Montreal Canadiens.
Unsurprisingly, Gostisbehere did in fact get the call for Friday night’s series-winning game against Montreal. And to the delight of many, he played very well after sitting out the last three games of the series.
But it wasn’t the type of performance that many would expect from Gostisbehere. There were no power-play bombs or eye-catching assists for the former Calder Trophy finalist. Instead, it was Gostisbehere’s all-around 200-foot play that stood out. Defensively, he was solid, and while he failed to register a single point in the contest, he did manage to create some high-danger scoring chances — not exactly a surprise for a guy just two years removed from a spectacular 65-point season.
In the first period, just as the Flyers’ first power play of the game was about to expire, Gostisbehere gathered speed in the Philadelphia end and stepped around Artturi Lehkonen at center ice to gain the Montreal zone. He then delivered a perfect cross-ice feed to Kevin Hayes for a nice scoring chance, though Hayes’ shot missed the net. Hayes did, however, end up scoring just seconds later to give the Flyers the 2-0 lead.
Later on, Gostisbehere had perhaps his best scoring chance of the postseason. On the power play once again, several Flyers and Habs players were battling for a loose puck along the end boards. Hayes knocked the puck loose and fed Gostisbehere, who was left completely uncovered behind the net. Ghost then fired a shot on net from point-blank range, but Carey Price was able to make the tough stop.
After the second intermission, it quickly became clear that the Flyers’ goal was to suppress Montreal’s offensive opportunities and revert back to the style of play that won them Games 3 and 4.
Regardless, Gostisbehere still managed to spring Jakub Voracek for a solid chance early in the final frame.
Each of the aforementioned plays resulted in excellent scoring chances for the Flyers. This next one did not, though it did show how quickly Gostisbehere can make something out of seemingly nothing.
Early in the third period, Gostisbehere used his speed yet again to dart through the neutral zone alongside Travis Konecny. After a quick game of catch with Konecny, Gostisbehere dropped the return feed into the low slot, hoping that a Flyers skater would be there to ram the puck past Price. Unfortunately, there were no Flyers crashing the net, so the puck harmlessly slid onto the stick of Jesperi Kotkaniemi. But even still, it was good to see Gostisbehere being aggressive and trying to make a play — even if it resulted in nothing.
The following clip is similar to the one mentioned above — maybe not a play that’ll make a highlight reel, but certainly an encouraging sign from the 27-year-old defenseman.
The Flyers seemed to struggle at times creating zone entries against Montreal, but Gostisbehere, as has been exhibited in some of the clips above, did a solid job of helping tilt the ice in Philadelphia’s favor (which was very rare against the Habs). The clip below demonstrates that as he picked up steam in the defensive zone and hit Joel Farabee at center ice with a tape-to-tape feed that nearly resulted in a high-danger chance for Konecny.
In a development that perhaps caught many off guard, though, Gostisbehere’s offensive play wasn’t where he particularly shined in Game 6. Rather, it was his play away from the puck that raised some eyebrows.
Early in the middle stanza, Gostisbehere flattened Habs forward Nick Suzuki as he tried to skate through the neutral zone. With Gostisbehere temporarily slowed down after the big hit, Jonathan Drouin did manage to fire a shot on net, though Carter Hart made the stop without much of an issue. And while it wasn’t necessarily a direct result of Gostisbehere’s big hit on Suzuki, Hayes sprung Travis Konecny for a breakaway opportunity just seconds later.
Gostisbehere certainly isn’t known for making bone-crunching hits at center ice, so it was nice to see him get physical and lay the boom when the opportunity presented itself.
Later on in the game after the Flyers began playing their form of “prevent” defense, Gostisbehere made a nice aggressive play in the offensive zone as he bit down on Drouin in order to keep the puck in Montreal territory. Not a highlight-reel play by any means, but it allowed the Flyers to milk more time off the clock as the Canadiens desperately tried to find a way to generate some semblance of quality offense.
Of course, at 5’11 and 180 pounds soaking wet, dishing out big hits and laying the body aren’t exactly staples of Gostisbehere’s game. Instead, he plays more of a finesse game, using his smooth skating to his advantage as he attempts to shut down enemy attackers.
In the following clip, he accomplished just that. With forward Max Domi entering the zone, Gostisbehere narrowed his wiggle room and impeded the shooting lane. Domi stuck with it for a second attempt at a shot on net, but Gostisbehere used his feet to redirect the puck into the corner, allowing Sean Couturier to gain control and clear the zone.
One of Gostisbehere’s final noticeable defensive plays on the night came late in the game as the Canadiens were swarming the net hoping to score a greasy goal to tie the contest at three apiece. After engaging with Kotkaniemi in a board battle, Xavier Ouellet grabbed the loose puck and slid a soft shot on net that led to a brief scramble around Hart. Kotkaniemi attempted to retrieve the unoccupied puck behind the net, but Gostisbehere came in like a wrecking ball, sent Kotkaniemi flying into the end boards and rainbowed the puck out of the Flyers zone.
Overall, it was a very good game for Gostisbehere as he drew back into the lineup in place of Niskanen. Though he didn’t light up the scoresheet, he played a game that Alain Vigneault and Co. likely appreciated.
That said, it wasn’t a perfect night for Gostisbehere by any means. In fact, at the game’s midway point he turned the puck over behind the Flyers net, which nearly led to a quality chance for Montreal. Luckily, that was the only major blemish of Gostisbehere’s performance.
Now comes the interesting part — what happens to Gostisbehere in the Flyers’ second-round series against the New York Islanders? Will he be scratched again with Niskanen coming back from his suspension?
One could argue that Gostisbehere is more deserving of being in the lineup than Robert Hagg and Justin Braun — both of whom have formed a third defensive pairing that the coaching staff seems to trust in a shutdown role. Given his stellar play in Game 6, however, it’s possible Gostisbehere may have earned himself another shot in the lineup to start the second round. But who would come out of the lineup for him?
The easy answer would be Hagg. Hagg has already been scratched in favor of Ghost a few times this postseason, and it wouldn’t be even slightly shocking for it to happen again. However, it’s not totally unreasonable to believe Braun could potentially be given a night off. While the 33-year-old defender has turned out to be a decent addition to the Flyers, he hasn’t stood out in many positive ways this postseason, and it wouldn’t hurt to give Gostisbehere another opportunity to show his stuff as the Flyers prepare for the Isles.
Just as realistic, though, is the possibility of Gostisbehere returning to the press box. As impressive as he was in Game 6, the duo of Hagg and Braun seems to be the third pairing of choice as of late. With a poor performance against New York, perhaps that could change. But for now, it appears Gostisbehere remains the red-headed stepchild of the Flyers’ current crop of defensemen.