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Preview: Flyers look to split series with Buffalo

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Let’s just forget about last night.

NHL: JAN 18 Sabres at Flyers (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Sean Couturier out for the next couple weeks the Philadelphia Flyers were going to need a more collective effort to replace his presence in the lineup. It’s safe to say that didn’t happen last night in the first half of the Orange and Black’s back-to-back against the Buffalo Sabres as the temporary divisional foe chased Carter Hart with four goals in a little over 28 minutes in a 6-1 thrashing. Luckily for the Flyers if there was ever a season to put a burn-the-tape type performance immediately in the rearview mirror it’s this one, as they’ll square off against the Sabres tonight for a second time in two days.

The Flyers escaped with a win on Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins after nearly blowing a three-goal lead in the first period and despite the fact the Pens’ advantage in owning the puck at 5-on-5. Although they were out to a 2-0-0 start to their season while pushing their intrastate rivals to the bottom of the MassMutual East Division there were some concerns about Philly’s ability to limit scoring chances against, as Hart stood on his head to sweep the club’s first series of the season. Couturier’s absence only exacerbates this problem as head coach Alain Vigneault loses his top-line pivot who routinely erases an opponent’s biggest threat from the picture.

Not an ideal combination when the top-heavy Sabres roll into town with a sense of urgency after losing their first two contests of 2021 despite playing well. Buffalo’s top line of Taylor Hall-Jack Eichel-Sam Reinhart pounded home two goals last night as the trio produced on the man advantage and at 5-on-5 in a 2:53 span during the second period. Reinhart deposited both tallies while Hall and Eichel each recorded three helpers. Although the top line is obviously a threat it was the Sabres’ fourth line of Jeff Skinner-Riley Sheahan-Curtis Lazar that made last night a blowout, as Lazar also lit the lamp twice including a remarkable backhander to get the ball rolling.

Despite seeing some action last night it’s Brian Elliott’s crease tonight, as he’ll appear in his first start this year. The 35-year-old was a reliable backup last season despite what his numbers may indicate (an .899 save percentage in 31 games) and showed last year he is able to play above expectations to tilt contests in Philly’s favor (see the wins over the Washington Capitals), which is exactly what the club will need tonight in a rebound effort. For the Sabres it’s Linus Ullmark, who went 17-4-3 last season with a .915 save percentage, 2.69 goals against average, and a shutout last season before he opened his sixth year in the league with 19 saves in a 2-1 loss last week.

Two Big Questions

1. Can the Flyers try to play some defense?

Through three games this season Philadelphia is 26th in the league with 34.7 shots against-per-game, 22nd with 132 shot attempts against at 5-on-5, and 23rd with 5.4 Expected Goals against at 5-on-5. Despite these atrocious numbers the Flyers won two of three thanks to the play of Hart as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ decision to hire Michael Matheson and Cody Ceci to play defense for them. Game 7 of the team’s second round series against the New York Islanders was the Flyers’ fourth-most recent tilt, but the organization has lost a pair of key defensive assets in a small span of games in top-pair blue liner Matt Niskanen and Couturier to complicate the club’s ability to shut down opponents. The first test without the tandem in the lineup came last night and we saw the quality of chances the Sabres, a team without a ton of offensive depth, were able to create consistently all evening. The second test comes tonight, hopefully with some more commitment to defensive zone coverage.

2. Will we see the team’s offensive depth?

Last night was also the first test of the team’s offensive depth without Couturier available and it went pretty poorly. Outside of a marker from Nicolas Aube-Kubel with under three minutes to play in a five-goal game the Flyers failed to beat Carter Hutton, a netminder who posted an .898 save percentage in 31 outings in 2019-20. It’s fair to focus on the defensive woes at the moment, and the Sabres are doing well in the early going of limiting chances against (1.39 Expected Goals-against/60 is the second lowest in the league at 5-on-5), but the even-strength offense hasn’t exactly been buzzing. The team is 25th in shot-attempts-per-60 and 26th in 26th in Expected Goals-For-per-60 and now only have one line in the top nine (Claude Giroux-Kevin Hayes-Joel Farabee) that’s driven play this season. The first two games of the year presented plenty of offensive opportunities thanks in part to Pittsburgh’s sloppiness all over the ice, but with a Selke Trophy winner out of the picture and knowing not nearly as many chances will come in transition can the rest of the Flyers’ forwards step up to make a difference on the scoreboard?

Flyers projected lines

Giroux - Hayes - Farabee

JVR - Patrick - Voracek

Lindblom - Frost - Konecny

Raffl - Laughton - NAK

Defense

Provorov - Braun

Sanheim - Myers

Hagg - Gustafsson

Goalie

Elliott

(Hart)