Heading into the third period on Thursday night, the Philadelphia Flyers had managed just eight shots on goal through forty minutes of play against the New Jersey Devils. It certainly wasn’t the best hockey they’ve played this season, and somehow it also wasn’t the worst. They were still in the game at a 1-1 tie and needed to turn things up a notch in the third period.
To do so, Alain Vigneault turned to his fourth line, the energy line. This is something we saw him do a bit too much in the playoffs with Nate Thompson’s line, but it worked with a different trio on Thursday night in Newark.
The fourth line of Michael Raffl, Connor Bunnaman, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel set the third-period tone for the Flyers and were arguably the biggest difference-makers in the game (well, outside of Carter Hart).
For starters, looking at their ice time shows how heavily they were relied upon. After playing just 5:20 at even strength through two periods, Bunnaman played a whopping 6:42 at even strength in the third frame. He and his linemates took the first shift of the period, then came back out less than three minutes later and scored a goal.
Let’s get right into it.
From the first shift of the period, it was obvious that the Flyers had one thing in mind: get pucks in deep and on net. After Bunnaman won the faceoff back, Ivan Provorov dumped the puck in and the forwards went to work. Aube-Kubel and Raffl went to the corner, where the puck squirted free to Shayne Gostisbehere at the point for a big slap shot. That heavy shot was stopped, but Raffl did just enough to keep the puck free and an attempted breakout pass by the Devils went right onto the stick of Aube-Kubel for some more offensive zone time. Several seconds later Raffl just missed on a backhand pass behind the net that could’ve created something, but the Devils finally took over.
It was a strong 20 seconds or so in the offensive zone to give the Flyers some life to begin the period.
That hard-working shift paid off as it earned the line another one just a few minutes later. And they went to work yet again.
This time the shift started with some good defensive work, although Aube-Kubel may have gotten away with his first of two potential penalties before the goal, which led to a breakout for the Flyers. Gostisbehere had plenty of options for a pass as all three forwards were looking back to support him, and Bunnaman kicked the puck to Raffl for a semi-odd-man rush.
Raffl angled the puck into the corner and it bounced perfectly to Bunnaman for a dangerous chance. Aube-Kubel then helped Jack Hughes down and chipped the puck to Bunnaman in front. Bunnaman gloved it down, got it on net (well, on the post), and Raffl was there to put it home.
The fourth line got the puck in deep, got it on net, and good things happened.
That was the only goal they scored in the period, but there were plenty of other strong plays on the forecheck to create pressure.
Take this one for example, where Bunnaman wins another faceoff and the puck gets in deep. The Devils were able to get it out of the zone, but only to Aube-Kubel. He gloved it down and sent it back in for Bunnaman and Raffl to go to work. They lost the battle, but making the Devils work and reset is important in the third period of close games.
A few minutes later, the line created something out of nothing thanks to a steal in the defensive zone by Bunnaman. He sprung a three-on-two rush where Aube-Kubel got a shot off and the line kept the forecheck going for another shot attempt.
Credit to the defensemen on that shift – and all period long really – with some smart pinches to keep the play alive and pressure on.
The Flyers were finally able to get another goal and go up 3-1, and you guessed it, the fourth line was immediately put on the ice afterward. This is where we had problems with Thompson’s line seeing ice time in the playoffs, but this fourth line earned it against the Devils.
Bunnaman won the faceoff and they got the puck in deep a few times to keep the Devils from trying to swing momentum after the Flyers’ goal. New Jersey did come back the other way on that shift, but Bunnaman pressured the puck carrier along the wall, allowing Provorov to eventually take over.
Here’s another good shift of winning the faceoff and going to work. Unfortunately, the Devils did eventually come back and have a decent scoring chance. Bunnaman was down in front of the net, however, and either he or Provorov got a piece of the shot to force it over the net. Bunnaman then retrieved the puck and calmly passed it up to Raffl to go for a change.
After a rush by the Devils, Joel Farabee flipped the puck up the ice and went for a change. Raffl was already on the ice for the fourth line and forced a cross-ice pass. Bunnaman erased Ty Smith and the Flyers were able to get the puck deep.
Nothing came of it, but at that point in the game killing 20 seconds in the offensive zone definitely isn’t a bad thing.
The trio did another good job of killing around 40 seconds in the final minutes as well.
How about one more faceoff for Bunnaman for good measure? When everyone expected Giroux to take the draw after missing the empty net, Bunnaman went out there and won his 9th (of 10) faceoff of the night.
That third period really was just a clinic by the fourth line.
For the game, the trio played 8:43 together, with most of it seemingly coming in the third period. They dominated the Devils to the tune of a 64.29% CF (9-5 shot attempts). None of those five Devils shot attempts reached the net, and the Flyers had the edge in scoring chances (4-2, 2-0 high-danger) with the fourth line on the ice.
The Flyers’ forward depth has been much talked about over the past month. Coming into the season they looked like one of the deepest groups in the league – and they still might be! –, but we also may have overrated the forward depth. Nevertheless, that depth allowed the Flyers to have a fourth line with three effective grinders who got the job done on Thursday night.