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Flyers 2, Capitals 1: Rise of the Ristolliance

The big fella and his defensive partner were a big part of tonight’s victory.

Philadelphia Flyers v Washington Capitals Photo by John McCreary/NHLI via Getty Images

The Philadelphia Flyers took on the Washington Capitals tonight in a game with sizable implications. In a duel between two of the top teams in the Metropolitan Division, the Orange & Black were without the services of key players in Ryan Ellis and Kevin Hayes. How did they fare, who played well or poorly, and what should you take away from this result? All of that and more below.

What went right?

This was a clinical execution of Alain Vigneault’s system by Philly through 40 minutes. The Flyers are never going to be the most skilled, speedy, or physically imposing team; they simply aren’t a roster built with an extremist approach like the Edmonton Oilers or Minnesota Wild. Instead, they build success off of tenacious forechecking, excellent anticipation, and intelligent puck support.

After playing through the first frame while controlling possession and scoring chances, Philadelphia still couldn’t find the back of the net. The first goal of the game encompasses all three of the traits that are mentioned above as foundational components of a good Alain Vigneault team:

The second line wins a puck battle thanks to a heavy forecheck, Brassard instantly recognizes the opportunity with John Carlson facing the other direction, and Cam Atkinson finds the soft spot in the coverage through contact to set up a quick finish.

This is what the Flyers looked like when things clicked in the 2019-20 season before the pandemic brought any momentum accrued to a screeching halt. It’s promising that Philly has managed to find this type of seamless decision making under duress within the first 10 games of this year, especially given that some crucial cogs in the machine are absent.

The second Flyers goal of the game was a bit more flukey, but nonetheless was a result of strong territorial play. Sean Couturier squeaked a rebound attempt past Vitek Vanecek to make it 2-0 in the second period.

There’s an overall improvement in the patience with and without the puck that the Flyers have put on display through this hot start. That’s not limited to this evening, but a few specific instances (like Ristolainen waiting to control the puck before putting it on net from in tight) are positive indicators.

Martin Jones was outstanding between the pipes with 31 saves, adding to his exciting body of work. Maybe goalies whose careers have fallen apart find some sort of magic when donning No. 35 for the Orange & Black? Who can say.

What went wrong?

The Capitals took over during the third period, and while the Flyers didn’t exactly perform their typical act of playing like a penalty kill with a two goal lead, they certainly weren’t aggressive or dictating play. There was a decided shift that occurred between the second and third periods where Philadelphia skaters became more content to settle for brief offensive possessions, contrasting with the gangbusters mentality that they opened the game with. This lead to fewer meaningful scoring chances, breathing room for the Capitals, and eventually Washington asserting total domination.

Image via Evolving-Hockey.com

Luckily, those problems only manifested in a single Caps goal, a tally off of the stick of Brett Leason.

Other than that, there wasn’t much to complain about tonight. Playing 40 minutes out of 60 isn’t something you can get away with in the postseason or in other big games, but those concerns are about items far off in the distance. For now, winning most of the game and getting two points is a perfectly acceptable outing.

Three Big Things

  1. This was a proof of concept game for the Sanheim/Ristolainen pair, and for the big Finnish defender in particular. Both looked extremely dangerous offensively and performed admirably in their own zone. Sanheim denied entries, and Ristolainen did a great job of using his unique size/speed blend to separate opposing players from pucks, allowing Philadelphia forwards in support to scoop up easy takeaways. If those two can get comfortable with one another and find a way to ensure that their defensive responsibilities are restricted to “don’t let the other guys into our zone,” the Flyers will go from #prettygood to elite.
  2. Martin Jones looks like a great find for Chuck Fletcher, oddly enough. Coming into the year, I asserted that the veteran netminder was an inconsistent mess capable of the occasional strong outing, but he’s been quite the inverse. Jones isn’t making sprawling saves like he did in his better performances in San Jose over the past three seasons, instead proving to be economical and precise with his movements. A kick save on Alexander Ovechkin on the power play exemplified why he’s been so good for the Flyers. If he can keep up something resembling this type of quiet, calm excellence, his durability will make him an invaluable asset.
  3. Derick Brassard punched a guy from the bench, and then scored a goal. This was a fun game.

Post Game Tunes

Bob Seger put out some bangers, eh?

Good night, good hockey, and as always, go Flyers.