After winning yet another game in overtime, the Flyers have finally surged back over the .500 mark and find themselves back in the furthest fringes of the Wild Card hunt. Please ignore that all of the teams that they’ve defeated over this stretch have been pretty underwhelming; it makes being invested in this team feel slightly less insane.
So, tonight Philly gets a shot to keep up its winning ways with a game against the collapsing San Jose Sharks. After starting out the year strong (similar to the Flyers), teams haven’t had to Fear the Fin all that often; the Sharks are just 4-5 in the month of December. Which of these teams can turn it around? Who will make an impact? Why should you stay up until 1 a.m. watching a game between two mediocre rosters? All of this and more below.
San Jose is a funky team chock-full of names that make you say “who?” aloud. Outside of mainstays like Timo Meier (who’s rebounded for an excellent season), Tomáš Hertl, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Logan Couture, there’s not a lot here that could be called familiar unless you’re a gigantic hockey geek. Alexander Barabanov, Rudolfs Balcers, Noah Gregor, Jonah Gadjovich; these sound like the autogenerated names you get for prospects in NHL 22, but in reality they’re NHL regulars for the Sharks.
That’s not to say that this team is completely devoid of punch outside of their top-end names, but San Jose isn’t exactly a balanced team, either, especially with the likes of Jonathan Dahlén, Kevin Labanc, and Balcers missing due to injuries. Losing Dahlén in particular hurts, seeing as the Meier/Couture/Dahlén line has been one of the league’s most effective at driving play and scoring.
The quietly surprising part of the Sharks’ season is undoubtedly the play of their defensive corps. Erik Karlsson and Jacob Middleton weren’t expected to be playing like elite blue liners entering the year, but they’ve done just that. Meanwhile, Mario Ferraro and Ryan Merkley, long expected to form the foundation of the team’s next chapter on the back end, have both been underachievers.
Karlsson is back to playing like a legitimate number one defender, even if his skating ability isn’t what it once was. His passing prowess and ability to quarterback an offense at will have finally returned, and it’s assisting in producing one of the best xGF percentages on the team. The Pirate has cooled off a little bit recently, but he’s still a player to watch for tonight’s game, alongside a few other European skaters.
Another surprise for San Jose has been Alex Barabanov, who at just $1 million AAV has hovered over the half a point per game mark. After being acquired from Toronto in a quiet trade back in April, Barabanov has meshed well enough with Hertl, providing some playmaking punch along the outside. While he’s far from a play-driving juggernaut like our final player of discussion, he’s nonetheless a lesser-known name who’s worthy of attention.
Stopping Timo Meier should be Philadelphia’s number one priority every time he steps on the ice. The 25-year-old Swiss winger has finally found his legs again after a few disappointing seasons, resulting in him ranking at 7th and 33rd in GAR and xGAR, respectively. What does that jargon mean? Basically, he’s performed like one of the ten best wingers in hockey through 26 games. On pace for a team-leading 98 points, Meier is scorching hot and San Jose’s best player, and undoubtedly the number to look for at all times.
The Orange & Black come into this game essentially tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for fifth place in the Metropolitan Division. Sitting well back of the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins in terms of points percentage when looking at the Wild Card standings, the Flyers, Jackets, and Red Wings are all still hanging around at just above the .500 mark on the year. This is a welcome change from losing 10 consecutive games, even if the wins are coming against the closest things to “cupcake” opponents you’ll see in the NHL.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Philadelphia has by any means figured out what ails them in terms of underlying process. Their CF and xGF percentages at even strength are still piss-poor; they aren’t getting consistent or dominant play, which indicates that this slightly less painful stretch of hockey is due to end the moment the schedule gets a touch more arduous. Tonight offers another game for Mike Yeo and co. to break down what’s wrong and work on fixing it.
The Flyers are expected to still be without Sean Couturier, who was supposedly moved to IR yesterday (according to CapFriendly), rather than just being marked as on COVID reserve. With Coots clearly having played through injury all year this felt long overdue, but the Flyers already had little breathing room before losing one of the three best players on the roster. Ryan Ellis is still on COVID reserve and has no immediate timetable for his return, either. With Scott Laughton also out, the Flyers’ depth has taken a significant hit.
That doesn’t mean that Philadelphia is without hope for a win tonight. Even if the Sharks look more competitive than most of the recent slate on paper, they’ve been hampered by some awful backup goaltending and inconsistent defensive play. If the Flyers can accurately execute a more zone-based defensive approach and apply pressure with their forecheck, they should be able to control the shot differentials in this game. As for keeping San Jose’s potent “quality over quantity” offense from scoring, the burden will probably fall on the shoulders of Carter Hart/Martin Jones.
Three Big Things
- Watch the way the Flyers go after Mario Ferraro early. He’s gotten shockingly poor results to start the season (both by underlying and basic counting statistics) and is arguably the biggest available exploit that the coaching staff and players will instantly have noticed on film. If they’re pressuring him hard, he will make mistakes and hand out some scoring chances.
- Martin Jones did start yesterday, but RotoWire predicts him to get the nod again tonight against his replacement in San Jose, James Reimer. Both goalies have had strong years with their new teams, exemplified by Jones’ 36 save outing against the Kraken last night. Will the Sharks be haunted by their ex, or will Reimer prove them right? Will Jones even get the opportunity to play his former team? Things to watch.
- The Disney on Ice trip is always a gigantic crapshoot, but this year the Flyers absolutely need to get their points while they can against a weak-ish stretch of teams before they run back into divisional players that will present tougher tests. Tonight is low-key a big game.
Game Day Tunes
Whenever I hear this song, I can’t help but think of CM Punk.
Happy game day folks, and as always, go Flyers.