As the Flyers approach today’s game, they’re in a position that they really haven’t found themselves in much in the early-going of this season so far. The Flyers are coming off of two straight games in which they, by and large, played reasonably well. Some bad stretches here and there, definitely some things to nitpick, but a pair of decent performances against one of the best teams in hockey despite being without their best player.
And yet, the Flyers managed to blow late leads in both of those games and come away with just one point.
With how the first couple weeks of the season went, it’s hard not to look at Wednesday and Friday’s games and say that the Flyers may have been due a game or two like these. The Flyers had more than their fair share of games through the first 10 that you watched and thought that they probably had no business winning, only to find them with more goals than the other team when the game was over.
Even in a shortened season, a team’s going to have a decent number of both of those kinds of games — the ones that they maybe could’ve or should’ve won but didn’t, and the ones that they probably shouldn’t have won but nonetheless did. The Flyers had a lot of the latter, and now they’ve finally had a bit of the former. (Why is this sport like this? Why do we watch this sport?)
Yet! Despite the bad breaks of late last week, the Flyers got some potentially game-changing news on Saturday. Carter Hart, who missed Friday’s game with “back spasms” and was announced as day-to-day at the time, was cleared to play today and will presumably start in net for the Flyers. That’s the big news. The bigger news is that not only has Sean Couturier, who was announced as being seven to 10 days away earlier this week, been upgraded to “day-to-day”, but the writers at practice on Saturday seemed to come away with the impression that he will be good to go in this one:
Sean Couturier just did some first-unit power play work. Sure looks like he’s going to play Sunday, which is massive for Flyers.— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) February 6, 2021
Pairings:— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) February 6, 2021
So Myers might not be back tomorrow. Couturier looks like he's in, though. Just led center ice end-of-practice stretches and got the stick taps and cheers from his teammates.
There’s no official announcement as of yet, but it goes without saying that the Flyers getting Couturier back would be a monumental boost for them. The Flyers haven’t quite looked right most nights since the season opener against Pittsburgh, and them being without their best player is undoubtedly a huge part of that. If you’ve been holding out hope that the thing keeping the Flyers from being the team they can be was Couturier’s absence, today’s game might just be your first chance to see if you’re right. (Or wrong.) (I hope you’re right.)
With that all out of the way, we now reach the game itself, which takes place against one of the Flyers’ original division opponents (against whom, by the way, they’re still 6-0 this year). Today and Tuesday, they’ll be playing their first two games of the season against the Washington Capitals. In some ways, the Caps largely the same team that we’ve come to know and hate over the past decade. Same names at the top of the lineup — Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov (though he’ll miss this game, as he’s been on the COVID list for over two weeks now), John Carlson, Timothy Jimothy Oshie. Same dudes we’ve been hearing about as emerging for a while now that have actually managed to turn into pretty solid players — Tom Wilson (gross), Dmitri Orlov, Jakub Vrana (who was just yesterday put on the COVID list and now seems unlikely to play in this two-game series).
And in other ways, they’re different! We’re all very familiar with the guy they’ve got behind the bench, one Peter Laviolette. On his second job since getting let go by the Flyers seven years ago, he’s got the Capitals out to a solid start, as they sit right next to the Flyers in the East Division standings.
They’ve got relatively new faces in net, as well. After nearly a decade of Braden Holtby in net for the Caps, the plan was for long-time Ranger Henrik Lundqvist to split time with young phenom Ilya Samsonov. But Lundqvist has been forced out of the game (at least for this season) due to a very scary condition which led him to have heart surgery just before the season began, and Samsonov has also sidelined for a while after violating COVID protocols. That’s left the door open for long-time Hershey Bear Vitek Vanecek, who’s been pretty solid in playing most of the Caps’ games this year, and he’s likely going to get the start again today.
With all of that said, the Capitals are ... in a strikingly similar position to the Flyers right now. Some good things happening in important places. A good record that has them in the top half of the East division. And also, some pretty unimpressive team-level numbers at 5-on-5, which few people outside of those watching closely have noticed because they’re shooting 12 percent at 5-on-5. Hell, they even blew a lead to the Bruins earlier this week. Some real Spiderman Meme Energy going into this one.
Our friends over at Japers’ Rink spent their Friday taking a look at how their lineup has changed since they won the Cup in 2018, and when you undertake that exercise and title your article “The Hangover” it just doesn’t feel like you think things are going well, y’know? (As a fan of a sports team that won a title in 2018 that is currently bad, I have to say, this all sounds strikingly familiar.)
So with all of that in mind, what are we expecting to see in this one? We’ve spent a decent amount of time over the season’s first month-ish asking why (beyond Couturier’s absence) the Flyers haven’t been able to capture the magic that they had found in the second half of the regular season last year, and few teams were on the receiving end of that magic quite like the Capitals were. In fact, the Flyers’ first game after returning home from their New Year’s road trip — the game which really seemed to get their successful run going — was a 3-2 win over these very Capitals. The two teams would play two more times that regular season, plus once in the Toronto bubble, and the Flyers won all three of those games by multiple goals.
The Flyers, in short, had no issue skating with the team that had basically run this division for the past half-decade. Does that mean anything? I’m wary to declare that a team has another team’s number based on four games from last season, but maybe there was something in that matchup that the Flyers can take advantage of. Who knows.
It’s Sunday afternoon hockey on NBC. Let’s have fun.
Two big questions
1. How different does this team look with Couturier back?
I’m writing this paragraph on Saturday, at which point it looks like Couturier is going to play but it’s not in stone yet. If he doesn’t play, blame Craig, not me. Anywho, the Flyers’ best player might be back after three weeks off the ice with a Costochondrial separation. How much time it may take him to get back to speed after being off the ice is anyone’s guess, but everything else about the lineup makes more sense with him in it. Against a top-heavy Washington team, the Flyers’ matchup cheat code being back would make a huge difference.
2. Can the Flyers start this one a bit better? Or maybe finish it? (We’re not picky.)
For as much as the Flyers’ play generally was solid against Boston given the circumstance and opposition, the periods of time that really sunk the Flyers in those two games were the first and last 10 minutes of the game. Both games featured a rather slow start from the guys in orange, and both games ended with the guys in orange blowing a lead that they’d gathered in the rest of the game since then. Somehow, despite winning more games than they’ve lost this season, the Flyers have managed to make both slow starts and blown leads a recurring feature of their games so far. Can they take a game off from that? It’d be nice.
Flyers projected lines
JVR - Couturier - Voracek
Giroux - Patrick - Konecny
Lindblom - Laughton - Farabee
Raffl - Hayes - NAK
Provorov - Gostisbehere
Sanheim - Braun
Hagg - Gustafsson
Greg Young of Japers’ Rink and Japers’ Rink Radio joins us to fill us in on the first fifth of the Washington Capitals’ season.