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Preview: Work smarter, not harder

The Flyers have some mental mistakes to clean up in tonight’s matchup with the Rangers.

NHL: New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

After dropping three of their last four games to the Washington Capitals, the Flyers come into tonight up against the New York Rangers. What are the key storylines, who should you be watching, and what’s the pregame music for today? All that below.

The Flyers

Philadelphia has gone through a rough patch as of late, plummeting from first in the division in points percentage to fifth in the span of a few weeks. There’s a multitude of reasons why the descent has occurred, but the play of the forwards hasn’t been to blame. The Flyers have actually improved gradually in terms of 5-on-5 play as the year has gone on, with the team generally doing a better job in defensive coverage (albeit improving upon a low standard) and in establishing their forecheck. What was once a roster ranked second worst in the NHL in xGF% at even strength is now right in the middle of league rankings at 16th, indicating clearly that the team has improved over the recent span in that respect.

The crux of the Philly’s failures has been the unfortunate predicament in net. Carter Hart continues to have problems with making himself small between the pipes, a recurring issue that led to an attempt at a reset by Alain Vigneault over the weekend. Unfortunately for Hart, he didn’t get to skip Saturday’s loss to the Capitals, where brutal goals by Brian Elliott and a leaky one by Hart himself killed any chance of the Flyers winning a game they otherwise would have won. With Elliott getting more and more run down due to his increased start share and Hart not looking like a viable option in goal, it’s fair to worry about the immediate future of this team and their ability to turn it around soon.

With all of that said, there are reasons to be encouraged. The Flyers are frustrating, yes, but they’ve continued to rank among the best teams in the league in shot quality; their only close competitors in this regard are the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks. In addition to this, the team largely performed quite well in terms of shot and chance generation against a very good Washington squad, at least aside from the loss on the 11th. If Carter Hart can even be league average while getting the lion’s share of the starts (and that’s a very big if), the Flyers will have a shot at turning this around without a roster addition.

However, the goalies aren’t the only problem; all of the improvement at even strength has been hurt by special teams work as well. Michel Therrien continues to baffle with his constant lineup changes and wacky personnel choices for the powerplay, and the penalty kill perpetually flounders as a product of unacceptable structural discipline. Both of these difficulties could be resolved within the year, but I think the issues seen with the powerplay are far more systemic. As viewers witnessed in Philly’s last-gasp sequences with the extra attacker on Saturday, this roster is capable of aggressive puck movement on a pace-driven attack when in powerplay situations. The lack of urgency, controlled entries and off-puck movement towards the home plate area and net front is neutering what could otherwise be one of the league’s best power plays. It’s worth keeping an eye on tonight and every night.

In conclusion, the Flyers are a good team that’s not playing their best right now, but there’s reason for hope and optimism. The key to winning tonight will be limiting mental mistakes in transition and in the defensive zone. If the blue line can consistently mark their man and switch coverages more fluidly, a lot of the problems we’re seeing dissipate. All of that is easier said than done, but the Orange & Black have a problem of needing to work smarter; the effort is there.

The Rangers

New York faces off with Philly hot off the heels of their best win of the season. The Blueshirts were clearly given a jolt by the return of Artemi Panarin, who had an assist in Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Boston Bruins. The Rangers have been playing quality hockey in recent weeks and have been solid on the whole, posting the 11th best xGF% at 5-on-5 in the league. The Rags have honestly been one of the league’s unluckiest teams, with a number of close losses and games thrown away due to the abysmal play of Alexander Georgiev (15th worst in GSAx in the NHL).

The Rangers obliterated the Bruins in their most recent game.
Image via

In terms of ways that the Rangers can beat the Flyers, the path is quite clear: draw penalties and look for backdoor feeds. New York victimized Phil Myers and Erik Gustafsson in the teams’ most recent meeting on brutal defensive plays that Brian Elliott had no chance of stopping. The Flyers cannot afford to play a high-event style against the Rangers, who don’t lack for finishing ability up and down the lineup. New York was only able to convert one powerplay tally in the February 24th game, but the return of Panarin makes the top unit even deadlier. With Kappo Kakko rounding into form in the bottom six and Colin Blackwell’s breakout as a quality middle six forward, this is a team that can punish the Flyers for their mistakes.

In terms of weaknesses, the Rangers are clearly lackluster on the blue line. The top four has been better lately thanks to the surprisingly great play of Ryan Lindgren and the steady performance of Adam Fox, but the bottom of the lineup has been nothing short of ghastly. The Rags also have a high percentage of their shots blocked while on the powerplay, suggesting that aggressive action in the shooting lanes might lead to more success on the penalty kill for Philly. If Alexander Georgiev is starting in goal tonight, the Flyers will likely earn at least a point in the standings.

Three Big Things

  1. Carter Hart was slightly less shaky in relief on Saturday, but he still consistently had issues with making himself small in the net and giving up juicy rebounds. The Rangers aren’t as outstanding as the Capitals, but they still possess plenty of threatening firepower to make the young goalie’s life miserable. I’m not looking for vintage Hart tonight, but I will be keenly focused on how he handles rush attempts and rebounds.
  2. What will we see from Nolan Patrick? The former second overall pick has been a mess the entire year, including his performance on Saturday when he masked a number of awful turnovers with his first goal in 17 games. Patrick has a reasonable excuse for his struggles given the lingering effects of missing almost two years of pro work, but at some point he needs to start playing at an above-replacement level within limited minutes if this team wants to improve.
  3. Can Joel Farabee get back on the scoresheet? Farabee has played some of his best hockey of the year against the Rangers and looks to continue his breakout season on the top line. The 21-year-old was held pointless in his last two outings against the Capitals, but tonight is a good opportunity for him to get back on a point-per-game pace.

Game day Tunes

I don’t know why, but I feel like today is a good day for some Audioslave.

Happy game day everyone, and as always, go Flyers.

The Flyers are back to playing another team theoretically worse than them, as they head up to the train station to play the New York Rangers. Tom Urtz of Blueshirt Banter gives us the inside scoop.