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Flyers vs. Devils preview: The Divine Comedy

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Flyers/Devils hockey is a pretty solid stand-in for Hell.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Orange & Black have been going through a rough stretch lately, posting a 4-7-1 record in the month of March. Will the madness continue, or will the Flyers finally convert one of their best efforts of the season from yesterday’s game into some results? Predictions, storylines and more below.

The Flyers

This team is maddening. One night they’re getting blown out and causing their fans to swear up and down that they’re not even good enough to compete for a playoff spot this year, the next they’re playing a great, fundamentally sound game against the division’s second best team. Which version of this Philly team will show up tonight? Who can say.

The Flyers have, for the most part, improved in terms of process over the last few months. The execution of the forecheck, underlying results via xG and Corsi, and the shot quality have all been worthy of a winning team. The nagging on-ice difficulty is the ever-present issue of consistency. Sometimes the entire roster looks like the group we saw dominating in the latter half of the pre-pandemic season, but the occasional “losing 9-0 to the Rangers by giving up a billion goals in the second period” loss wipes out whatever goodwill that improvement could be accruing.

Much of this could be chalked up to the goaltending. Carter Hart and Brian Elliott have been awful this year, combining for the worst save percentage in the league. With the nature of the condensed schedule and Hart’s method of self-improvement clashing (Hart needs time to rest and reflect, but is getting none), there’s seemingly no end in sight. The Flyers lack any difference makers on defense this year to mask the problems, and a weakened special teams performance isn’t helping anything either. After briefly seeing the sun for the first time in just under a decade, Philadelphia is back in limbo, likely for the remainder of the year.

Tonight’s game comes against a beatable opponent, as I’ll outline in a minute. If the Flyers want to convince Chuck Fletcher to make a big acquisition to bolster their tenuous playoff hopes, they need to start proving that there’s a method to their madness. Tonight will be an interesting test to see if this group can still get it done against teams that they have a talent edge over.

The Devils

New Jersey is a weird team this year. The Devils have been quietly improved thanks to leaps from their younger players, particularly Jack Hughes and Ty Smith, but the roster remains atrocious defensively and largely lives or dies by the performance of Mackenzie Blackwood. That’s been a perilous basket to throw the eggs into as of late, with Blackwood manically see-sawing from “best starter in the the NHL” to “this dude is a bum” every other week.

If the Devils are going to win this game, it’s going to be by dictating pace and turning it into a track meet. New Jersey is in the top half of the league in xGF/60 (12th) and FF/60 (9th), but the aforementioned defense ranks similarly in xGA/60 (8th worst) and FA/60 (9th worst). The Flyers cannot afford to play high-event hockey with the Devils considering their corresponding offensive rankings (26th in FF/60, 18th in xGF/60), especially with their goaltending situation.

The Devils are one of the best offenses in the league off the rush, but they lack dynamic ability along the boards, something the Flyers can exploit.
Image via Corey Sznajder

The best bet for a win is to produce suffocating pressure in the neutral zone; the Devils lack any transition dynamos outside of the top of their lineup, which limits the overall ability of the offense when a team of superior talent plays them. The Devils are highly reliant on winning with speed and creating off the rush in Lindy Ruff’s system, so Alain Vigneault will need to plan accordingly.

Three Big Things

  1. Carter Hart has to be a replacement level goalie. New Jersey is 9th in the league in CF/60, and the Flyers aren’t exactly spectacular defensively. Hart is going to get peppered at some point when Jack Hughes and co. get a good matchup or go on the power play, and the young netminder will need to make a few saves besides the rudimentary ones.
  2. Do the Flyers carry over their performance last night into today? Consistency has been a buzz word surrounding this team, and for good reason. Can the Orange & Black take what they’ve improved, execute it again, and ultimately turn it into two points?
  3. Does Nolan Patrick build upon or erase the progress he flashed against the Islanders? After looking lost for most of the year, Patrick shined with Michael Raffl in yesterday’s game, particularly when it came to intercepting passes through the middle of the defensive zone and converting them into instant offense. Again, that buzz word of “consistency” comes up with the young centerman. Can he finally start to get in a groove?

Game Day Tunes

Feeling some Raconteurs tonight. Dunno why, but I’m on a Jack White kick lately.

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