Flyers-Blackhawks Observations: A Good First Impression
You only get one chance to make a first impression and after a lackluster preseason, the Flyers 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in the first game of the 2019-20 regular season was certainly a good one.
After a fairly sloppy and wide-open first period, the Flyers started to tighten things up in the second and third periods, playing a solid all-around game.
For Travis Konecny, it was a very strong first impression. Two goals and high-energy play made him an active part of the win.
Winning the first game of the season has meant very little for the Flyers in recent years. This marked the fourth straight season the Flyers opened with a win, and in the previous three, they either missed the playoffs or barely managed to make it after falling behind in the games that followed. That sets the stage for the Flyers real test of the season. Playing in Prague and having to play abroad to start the season was certainly a challenge, but now they face a demanding October travel schedule that will have them stopping home for just a few days and one game before hitting the road again for a Western Canada trip.
It's only the first step to having a better start than in years past, but very early on you saw the potential the Flyers have to offer. Here are some observations from the 4-3 win.
Konecny's Fast Start
With Alain Vigneault putting the lines into a blender and mixing things up just days before the opener, the thought of Travis Konecny off of the first line didn't seem right. You wouldn't have known it from the look of a second line that featured Konecny, Sean Couturier and Oskar Lindblom.
The most noticeable line of the day was this trio, constantly generating chances and Konecny was the star. His first goal was a pretty finish off a great read and steal in the neutral zone. His second goal was a thing of beauty, using a toe drag to freeze Duncan Keith and send a rising backhander over Corey Crawford.
Konecny has always been an effective five-on-five goal scorer and has displayed the makings of a potential sniper in the past. With two shots like that, Konecny is off to a fast start in his first season on a new six-year deal.
This was where the Flyers really showed their potential under Vigneault's systems. The Flyers were constantly hard on the puck, winning battles down low, maintaining possession and generating quality scoring chances throughout the game. But it was in the second period where this quality of their game really stood out.
As the Flyers opened up a 12-3 advantage in shots during the majority of the second period, you could see frustration setting in for Chicago. The Flyers would have effective shifts, either controlling play offensively or at least maintaining possession, and it forced the Blackhawks to constantly have to dump the puck to get a line change instead of pushing the play.
There were areas of the game where the Flyers looked sloppy at times, but this was an area that looked very polished and it was also refreshing to really see everyone involved in this act. Travis Sanheim drew a penalty behind the net. You saw waves of players have effective moments near the net and try to get the puck into scoring area. It was just a clinic on maintaining possession and tiring out your opponent with good hard work. Now, if the Flyers can just find some consistency in that area, it would work wonders for the season ahead.
Carter Hart's Opening Act
The stat line will not do Carter Hart's first game of the season justice. He finished with 28 saves on 31 shots, certainly a respectable performance, but the three goals that will put his GAA at 3.00 after one start is not reflective of his game.
Hart showed plenty of poise early with his positioning and made the routine saves. He allowed a goal to Alex Nylander that went through the legs of Justin Braun and hit off Hart's glove. The screen made it a little difficult to read and that may have cost the goaltender. He will probably feel he should have stopped it, but when you consider the surrounding factors of the goal -- a screened shot off a neutral zone turnover by Ivan Provorov that should not happen -- it's not a goal that falls solely on the goalie.
After closing the first period out strong, his second period was limited early with the Flyers dominating the possession game, but he soon had to come up big on a few quality chances for the Blackhawks late in the period. Alex DeBrincat's power-play goal with 12 seconds left was simply unstoppable from that spot.
Hart's third period was arguably his best. Chicago started to throw better chances at the net, and there was just something about his glove save on Brandon Saad late in the third that seemed to say this game was on lockdown. It did get interesting with Patrick Kane's goal through a screen, but Hart's performance was worthy of another start in the team's next game.
Effective Fourth-Line Play
Goals from your fourth line are usually bonuses. Michael Raffl seemed destined to get one at some point very soon with the way he played in this game, and it finally happened at the halfway point of the third period. It proved to be the deciding goal, a valuable insurance tally the Flyers had to have.
What was better than just getting a goal from Raffl was the collective play of the fourth line and everybody looking like a legitimate fit. You had Tyler Pitlick who didn't get an ounce of preseason action, and he was one of the Flyers better forwards in the game. Connor Bunnaman did not have to be overly noticeable in this game to still be effective in his role. He was solid as well in his NHL debut.
It is assumed that when the lineup is fully healthy from top to bottom that the fourth line will have a much different look. But for now, the trio of Bunnaman, Raffl and Pitlick did a solid job and should get another shot together when the team returns to Philly.
No Poor Debuts
Joining the likes of Pitlick and Bunnaman were several other Flyers making their team debuts. There was something positive about every player.
Carsen Twarynski had an especially impressive debut on the third line, continuing to be hard on the forecheck and even generating a few chances. He'll certainly stick around at this level if he finds some consistency in the role.
Kevin Hayes' first game was quietly effective. He didn't get on the scoresheet, but little plays like the chip out of the zone in the closing seconds can be difference-makers. It wasn't difficult to see how Hayes puts his two-way play first and can let the offense come from it as a result.
Matt Niskanen actually led all defenseman in ice time after two periods and was one of just two players to break 20 minutes in the game. His sliding poke-check to break up a Chicago 2-on-1 was masterful and something that Flyers fans should welcome.
Justin Braun finished just shy of 20 minutes of ice time and had two blocked shots in the game, and certainly managed to keep his positioning well during his first game in the Orange and Black.
Collectively, the new group of Flyers all playing in their first game all had a solid first impression, and now the task is to build on it as they return home.