Flyers-Maple Leafs Observations: A Late Surge
The final straw before major organizational changes were made a year ago was a 6-0 loss in Toronto that just continued to get out of hand from the start of the game. This was the game that led to Ron Hextall’s firing as GM and started a week-long search that brought Chuck Fletcher to the Flyers as the new GM.
Fletcher was officially hired by the team a year ago on Tuesday, as the current team faced the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their 6-1 win over Toronto was their fifth straight, and carried some of the success from a 10-2-4 November over to the start of December.
Here are some observations from the Flyers victory over Toronto.
Another game, another first period where the Flyers were largely bailed out by their goaltending. Carter Hart was stellar in the first period. Toronto had six of the first eight shots in the game. On the first power play of the game, Toronto’s only one of the night, they doubled their shot total from six to 12. John Tavares had three chances from in close, one on a deflection. Hart stopped them all and covered. Auston Matthews fired a shot from the right circle. Hart came across and snagged it with the glove.
Following a 15-shot first period, the Maple Leafs managed just 13 shots the rest of the game. The only one that beat Hart was a lucky Toronto bounce as Travis Dermott’s shot hit high off the shoulder of Hart, went into the air and landed behind him.
Hart has had his share of struggles this season. There have been starts that just haven’t been good at all. But the majority of his games are like this. His tracking is on point. He remains poised and calm in the net. And many times, he’s keeping his teammates in the game early before they take over.
In nine of his last 10 starts, Hart has allowed two goals or less. In each of the last three, all wins, he has allowed one goal. It has moved Hart into the Top 10 in the league in GAA, ranked ninth with a 2.35 GAA, and his save percentage has risen to .910.
When you see plays like the one Kevin Hayes made to set up Scott Laughton for the game’s first goal, you see the value he has and why the Flyers felt the need to go out and get him during the offseason. Hayes is simply a possession machine. Good luck moving him off the puck.
The setup on the goal by Laughton was just one example of his overall possession abilities. During the lone penalty kill the Flyers had in the game, Toronto had six shots on goal, but mostly in the first minute of the power play. In the final minute, the Flyers held possession and led the penalty time run out. Hayes was a big part of that, working to maintain control in the offensive zone before circling back into his own zone, never giving Toronto the chance to get set up in the Flyers zone again.
Hayes isn’t lighting things up offensively by any stretch with eight goals and 14 points in 28 games. But where he provides value is in the 200-foot game, the willingness to do the dirty work to help his teammates and to keep the team on the right side of results.
Another telling thing about Hayes and the rest of the team for that matter is how quickly everyone is buying into the group assembled by Fletcher and the coaching style of Alain Vigneault.
“This is probably the tightest team I’ve ever played with,” Hayes said. “Our leaders lead from the front, and it’s easy to follow. It’s a lot of fun to be on the ice. It’s a lot of fun to go to battle every night. And even if the other team scores, we’re not really panicked, and it shows.”
That’s quite a statement from Hayes, who has played on some pretty good teams with the Rangers over the years under Vigneault.
Let’s go back to the one-year anniversary of Fletcher's hiring. So a year ago, a game like this probably has a very different result. The Flyers were largely outplayed for most of the first period. With the way their goaltending was a season ago, they probably come out of that period trailing in some capacity instead of scoreless.
Even if the goaltending was on point until the middle of the third, the goal by Dermott would have been deflating. The team had managed to get the lead, get the goaltending and then something flukey would happen and they would go into a shell.
This year’s Flyers don’t seem to let goals against phase them, as Hayes said. Instead of giving the momentum to Toronto, the Flyers responded to the goal and just 1:38 later had the lead again.
The quick response was excellent on all fronts. Phil Myers makes a perfectly timed pinch to get the puck behind the net to Travis Konecny. Konecny takes a quick peek over his shoulder before centering to Claude Giroux with a no-look pass.
Speaking of Konecny, he provided the dagger on the night for the Flyers. Konecny took a perfect pass from Myers that caught Dermott out of position to get back defensively and the Flyers were off to the races on a two-on-one. Konecny’s best option was to shoot, and when you have the scoring touch that he’s had for most of the season, he beat Frederik Andersen clean.
It’s essentially a follow-up to the last point. It was setting up to be a late push by Toronto. Andersen is going to be coming to the bench in maybe another minute and the Flyers get a chance and capitalized on it.
Konecny’s goal also started a late wave of scoring. When Konecny scored to make it 3-1, there was 3:28 remaining in the game. A two-goal lead at that time felt like the insurance needed to secure a win. When Toronto pulled the goalie and the Flyers scored again with 2:06 remaining, it’s not overly shocking. The opposition is giving up the goal in a last-gasp effort to erase a two-goal deficit. Usually a team scored into the empty net and that’s the extent of the scoring.
But the Flyers weren’t done. In the final minute, Shayne Gostisbehere and James van Riemsdyk scored 12 seconds apart. That was four Flyers goals in a 3:01 span. Including Giroux’s goal, the Flyers scored five times in 9:33.
Home Ice Advantage
The Flyers have played 13 games on home ice, 14 if you include the “home game” in Czech Republic to open the season. They have a 9-1-4 record as the home team this season. It’s no longer just a hot start at home. The Flyers have been a dominant home-ice team.
There are a few things that go into this. For one, the Flyers have consistently been a team that doesn’t come out with their best in the opening period. They may get caught in a tight-checking first period. They may need their goalie to make some key saves to keep them in a game. But boy, does the script flip in the final two periods.
Entering Tuesday’s game, the Flyers were outscored in the first period, 27-25. Even in the second period, the Flyers have only outscored teams, 24-22, including Laughton’s goal from Tuesday night. They key here is that the Flyers are outshooting opponents in the second period, 318-258. That’s a significant margin. The Flyers don’t let up in the third either. They outshoot opponents 307-257 and outscore opponents, 37-25.
Unfortunately, one number that hasn’t seen a positive change is attendance. It hasn’t been a surprise in recent years to see a Tuesday night game have a late-arriving crowd or a few pockets of empty seats. It’s a mid-week work night and given the team’s performance in recent years and the overall cost of attending a game, you can understand why people would shy away from these games. But the reported attendance was at the lowest it has been in some time. A crowd of 15,811 took in Tuesday’s game, well below the capacity of Wells Fargo Center.
It’s the unfortunate reality the Flyers face at the moment. They may be the most exciting team in Philadelphia sports at the moment. Perhaps that’s because of the new roster addition and a new style of play that breeds winning. Perhaps that’s because when there are no expectations for the team, the surprise of winning games consistently can build excitement. But the fanbase isn’t responding to it yet.
There are bound to be skeptics who don’t want to get caught up in a successful month of November when half the season still remains. There are people who in general are turned off by what the franchise has done over the years, from building renovations and increased prices on tickets, concessions and merchandise to the overall quality of play.
Maybe it’s for the best that the team is flying under the radar right now. They are playing good hockey. They are among the best teams in the league at the moment. They may need to be more consistent to get people to buy in. But they will if this continues. And there is just a sense that this team isn’t going to lose sight of where they are, how far they have come and where they could be going with some consistency.
Kevin Durso is Flyers insider for 97.3 ESPN and Flyers editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.