After nearly 140 days since the NHL season was paused, hockey officially made its return Tuesday afternoon. The Flyers kicked off the NHL’s return to play with an exhibition tilt with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
These exhibition games are more of an opportunity for both teams to get their legs back and establish a pace they’ll carry into their round-robin or qualifying-round games. It also gives teams a chance to try out different line combinations, give several goalies some time in net, and re-establish their chemistry
It’s hard to critique any team’s first game in over four months too harshly, but there are still plenty of takeaways to consider before the postseason actually gets started.
Picking Up the Pace
Considering that the only precursor to the Flyers and Penguins exhibition clash was a few practices and scrimmages, the pace quickly caught up to that of pre-pause play.
It definitely took both sides about half of the first period to get back to full speed. For the Flyers, no one seemed to be falling behind the rest and their speed and intensity continued to pick up over the second and third periods.
Much of that is due to the player’s efforts through the pause and quick adjustments once they got back on the ice together. Some of the credit can also go to their Jack Adams finalist Alain Vigneault and his effectiveness in getting his side ready to go in such a short time.
Young Defensemen Shine
With blue line staples Justin Braun and Robert Hagg sitting out, some of the Flyers’ younger defensemen earned ice time they likely won’t see once the playoffs get started.
First up is Mark Friedman. Fresh off a newly-signed contract extension, Friedman earned just over 11 minutes against the Penguins and looked solid in all of them. He didn’t earn much time against any of the Pens’ biggest stars, but he did look solid against their second and third groups and even joined in some offensive play from time to time.
Couturier & Hayes Dominate
The past couple of years have been a serious coming out party for Sean Couturier, proving that he’s one of, if not the Flyers’ best player. He’s finally earning league-wide recognition as one of the game’s best centers and even earned another Selke nomination for his spectacular 2019-20 campaign.
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One of the newest additions to the Flyers roster, forward Kevin Hayes, has been another bright light of the team’s much improved season. He brings an incredible personality to the locker room and backs it up with skillful and dominant play on the ice.
As two of the Flyers’ most reliable forwards, Couturier and Hayes seem to be picking up right where they left off. They each tallied first-period goals, with a combined eight shots on goal, and both contributed strong performances in the face-off circle, on the power play, and the penalty kill.
Couturier and Hayes are going to be critical pieces of a deep playoff run for the Flyers. We’ll get a better look once the round-robin kicks off, but both seem like they haven’t lost their scoring touch during the pause and are ready to lead the Flyers’ offense.
Hart & Elliott Solid In Split
Another essential piece of a Flyers’ postseason run is going to be their goaltending tandem of Brian Elliott and Carter Hart. Both were key elements of the Flyers’ turnaround 2019-20 season and are probably one of the league’s most reliable duos.
As was expected, the Flyers split their netminders against the Penguins, having Hart in net for the first two periods and Elliott for the third and overtime. Vigneault plans to do a similar split during the round-robin, with Hart in net for two games and Elliott for one.
Hart, who’s undoubtedly locked up the starting role, looked strong in his two periods. After a quick shot from Conor Sheary beat him short-side in the first period, Hart shut the Penguins down in the rest of his time. It’ll be nice to see how he holds up in his first full game back against the Bruins on Sunday, but for his first action in months, the 21-year-old star looked great.
Although he played around 17 minutes less than Hart, Elliott looked incredible throughout the third period and overtime with 13 saves on
The Flyers are clearly ready to rely heavily on their goaltending tandem and both have continuously proven they can shut down some of the NHL’s elite scorers. Here’s to hoping they can keep that consistency through the remainder of the postseason.
One of the strongest aspects of the Flyers’ season has been their man-down unit. Under the direction of assistant coach Mike Yeo, the Flyers finished the regular season with the 11th best penalty kill and an 81.8 penalty kill percentage.
In their exhibition matchup with the Penguins, the Flyers killed off three minor penalties against a strong power-
As they prepare to take on three of the league’s top-scoring sides, all fit with punishing power plays, Yeo’s group is going to have to stay at the top of their game. There’s no doubt they’ll be a major part of the Flyers’ success down the stretch.
The exhibition game may not have been a must-win for the Flyers, but getting a win under their belt before the round-robin begins definitely re-establishes some momentum and confidence. Hopefully, they can ride that into their upcoming games against the Bruins, Lightning, and Capitals and through the rest of the postseason.