The NHL chose a unique format for the playoffs in its return to play, and so far it’s paid off in spades for the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers had the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference when COVID-19 forced the league to pause in March. Now, after a round robin for seeding against the top three teams, they head into the real playoffs with the top seed, flipping places with the Boston Bruins.
The one-off, round-robin format was nothing but good to the Flyers, who went unbeaten against the Bruins, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. Saturday’s showdown against Tampa was for first place, and the Flyers earned a 4-1 victory.
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In the first round of the playoffs, the Flyers will face the Montreal Canadiens, the very last seed in the field of 24 teams that took part in the return to play. Under the usual format, the Habs wouldn’t have gotten a sniff of the big dance. However, they shocked the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifiers, knocking out Sid, Geno and company in four games.
It’s tempting to take Montreal lightly, but that would be a mistake. Carey Price was on top of his game against the Penguins, with a sizzling 1.67 goals against average and .947 save percentage. The Canadiens didn’t outshoot Pittsburgh in any of the four games, yet won three of them.
That being said, the Flyers steamrolled the competition in the round robin and confidence is surely sky high within their group. They got contributions up and down the lineup, whether it was offence from the shutdown pair of Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers, two goals from playoff rookie Nicolas Aube-Kubel against the Lightning, or backup Brian Elliott stopping 20 of 21 shots against the Capitals.
Stars Didn’t Drive Flyers’ Success
Even Shayne Gostisbehere, who had fallen deeply out of favor with Alain Vigneault this year, got in on the good times. He got a chance to dress Saturday against Tampa Bay and responded with two primary assists, including a setup for young gun Joel Farabee’s first NHL postseason goal. It’s still anyone’s guess whether Gostisbehere or Robert Hagg plays alongside Justin Braun on the third pairing in Game 1 against the Canadiens, but Ghost certainly made his case.
What’s truly remarkable, though, is that Philly ran the table without a single goal from their usual top line. Claude Giroux was held pointless in the round robin. Jakub Voracek had one assist in two games (he was “unfit to play” against the Lightning). Sean Couturier didn’t get on the scoresheet until Saturday, when he had two assists.
If you had predicted the Flyers would outscore the Bruins, Capitals and Lightning 11-3 with just three points from the top line, you’d have gotten a lot of blank stares.
They’ll need a lot more from those three against the Canadiens, but that shouldn’t be a major concern. None of the round-robin games had the intensity of the qualifying series. How could they? Neither team was going home no matter what happened. Now it’ll be the real thing.
The Flyers’ second line certainly found mid-season form, particularly against the Capitals, where Scott Laughton, Kevin Hayes and Travis Konecny combined for eight points. Vigneault chose to plug Laughton in with the other two when the games began, and it turned out to be a wise move. Laughton scored a pair of goals against Washington to add to the one he buried against Boston, and Hayes executed a disgustingly skilled keepaway maneuver to set up Travis Sanheim for a highlight-reel goal.
Hart, Elliott Not Rusty After Layoff
One of the biggest factors in Philadelphia earning the top seed, though, was the play of their goaltenders. The Flyers allowed only one goal in each game. Carter Hart was exceptional in his first taste of postseason hockey, shutting the door on both the Bruins and Lightning. Elliott wasn’t exactly stellar in his one previous playoff series with the Flyers in 2018, but he got the job done against the Capitals.
The crease will be all Hart’s from here on out, unless he gets hurt or plays extremely poorly, which is hard to imagine. He entered the seeding tournament with something to prove on two fronts: whether he could handle the postseason pressure and whether he was rusty after nearly five months off. A long layoff affects a goalie more than any other player. If he’s even a little bit out of shape, the lateral movement and reaction time required every night becomes a very tall order. There’s almost zero room for error against NHL shooters.
Hart aced both tests and it’s doubtful the Flyers would want any other goalie in their net on their Stanley Cup run. Not even Price.
The Flyers have proven they have the depth to beat anyone. The top line will be expected to step up against Montreal, but aside from that, the round robin was a perfect tune-up for the Orange and Black.