Your Philadelphia Flyers sit atop the East Division standings – by point percentage – after a weekend sweep against the Sabres. The Flyers put up back-to-back shutout performances in Buffalo to improve to 11-4-3 on the season. Their 25 points in 18 games give them a .694 point percentage. The Bruins are right behind them, however, with 26 points in 19 games for a .684 point percentage.
The good news for the Flyers is that they appear to be playing their best hockey of the season. These two games against the Sabres were two of their best all-around efforts of the season. Sean Couturier was terrific, the players returning from the COVID list played well, and both goalies recorded a shutout.
So many things happened worth talking about that rather than focusing on just one play, player, or turning point, we’re going to look at three storylines from the weekend sweep.
Brian Elliott and Carter Hart make history – and a statement
The Flyers did something this weekend that they never did previously in their franchise history. This was the first instance of back-to-back shutouts on the road in Flyers history. That’s incredibly impressive.
What makes it doubly impressive is the situation that the Flyers were in coming into the weekend. It was the beginning of a stretch of six games in nine days and they needed to get off on the right foot. Beyond that, Brian Elliott needed to show that he could be relied on and Carter Hart desperately needed a bounce-back performance.
Both Elliott and Hart answered the bell.
On Saturday, Elliott stopped all 33 shots he faced in the 3-0 win. It was his second straight shutout against the Sabres after blanking them with 30 saves on January 19th. With questions about Hart’s consistency, knowing that the Flyers can rely on Elliott is huge. The goalie they call Moose is now 5-1-0 in six starts this season – including two shutouts – with a .937 save percentage. He has yet to allow more than three goals in a single start.
Those questions about Hart’s consistency should be dampened a bit after Sunday’s game as well. Hart was tremendous against the Sabres, stopping all 28 shots he faced for his first shutout of the season. They weren’t all easy saves, either. He made one of his best saves of the season on Kyle Okposo and faced several dangerous chances from the Sabres power play.
The young goalie has dealt with adversity in the past – including this season after smashing his stick in Boston – and he’s been resilient every time.
The Flyers are going to need both Hart and Elliott to play well in this next stretch in particular. They play 17 games in 30 days – including four games in six days – starting on Tuesday. Both goalies will be given their fair share of starts with three back-to-back sets in the month. This weekend was a great start.
COVID line shines in return to action
The Flyers finally have no players on the COVID list for the first time since February 6th. Travis Konecny was the last Flyers player to come off the list on Sunday. He didn’t return for the weekend set, but four other Flyers did.
Justin Braun was one of the players that the Flyers missed less, simply due to the fact that they had the rest of their defensemen healthy. He had an up-and-down weekend. They “unleashed the Brauner” on Saturday as he played pretty well with Travis Sanheim. However, on Sunday, he took a delay-of-game-penalty early in the game and didn’t play all that well at even strength. Even with that, Braun is a key contributor on the penalty kill. The penalty kill was perfect this weekend against the Sabres’ league-best power play.
The Flyers’ main issue during the two games with several players still on the COVID list was their forward depth. They had a line of Samuel Morin, Andy Andreoff, and Mark Friedman at Lake Tahoe. That’s how bad it got.
This weekend, however, the Flyers got those reinforcements back.
The three forwards that the Flyers were sorely missing made their much-anticipated returns this weekend. Not only did they return, but they were all put on a line together.
Scott Laughton centered Oskar Lindblom and Jakub Voracek on the Flyers’ third line this weekend. They returned with a bang on Saturday with Voracek and Lindblom making two nice passes to spring Laughton for a breakaway goal.
While they didn’t score a goal in Sunday’s game, the line was the Flyers’ second-best in terms of driving play. They had a Corsi For of 60% (+5.31 Rel) and Expected Goals For of 71.21% (+11.71 Rel) thanks to a 3-1 advantage in high-danger scoring chances.
The line may not stick together with Konecny returning, but the three players all look like they’re back to full speed ahead no matter where they’re playing.
Sean Couturier shows his importance
The team was struggling in late January and early February. The Flyers were still winning games, but it wasn’t in the way you’d like to see. Coincidentally, that timeline matches up perfectly with when Sean Couturier was out of the lineup with an injury.
The reigning Selke Trophy Winner scored the opening goals in both games this weekend. The Flyers had been the better team early on in both of the games, but they were unable to break through. Then Sean Couturier did what he does best.
In Saturday’s game, it was a subtle play behind the net to push the puck up the wall. Sanheim pinched down and got the puck to Couturier in the slot, where he blasted it off a Sabre and into the net. It gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead in a first period that they dominated prior to opening the floodgates late in the second period.
On Sunday, Couturier did it again. The Flyers had a strong first period, but the game was scoreless after 20 minutes of play. It wasn’t scoreless after 20 minutes and 22 seconds of play, however.
Sean Couturier came out of the locker room and immediately put the team on his back. He took Jack Eichel to school to drive the net then found the rebound and slammed it home with Eichel by his side.
This time, the Flyers came right back and scored just 75 seconds later to take a 2-0 lead. Sean Couturier’s goal got it all started and he’s continuing to show why he’s one of the best players in the league.
Couturier now has a point in every full game he’s played in this season. He only played 45 seconds before getting injured in the second game of the season. Couturier has 11 points (five goals, six assists) in eight total games this season. He has three multi-point efforts in six games since returning from injury. On top of that, the Flyers are 6-1-1 with Couturier in the lineup. Those two losses were with the Flyers missing nearly half of their forwards due to COVID-related absences.
Sean Couturier’s importance to the Flyers cannot be overstated. He is showing that since returning. This weekend, in particular, Couturier reminded everyone of that.
Stats via NaturalStatTrick
Photo: Heather Barry Images