Why are they called second rate? They're the Flyers. How would they ever be first rate?
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV – MSG; Radio – 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (4-4-1) at the Philadelphia Flyers (4-2-2; SBN Blog: Broad Street Hockey)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the New Jersey Devils hosted Columbus. The Devils were fast, attacking, and supportive against the Blue Jackets for most of the first period. Alas, they did not score. The second period saw a better start from Columbus, but little action in general though it favored New Jersey more. Alas, they did not score. The third period started decently enough and then it all went awry. Boone Jenner punched in a rebound to make it 0-1. 35 seconds later, Brandon Dubinsky found Cam Atkinson all alone at the top of the crease, which led to a 0-2 deficit. Minutes later and a few seconds after a Columbus power play ended, Scott Hartnell fired a high shot to the top corner to make it 0-3. The Devils would get a late power play and Kyle Palmieri put home a rebound created by Jiri Tlusty to deny the shutout; but it would only be a consolation goal. The Devils had their winning streak end; here’s my recap of it.
The Last Flyers Game: While the Devils were not firing a whole lot of pucks at Columbus, the Flyers hosted Buffalo. There was considerably more attempts, shots, and goals in this one. The visiting Sabres got off to a good start by out-shooting the Flyers 11-7 and scoring two goals. Tyler Ennis put one home to start and Jamie McGinn got his first of the season about four minutes later to convert a power play. The Flyers would respond later in the first with a goal by Chris VandeVelde. It would take about 34 minutes before the equalizer; Chad Johnson and Steve Mason stopped flurries of shots in between. At the 8:14 mark, Brayden Schenn made it 2-2. It wouldn’t be long before Buffalo re-took the lead; over a minute later, Jake McCabe made it 3-2. The Sabres weren’t sitting back at all, but that lead was lost in the final minute to Schenn’s second goal of the night. Overtime would be necessary. Not long after a massive stop by Johnson, Carlo Colaiacovo sprung Zemgus Girgensons for a breakaway. The Latvian All-Star finished the play to hand the Flyers a 3-4 OT loss. Here’s a list-based recap at Broad Street Hockey by Charlie O'Connor.
The Goal: Patience is a virtue for a breakout, don’t hesitate on the shot. From preseason, I distinctly remember the Flyers stacking the red line, trying to turn the game into one of halves. The Devils busted through that by finding seams in their trap formation through passes in their own zone and waiting out their forecheck to find spaces. Being able to gain control through the neutral zone is important against any opponent. Provided the Flyers still do that, it would be a good idea to try it again tonight. Just as importantly, the Devils left quite a few offensive opportunities on the proverbial table against Columbus because they delayed before taking a shot. I get that players want to settle pucks, square themselves up, and fire a strong shot. But by that point, the goalie is in position, the defense has a small window to disrupt the shot, and what looked like a good look turns into nothing within a second. Even if the Devils dominate the neutral zone, it’s going to be for naught if they don’t strike quickly when the situation calls for it. So if the Devils can do both, then they would be in a good position as any to come away from Philadelphia with two points.
The Disclosure: NBC Universal, which is a subsidiary of Comcast, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns SB Nation and by extension this site. I can assure you, this has not and will not suppress me from taking digs at the lesser rival of our favorite team, the New Jersey Devils. It shouldn't stop you, either. This is not a "safe space;" it's a Devils blog.
The Opposite of New Jersey: The Devils have been about low-event hockey, this season is no different from recent ones from that standpoint. The Devils have a comfortable hold on the fewest Corsi Events per sixty minutes rate in the NHL at 83.7 per War on Ice. The Flyers are almost the exact opposite. They have the third highest rate as of Wednesday evening with 116.6. (Aside: #1 is Saturday's opponent.) This explains why the Flyers average as many as 34.3 shots per game (#1 in the NHL) while also conceding an average of 33 shots per game (tied for #30 in the NHL). This explains why when they are in close games, it's not out of the ordinary that they bust out an equalizer like they did against Buffalo. Whereas the Devils will try to shut opponents down in light of their poor offense; the Flyers will let it all flow for better or worse. I think a big part of this game will come down to who really establishes control of the game's pace. The Flyers could be like San Jose and try to force New Jersey to keep up with a flood of shots; or the Devils could just make the Flyers play their way and have their fans whine about it in the meantime.
Shots, Yes. Full Strength? No: For years, the Flyers' strength has been up front. On paper, some of the names alone can cause one to be concerned. They can, in theory, roll three solid lines with either - or multiple - dishing out damage on the scoreboard on any given night. It hasn't really happened so far in this young season. Only three Flyers skaters are pointless, but no one has more than four goals (Brayden Schenn) or six points (Mark Streit). The team is shooting 6.4% at evens, according to War on Ice, which isn't all that high but not so low to think it's got to rise dramatically. Their sheer number of shots have yielded thirteen goals from that, yet they've conceded twelve. The reality provides a little comfort.
That being said, the Devils do have a few players to worry about. Claude Giroux is skilled enough to probably be called the third best forward in Pennsylvania. His linemate Jakub Voracek could make a claim to be that guy instead. Both play together and the two have combined for 62 shots in eight games. They will not be kept all that quiet. Michael Raffl has been their left winger per Left Wing Lock's lines from the last game; he's been no slouch with 22 shots on net. That line may have only scored three goals - all from Giroux - but they will come given all of the rubber they're firing on net. If there's a line the Devils should try to focus on, then they should make it Giroux's.
Following them, there's Matt Read, Brayden Schenn, and Wayne Simmonds. They have been on different lines in the Buffalo game. They're still threatening in their own ways. Read is kind of like Adam Henrique in that he can play in all situations, he's kind of quick, and he's productive enough to get excited over but won't really put up a ton of numbers. Schenn has displayed a lot of offensive tools; it's just been a matter of how it all comes together for him. At a minimum, he's a solid secondary scorer. He should be particularly key tonight as he's coming off a two-goal night. Simmonds is a fan favorite and a horse of a player. He's large, plays like he's in charge, and the only thing soft about his game are his hands. That they're spread out helps the depth, so it's not a case like the Devils where if the top two lines are stopped, then so goes most of the offense.
Beyond them, it doesn't look so solid. They are missing Sean Couturier, which is a significant loss if only for his defensive game alone. He was held out of Tuesday's game and didn't practice on Wednesday with a concussion. With Pierre-Edouard Bellemare hurt, Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Vincent Lecavalier will make his season debut. He'll be on a fourth line along with Ryan White and Chris VandeVelde. Years ago, Lecavalier was an ace. Now, well, he is where he is - a spare forward who can't beat out VandeVelde, White, or Bellemare for a regular roster spot. Like Sam Gagner (two goals on eight shots, yeah that isn't lasting) and R.J. Umberger, he's trying to get his career on some kind of track. In theory, this should motivate him and could make a difference tonight. In practice, it'll make the match-ups a little easier for New Jersey since the depth is not exactly styling and profiling to star this season.
There's No D in Flyers: The back end has always been contentious for Philadelphia since the days of Kimmo Timonen not being ancient and Chris Pronger actually playing hockey. Carchidi reported that head coach David Hakstol may switch things up on defense given how Buffalo exposed them so much. I can't say that I blame him. Being #1 in average shots per game isn't so impressive if it's joined by conceding more shots on average than 28 other teams.
Mark Streit is a solid enough defender that can play a lot and produce quite a bit. The problem is that he's been paired mostly with Nick Schultz and that pairing has been killed in possession. One wonders whether Streit would be better with Dave Schultz instead. Their leader in average ice time is Michael Del Zotto. Yes, that Michael Del Zotto. Fortunately for him, a large Russian man wearing #17 won't be able to wreck him. His recent pairing was with Radko Gudas; both have been pretty good from a possession standpoint. From a "do you want these guys out there against the opponents' best" standpoint, less so. Rounding out the group is Evgeny Medvedev and Luke Schenn. That's a 33-year old rookie and Luke Schenn. Given the results, I can see why Hakstol wants to mix things up. However, I don't think new pairings alone will make these guys that much better. As usual as it has been for the past few years, the Flyers need help on defense to really get better at it.
Making matters worse is seemingly the team's problem for the last two decades or so: goaltending. Steve Mason was pretty good last season. No, he was very good. He posted an overall save percentage of 92.8% and an even strength percentage of 94%. It was arguably the best season of his career. That was then, this is now, and now kind of sucks for Mason. In six appearances, Mason has an overall save percentage of 89.9% and 92.6% at evens. Given all of the shots the defense concedes, Mason's allowed quite a few goals already. Seventeen to be exact. The even strength save percentage gives the Flyers fan hope that Mason will rebound. It also makes him or her realize that the PK may have issues (it does with a 77ish% success rate). Mason better do it soon. His backup Michael Neuvirth has posted better numbers in four appearances. If I know the Philadelphia Flyers organization as well as I make fun of them, then I think this is how it'll play out. We'll see another goalie controversy, Neuvirth eventually wins the #1 job later this season, posts numbers good enough to make Flyers fans think that this guy can be the guy, and then falls flat on his face in 2016-17 to be replaced later. Mason can prevent that by playing better now; he may get the chance to do so tonight.
With the Flyers' defense being so unimpressive on paper and the possibility of Mason in net, the Devils should really make an effort to live up to being fast, attacking, and supportive. As much grief the Flyers forwards may give them, they will give back what they provide. It'll be up to the Devils to not overthink it, overstress it, or get overconfident that it'll happen again if they don't take advantage. Just fire away at the shaky goalie that may start this one and swarm all over a defense that conceded forty shots to Buffalo on Tuesday. The production may come if they go after it without hesitation. They may have to do it, especially if the Devils are unable to keep a lid on Giroux's line or gets into trouble with Simmonds, Read, or Brayden Schenn.
Schneider &...?: The Devils did practice on Wednesday. However, Tom Gulitti reported no real lines or defensive pairings in practice at Fire & Ice. According to this post by Gulitti, the only confirmed part of the lineup is the starting goaltender: Cory Schneider. I'm usually fine with Schneider, so sure, roll with him. As for the rest of the roster, I can only guess.
Given I didn't think a whole lot of Eric Gelinas' performance and even less of Jon Merrill's on Tuesday, I don't think John Hynes should try seven defensemen again. I'd rather give Gelinas the minutes - and power play minutes - and have him try to maintain his spot. If he falters, then it'll be Merrill's turn. As for the forwards, this would allow for four full lines. I don't think having only eleven did the Devils any disservice on Tuesday since #12 was playing less than ten minutes anyway. Whether it should be Stefan Matteau or Bobby Farnham is the question. I look at Philly's lineup and I am surprised that only there's only one guy on the roster with a fighting major (Ryan White). I know this is a rivalry game but absent an actual goon, I'm less enthused about having Farnham involved to be the designated fist-thrower for New Jersey tonight. That said, better here than, say, the Isles game on Saturday.
As for the remainder of the lineup, I think the team will try to run the same lines and pairings. I'm hoping Adam Henrique does more than what he did on Tuesday and that Mike Cammalleri just fires away more. It saddens me when he tries a slap-pass or a pass across when he's got a lane to the net and a goalie not exactly set in front of him. I'm looking to see if the Zajac line has another solid performance. Plus, I'd like to see Andy Greene and Adam Larsson get the Giroux match-up they should get.
One Last Game-Related Thought: Maybe I should start calling the Flyers the Comcastic Second Rate Rivals. Given their ownership and the fact that they haven't been able to satisfy their fanbase for decades, I think it would fit. Let me know.
One Last Non-Game Related Thought - And It's More Self Promotion: I am going to appear on SiriusXM's Hockey Unfiltered on Saturday before the Devils-Islanders game. The show will be hosted at Hotel Indigo's Skylab, which is right by The Rock. The show will run from 11 AM to 1 PM, so hang out there for specials, guests (like me), and so forth. My timeslot will be at 12:30 PM. If you don't have SiriusXM, then you can listen to a livestream at the Hockey Unfiltered site and/or download a recording at the site or iTunes a little later that afternoon. I may not be on the same page as most, but I'll be on satellite radio and I've been on an actual page plus nine years of blogging so I got that instead.
Your Take: Now that you know a little more about the Flyers and the Devils ahead of this game, I want to know what you think. Who do you think has the edge in this game: the high-event Flyers or the low-event Devils? Who on the Flyers concerns you the most? Can the Devils make more of a mess of Philly's back end? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.