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Game Preview #21: New Jersey Devils @ Philadelphia Flyers

Coming off perhaps their most dramatic win of the season, the Devils look to push their winning streak to three as they visit the Flyers for the first time this season

NHL: Preseason-New Jersey Devils at Philadelphia Flyers Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (10-9-1) @ Philadelphia Flyers (11-10-1)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN, NBCSP

Last Devils Game

Two days ago, the Devils notched a stirring victory over the New York Islanders at The Rock, 5-4. New Jersey entered the third period down two goals, and thanks to three goals in the period (including Curtis Lazar’s winner in the final minute), the Devils skated away with a crucial regulation victory.

Last Flyers Game

Philadelphia hosted the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night, falling 4-1 to the Canes. Travis Konecny was the lone goal scorer for the Flyers, while Carter Hart got the start and stopped 32 of 35 shots to take the loss.

The Great Escape

Through 40 minutes of play, Tuesday’s game looked a lot like many Devils games that preceded it this season. Inconsistent offensive play, defensive breakdowns galore, and horrendous goaltending all led to a 4-2 deficit heading into the third period. As the second period ended, the following thought popped into my head:

“The Devils have to outscore Ilya Sorokin and the Islanders by three the rest of this game in order to win.”

Once I put it in perspective like that, all hope for coming away with two points left my body. So imagine my surprise when New Jersey pulled off the comeback win over an opponent that has given them fits over the past few seasons.

Vitek Vanecek was bad again, getting the hook in favor of Akira Schmid, who shut the door the rest of the way. That allowed the Devils to claw their way back, with third period goals from Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier tying the game up. And then, 59:37 into the game, Curtis Lazar fought a puck into the net (thanks to a lucky carom) to secure the miraculous win.

It wasn’t pretty, in fact there were stretches where it was downright ugly. Vanecek’s play continues to be an issue. Colin Miller was benched for about half of the second period, and John Marino might have deserved a benching as well for his play on J.G. Pageau’s goal alone. And the Devils lost the Expected Goals For% battle at 5-on-5 according to Natural Stat Trick. But a win is a win, and a regulation win over a division rival that New Jersey is currently chasing in the standings is huge no matter how it happens. Tuesday’s game might not be a template to model future games on, but it can serve as a springboard to better things.

A Little Momentum?

What better things might I be talking about exactly? Well how about a good old fashioned win streak. New Jersey has now won consecutive games for the first time since they won three in a row from October 27th to November 2nd. Everyone here knows that November has not been kind to the Devils, but they have a chance to close out this dismal month on a high note.

Now that Hughes and Hischier are back, the depth chart looks much better (though not perfect, as we’ll get to momentarily). Hughes is back to dominating every time he hops over the boards, proving so with a three-point night on Tuesday. Hischier has now played two games since missing about a month of action, and has two goals and an assist in that time. It’s hard to overstate just how much important it is to have the two franchise centers back. Meanwhile, players who had extended slumps to begin the season such as Dawson Mercer (two goals and two assists in his last four games, and seven points in his last eight games) and Ondrej Palat (seven points in his last nine games) are also starting to heat up.

This team still has a ways to go to prove they’re back to playing their best hockey, but there have been encouraging signs over the last two wins.

The Trainer’s Room is Getting Awfully Full

For about the 3,000th time this season, New Jersey finished last game with fewer players than they started with. Dougie Hamilton did not play in the third period on Tuesday, leaving with what Head Coach Lindy Ruff called an upper-body injury after the game.

It feels like the Devils have a player leave with injury every other game. Off the top of my head, we’ve seen Nico Hischer, Jack Hughes, Curtis Lazar, Erik Haula, Tomas Nosek, and now Hamilton exit early, and I’m probably forgetting a couple of occurrences. All this while Timo Meier remains out with a mysterious injury of his own. For as lucky as New Jersey got with injuries a season ago, their luck in that regard is regressing hard this year.

Along those lines, the Devils have made the following roster move:

Will Mr. Laberge play tonight? Well I’d love to tell you one way or another, but I can’t do that right now:

The one thing we do have clarity on is that we won’t see Haula tonight, according to Amanda Stein’s tweet.

Just when we thought the Devils’ injury luck might be turning around with the returns of Hughes and Hischier, now New Jersey might have to deal with losing their number one defenseman for some time. Hopefully Hamilton avoided major injury and is able to suit up again soon.

Crisis in the Crease?

As mentioned above, Vitek Vanecek put up another clunker on Tuesday. He now sports a save percentage of .879% and a goals against average of 3.49. Those numbers are completely unacceptable, and while the Devils defense has to share a significant portion of the blame for those numbers, it certainly doesn’t entirely excuse Vanecek from putting up such alarming numbers.

To that end, I have to imagine we see Schmid get the start tonight. He held down the fort in relief of Vanecek against the Islanders, and while he hasn’t been all that good this season either (.896 SV%, 3.02 GAA), he’s clearly the best option at this moment in time. There may come a day sometime soon when Vanecek regains his form. But right now, the crease has to belong to Schmid until he proves to be as suboptimal of an option as Vanecek.

The Surprising Flyers

To put it nicely, not much was expected out of the Philadelphia Flyers this season. In their second season under Head Coach John Tortorella, and the first season under new General Manager Daniel Briere and President of Hockey Operations Keith Jones, many expected the Flyers to once again compete for ping pong balls, not a playoff spot. Fast forward to the quarter pole of the season, and Philadelphia has surprised everybody with a respectable 11-10-1 record, good for third place in the Metropolitan Division (although they’ve played more games than anyone in the Metro outside of basement-dwelling Columbus).

What makes their season even more impressive is that it doesn’t look particularly fluky. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Flyers currently sport these numbers at 5-on-5:

Corsi For%: 50.60% (13th in the league)

Scoring Chances For%: 50.42% (14th)

High Danger Corsi For%: 52.06 (12th)

Which has all led to...

Expected Goals For%: 53.33% (7th)

The first three numbers are all decent to middling, but the xGF% really shines. I’ve said before that public models have their limitations, but they are useful tools. What these numbers tell us is that the Flyers have earned their middling record. Leave it to Tortorella to squeeze every last point out of a mediocre roster.

A Familiar Name Leading the Way

So now that we’ve established that the Flyers are putting up respectable numbers on the analytics stat sheet, let’s dig a little deeper. Which players specifically are driving the bus for Philadelphia at 5-on-5 this season? This is going to shock you, but Sean Couturier is putting up terrific advanced numbers. Again from NST:

CF%: 56.64%

SCF%: 57.41%

HDCF%: 61.26%

xGF%: 58.46%

By the way, not counting Rasmus Ristolainen’s two games played and Marc Staal’s eight games played, every one of those numbers are tops on the team. His analytical success is leading to reasonable traditional success as well, with five goals and 14 points in 20 games so far. That’s not a huge point output, but it’s solid.

It’s been a long road back to dominance for Couturier, who missed all of last season and only played 29 games in 2021-22 due to injury. The former Selke Trophy winner is currently leading all Flyers forwards in average time on ice, playing 19:23 per game, so expect to see a lot of him this evening. I would imagine Tortorella will try his best to match Couturier up with the Hughes line this evening, which should be a terrific battle.

Elsewhere, a pair of Travises (Travi?), Konecny and Sanheim, lead the Flyers in scoring with 16 points apiece. They have almost completely mirrored stat lines, with Sanheim registering two goals and 14 assists, and Konecny making a strong Cy Young case with 12 goals and four assists. The advanced metrics tell us that Konecny is putting up the stronger season as far as driving play is concerned, with the 26-year old near the top of the team leaderboards in all the major categories. Sanheim on the other hand is closer to 50% across the board, decent but far from dominant.

It’s Sanheim that leads all Flyer skaters in ATOI though, averaging an astounding 25:58 minutes per game. This is head and shoulders above anyone else in Philadelphia, with Cam York the second most used skater at 22:06 ATOI. So as much as you should prepare to see a lot of Couturier tonight, prepare to be absolutely sick and tired of hearing Sanheim’s name. I’m not quite sure how sustainable playing 26 minutes a night is, but this is the path Tortorella, Sanheim, and the Flyers are taking for now.

Hart and Soul

Flyers goalie Carter Hart is only 25 years old, but he’s already had quite a rollercoaster of a career. He debuted in the NHL when he was 20 during the 2018-19 season, bringing much fanfare and promise with him. It’s been a running joke in the league for generations now that the Flyers just cannot find a long term, quality goalie. The hope when Hart came up was that the franchise’s long search was over.

So did the search end with Hart’s arrival? Well...yes and no.

The search did end in the sense that Hart has been the starter in Philly since his second season in the league. He missed time during the pandemic shortened 2021 campaign, but otherwise he’s garnered most of the playing time in net for the Flyers. However, the search did not end in the sense that Hart has not completely locked down the crease with quality since his debut. His 2021 was an unmitigated disaster with a .877 SV% in 27 games played. But otherwise Hart has hovered around slightly above average in his career. This season, in 13 games played, Hart has registered a .911 SV% and a 2.57 GAA, very respectable numbers. Maybe after decades of mediocre goalie play, the Philadelphia faithful are perfectly fine with slightly above average, but if they wanted a star in net, they still haven’t found one.

Whenever Hart sees the Devils on the other side of the ice, however, Hart produces like the star Flyers fans want him to be. In 10 career games against New Jersey, Hart has put up a 6-4-0 record with a .933 SV% and a 2.02 GAA. It’s actually pretty remarkable to me that he’s only 6-4-0 with such terrific numbers versus the Devils. He always seems to be a thorn in the Devils’ side, so assuming he gets the call tonight, if history is any indication we might be in for another frustrating night of little to no goal production.

One Last Thought and Your Take

The Devils helped themselves out immensely last time out by taking two points from a division rival that the team is chasing in the standings. A regulation win over the Islanders provided New Jersey with a four point swing, and they have another opportunity for such a swing tonight. While the Flyers may eventually fade into mediocrity like we all expected prior to the season, the fact is they currently sit above the Devils in the division, and so New Jersey must continue stacking wins against division rivals to get their season back on track.

What will you be watching out for tonight? Who on the Devils do you expect to have a big game? Will Carter Hart stand on his head against New Jersey yet again? As always, thanks for reading!