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Game Preview #30: New Jersey Devils vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Following a pathetic blowout loss to the Ducks, the Devils look to get back in the win column in a big matchup with the Flyers

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Philadelphia Flyers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (16-12-1) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (17-10-3)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN, NBCSP

Last Devils Game

The Devils played the second half of a back-to-back on Sunday, hosting the freefalling Anaheim Ducks. The Devils were the only ones freefalling after the contest though, as New Jersey suffered a pathetic 5-1 defeat.

Last Flyers Game

The Flyers last skated on Saturday night, when they managed to edge the Detroit Red Wings in a pitcher’s duel, 1-0. Samuel Ersson recorded the shutout for the Flyers, stopping all 33 shots he faced, and Cam York was the only player in the game who managed to find the back of the net.

Last Devils-Flyers Game

The Devils and Flyers matched up back on November 30th, which ended up being a 4-3 overtime victory for New Jersey. The Devils held a 3-1 lead until two late goals by Philadelphia (including the tying goal in the final minute of regulation) forced the game to extra time. Luke Hughes ended up with the game winner to salvage the second point.

A Simple Adjustment

If you asked me what I thought the biggest culprit in the Devils’ loss to the Ducks was, I would tell you a lack of discipline. Anaheim is a far inferior team to New Jersey, especially so with Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale out of the lineup like they were on Sunday. So the only way the Ducks had any prayer of coming out with a win would be if they managed to sucker New Jersey into a chippy, dirty, penalty-riddled mess of a game.

You’ll never guess what happened next.

Yes the Devils allowed the Ducks to get deep under their skin, to the point where the team took THREE offensive zone penalties. That would be bad enough, but then you see that Jesper Bratt committed a rare infraction, and Jack Hughes took two(!!) penalties of his own, one being a retaliation penalty borne out of frustration. It seemed the Devils were happier to sink to the Ducks’ chippy level than to actually focus on playing their game.

So what’s the simple adjustment I would make if I was Lindy Ruff and his troops? Keep your emotions in check, don’t let your opponent drag you into a mud fight, and actually figure out how to put together a full 60 minute effort.

Simple, right? I sure hope so.

Goaltending in Flux

The plan for this past weekend’s back-to-back appeared to be for Akira Schmid to start against Columbus on Saturday, and Vitek Vanecek to get the call against the Ducks on Sunday. But then this happened:

I couldn’t find any further updates on Vanecek’s status, so as of right now I guess we have to assume it’s still Schmid and Nico Daws as the active goalies for New Jersey. I don’t know if Ruff would give Schmid yet another start, or if he is going to see fit to send Daws out there for his first NHL start of 2023-24. Or maybe Vanecek will be fine by tonight and Ruff decides to roll with him! None of those options are great to be honest, though I do hope Vanecek gets better soon.

Where Have You Gone, Timo Meier?

Recently, Devils fans have turned their lonely eyes to the highest paid forward on the team, Timo Meier. The Swiss winger came over with much fanfare from San Jose at the trade deadline last season, and after a promising but mildly underwhelming first partial season in New Jersey, general manager Tom Fitzgerald inked him to a monster contract. Much was expected of Meier, and many thought he would add another dimension to the Devils’ forward corp given his power forward profile.

Fast forward to now, and things haven’t exactly been going according to plan:

As far as the notion that Meier is playing hurt, he did in fact miss time earlier this season with an injury. Meier has taken a lot of heat from Devils fans this season, and for good reason, but prior to this year he had a long track record of great point production and elite advanced numbers:

I refuse to believe Meier simply forgot how to play hockey. I also don’t quite buy that he just doesn’t fit the Devils’ system and that he never will. I don’t want to speculate on injuries, but at this point I’d say it’s at least a plausible theory that Meier is not back to 100%.

Whatever the reason behind Meier’s struggles, the Devils need him to get back on track. He just signed a max extension this past offseason, so he’s not going anywhere for a long, long time. As much as he has frustrated me thus far, I still believe that Meier will eventually turn it around and get back to being the elite forward he’s been through most of his career.

How’s It Been Going in Philly?

Following that overtime loss to the Devils on November 30th, the Flyers have been hot. Philadelphia has won six of their last seven games since Luke Hughes dashed their comeback hopes, with one of those wins coming in overtime and two of those wins coming via shootouts. Their lone defeat in that time came in overtime against the Nashville Predators as well, which tells me a few things:

  1. The Flyers have collected 13 of 14 points since their loss to the Devils. Good for them, bad for the rest of the Metro.
  2. They’re playing a LOT of extra hockey lately, with four of their last seven contests going past regulation (five of eight if you count the Devils game).
  3. John Tortorella never changes.

Your mileage may vary on that last one, but a team scratching and clawing their way to close wins night in and night out? It doesn’t get much more Torts than that to me.

As a matter of fact, including the game against New Jersey on November 30th, six of the Flyers’ last eight games have been one-goal games. And that’s actually being kind by counting shootout wins as being decided by one “goal”.

The Flyers enter tonight with 37 points, good for second place in the Metropolitan Division. We all know the story by now: Not much was expected of Philadelphia prior to this season, but they just keep grinding their way to results. We’re all waiting for the bottom to drop out, but the longer the year goes on, the more legit these Flyers appear. I’m still not ready to call them fully real, but I think I’ve reached the point where I’m not just assuming the collapse is guaranteed to happen. That makes tonight another big game.

Under the Flyers’ Hood

One of the big reasons why I think the Flyers are more legit than we all thought they would be entering 2023-24 is their underlying numbers. According to Natural Stat Trick, at 5-on-5 their Corsi For% and Scoring Chances For% sit near the middle of the league. However, the Flyers are top-10 in the NHL in both High Danger Corsi For% and Expected Goals For%. Philadelphia is controlling the run of play pretty well, so it doesn’t look like regression is on the horizon for the Flyers.

What about PDO? Another telltale sign of a team fluking their way to wins is an abnormally high PDO. Surely the Flyers are just getting lucky with percentages, right?

Not quite.

Again per NST, Philadelphia is currently rocking a PDO of 0.994 at 5-on-5, good for 11th-worst in the league. If anything, the Flyers have been getting unlucky based on their shooting and save percentages.

The moral of the story is that the Devils cannot take this team lightly. Maybe they start to fall apart down the road, but they aren’t really showing any signs of slowing down at the moment.

Flyers’ Lineup and the Rise of Rasmus

So how might this not-to-be-taken-lightly team line up tonight? Here’s how they looked in their 1-0 win over the Red Wings on Saturday:

You might notice Rasmus Ristolainen on the top pairing. Ristolainen started the season on the shelf due to injury and didn’t play his first game until November 25th, and his top pairing usage doesn’t seem to be a regular thing for him considering he enters this contest fourth among Flyers defensemen in average time on ice at 17:39 per game. Against Detroit he logged a whopping 23:07, approximately five-and-a-half minutes more than his usual deployment.

Ristolainen has long been a popular target among NHL fans, mostly among those who believe heavily in analytics. Throughout his career he has put up some of the worst advanced numbers in the league year in and year out, at least in public models. When the Flyers gave him a massive contract extension in March of 2022, it was universally panned, even by those who are less inclined to follow analytics.

But ever since Tortorella took over the Philadelphia bench, he seems to have gotten the most out of the big Finnish defenseman:

Granted, grading out as an “average” defenseman isn’t particularly amazing. But it’s a huge step up for him from where he was at before. The tweet above gives a lot of credit to Tortorella, and Ristolainen himself seems to agree:

I’m not sure if we’ll be seeing 23 minutes of Ristolainen tonight or if he’ll go back to his usual 17-18 minutes. But either way, in the past a matchup with Ristolainen could usually be counted on as a win for the Devils. Much like a matchup with the Flyers as a whole, it won’t be so easy anymore.

Your Take

What will you be watching for in tonight’s game? Who do you expect to see step up? Who on the Flyers will you be keeping your eye on? As always, thanks for reading!