The Flyers bring a six-game point streak into this game (5-0-1). They are coming off a 3-2 overtime win in Seattle on Wednesday night. The Flyers were significantly outplayed for the first two periods. Two goals in regulation (one on the power play, one at even strength) by James van Riemsdyk, and outstanding goaltending from Martin Jones (34 saves on 36 shots) more or less stole one point for Philadelphia. An overtime goal by Ivan Provorov lifted the Flyers to victory on a night where they easily could have lost in regulation.
San Jose was idle on Wednesday night. On Tuesday, the Sharks prevailed in a wild game against the Arizona Coyotes that ultimately went to a shootout, 8-7 (2-0). Seven different Sharks players scored in regulation but San Jose was unable to protect a 7-5 lead late in regulation and needed the skills competition to secure the second point.
Thursday's game is the first of two meetings this season between the inter-conference teams. The clubs will rematch on Jan. 8 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Here are five things to watch going into this game:
1. Energy and puck management.
The Flyers were outskated and outworked -- by a significant margin -- in the first two periods of Wednesday's game in Seattle. The 10-day schedule hiatus was not a viable excuse, as the Kraken were in the exact same situation.
Philadelphia was fortunate that Jones brought his A game in goal and that Seattle is a team that ranks in the bottom one-third of the league in goals per game. San Jose, even coming off their high-scoring win over Arizona, ranks in a tie for 22nd in the NHL in goals per game (2.74); right in the same vicinity as the Kraken.
Nonetheless, the Flyers will have to do a better job at getting out of their own zone and making good decisions when they have the puck on their stick than they did in the first 40 minutes and a few points thereafter against the Kraken. Philadelphia flirted with disaster in Seattle and escaped with a win. It would not be wise to press their luck again.
2. Goalie decision, hostile building.
Jones had a very heavy workload in the Kraken game. Nevertheless, the former Sharks goalie would love to get a start against his old team (whom he backstopped to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015-16 and the Western Conference Final in 2018-19). Yeo also has to consider the fact that the Flyers have a New Year's Day game in Los Angeles on Saturday night.
If Jones does not get the call, 24-year-old Felix Sandström will make his NHL debut. Sandström has played better at the AHL level this season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms than his pedestrian stats (3-7-3 record, 3.08 GAA, .896 save percentage) would suggest to someone who only looked at the numbers and had not seen his games. Sandström's numbers were dragged down by one very rough start in Charlotte (7 GA on 22 shots across 40 minutes) and various breakdowns in front of him during an eight-game winless streak for the Phantoms. Overall, however, Sandström's play has been a bright spot for Lehigh Valley.
The Flyers will not have a morning skate in San Jose on Thursday. The starting goalie will be announced later in the day by Yeo.
No matter which goalie is in net for the Flyers, Philadelphia will need to elevate its game to a higher level than the Seattle match. The Sharks are no longer the Cup contenders they once were but they can still present problems to opponents that aren't prepared. There is still plenty of experience and sufficient leftover skill to burn a team.
Moreover, the Flyers have historically struggled for road wins in San Jose. All-time, the Flyers are just 9-12-2 on the road against the Sharks. Dating back to the 2014-15 season, the Flyers are 1-4-1 in their last six trips to San Jose (2-2-2 in Philadelphia).
3. Inside the Numbers
The Flyers are 11-2-3 in the 16 games in which they've scored first this season. Philly is 2-10-2 in the 14 games where their opponent has scored first (a .143 points percentage that ranks 27th in the NHL).
The Sharks have scored first in 15 of 31 games, holding an 11-3-1 record. San Jose's opponents have scored first in the other 16 games, with the Sharks posting a 5-11-0 record (.313 points percentage, ranked 17th).
San Jose ranks 18th on the power play this season (18.2 percent success rate), and 6th on the penalty kill (83.3 percent). The Flyers rank 26th on the power play (16.5 percent) and are tied for 12th on the PK (81.1 percent). However, the power play has improved of late and comes in at 27.8 percent in the eight games since Yeo succeeded Alain Vigneault as head coach as Darryl Williams took over for Michel Therrien as the assistant coach in charge of the power play.
At 5-on-5, the Sharks rank in a tie for 18th leaguewide with 57 goals scored. The Flyers rank tied for 23rd with 53 goals. San Jose and the Flyers have both yielded 62 goals at 5-on-5 and are tied for 19th leaguewide.
4. Behind Enemy Lines: San Jose Sharks
Timo Meier has been having an excellent season for the Sharks this season, leading the club with 31 points (13g, 18a) in 26 games played this season. He's also a traditional plus-12 (far and away the best on the club) for a team that is underwater in even strength goal differentials. He's scored goals in back-to-back games and has five points (2g, 3a) in his last four games.
Veteran Logan Couture is second on the Sharks with 27 points (10g, 17a) on the season. Couture scored the shoot-out winner on Tuesday and, excluding that, has posted two goals and three points in his last three games.
An unrestricted free agent after this season, Tomas Hertl has racked up a team-high 15 goals among his 23 points to date in 2021-22. He exited COVID-19 protocol in time to play in the Arizona game. Meanwhile, Russian left winger Alexander Barbanov has compiled 13 assists among his 17 points this season.
The Sharks still like to have defensemen join the attack up ice. Erik Karlsson, at age 30, may not be the same level of threat he was in two-time Norris Trophy winning heyday with Ottawa but is still a handful for opponents. He's had a bounceback offensive season this year after a rough 2020-21, and has posted 20 points (8g, 12a) in 25 games. Karlsson had one assist and was minus-three in the Arizona game.
At age 36, Brent Burns is no longer the same serially roving gunslinger he was for many years with the Minnesota Wild and the Sharks. He can still make plays, however (2g, 15 assists). He has played in a San Jose franchise record 628 consecutive regular season games; returning just in the nick of time to exit COVID-19 protocol to keep the streak alive in the shootout game against Arizona. It was also the 1,200th regular season game of Burns' career.
Veteran netminder James Reimer has made 27 appearances in net for the Sharks this season, posting a 10-5-1 record, 2.29 GAA, one shutout and a .928 save percentage. Zach Sawchenko, who appeared in nine AHL games for the San Jose Barracuda this season, is currently backing up Reimer.
5) Players to Watch: Sanheim and Hertl
Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim has strung together several weeks worth of generally strong games. Even during the Flyers' 10-game winless streak, the play of Sanheim (individually and in tandem with Rasmus Ristolainen) was generally a positive for the team. On Wednesday, Sanheim had a beautiful assist on the van Riemsdyk goal that forced overtime.
The Flyers are very thin at center right now with Sean Couturier and Scott Laughton both in COVID-19 protocol and Kevin Hayes still trying to get himself into mid-season form after all the time he's missed. The Flyers will have a tall order containing Hertl, and Boughner may try to get him into physical mismatches with the much smaller Morgan Frost. The Flyers may try to get Patrick Brown out more often. However, the Flyers also have to contend with the still-potent Couture as well.