This is the first of three meetings this season between the Eastern Conference clubs, and the first of two in Philadelphia. The teams will rematch at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on March 18 before the scene shifts back to the Wells Fargo Center on April 29.
The Flyers have posted a 3-0-1 record over their last four games but are coming off an unsatisfactory performance in a 3-2 (1-0) road loss via shootout to the struggling Montreal Canadiens. Stellar goaltending by Carter Hart (38 saves on 40 shots) and second period goals by young role-playing rookie forwards Max Willman (2nd goal of the season) and Jackson Cates (1st NHL goal) earned the Flyers one point.
Why the Flyers didn't get two points: They were massively outplayed by Montreal in the first period. After the Flyers took a 2-1 lead to the third period, the Flyers were unable to close out the Canadiens due to a broken play that led to a tying goal by Laurent Dauphin. In overtime, the Flyers had a 4-on-3 power play but struggled to generate high-quality chances against the NHL's 31st-ranked penalty kill. In the shootout, the Flyers went 0-for-3 (Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Cam Atkinson). Jonathan Drouin's successful first-round attempt for Montreal stood as the winning goal.
The Senators are in 15th place in the 16-team Eastern Conference. However, the team has won five of its last seven games, including consecutive victories at the expense of the Carolina Hurricanes (3-2), Colorado Avalanche (6-5 in overtime) and New Jersey Devils (3-2 via shootout). This week started with the Senators hosting and shutting out the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-0. This was followed up by an 8-2 road blowout victory against the Florida Panthers.
On Thursday, the Senators rematched with the Lightning at Amalie Arena in Tampa. This time, the Bolts prevailed, 2-1, after the Senators took a 1-0 lead to the first intermission. Thomas Chabot (1st) intercepted a puck at the red line and soloed the rest of the way as he cut in from the right circle and roofed a shot over Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Penalty trouble hurt the Senators, who found themselves shorthanded five times. The Sens killed off four of the penalties but a Victor Hedman power play goal (7th) in the latter stages of the second period proved to be game-winner for Tampa. Anton Forsberg stopped 25 of 27 shots in a losing cause for the Senators. Chabot, who racked up 30:06 of ice time across 35 shifts, finished with four shots on goal on eight attempts, two hits and a blocked shot.
Here are five things to track in this game:
1. Flyers Health Watch.
The Flyers will welcome Joel Farabee back into the lineup for this game. He missed seven games due to a shoulder injury but has been cleared to return after participating in practices over the past week.
Unfortunately, that's the only good news on the Flyers' medical front. Hart is unavailable for this game due to an as-yet-undetermined illness. Martin Jones will get the start in goal, with a backup to be recalled on an emergency basis.
Felix Sandström has missed the last two games due to a sinus infection, while rookie Samuel Ersson (who served as a backup on Friday) has just been cleared to play after missing approximately seven weeks due to a lower-body injury. Kirill Ustimenko of the Reading Royals is also under Flyers contact. Veteran Pat Nagle, who has started the last two games for Lehigh Valley and credited with three straight wins (the first one coming in relief of an ailing Sandström last Saturday) is not under NHL contract.
The Flyers also announced on Saturday morning that Willman and a staff member have been placed in the NHL's COVID-19 protocol. Morgan Frost also remains in protocol after being forced to exit Tuesday's game against New Jersey after his third shift of the first period. Derick Brassard (hip) is close to being ready to return but is not yet available.
Flyers projected lineup (subject to change):
86 Joel Farabee - 14 Sean Couturier- 11 Travis Konecny
23 Oskar Lindblom- 28 Claude Giroux-89 Cam Atkinson
21 Scott Laughton - 13 Kevin Hayes- 25 James van Riemsdyk
59 Jackson Cates - 38 Patrick Brown - 17 Zack MacEwen
9 Ivan Provorov - 61 Justin Braun
7 Travis Sanheim - 70 Rasmus Ristolainen
3 Keith Yandle - 8 Kevin Connauton
35 Martin Jones
2. Answering the Bell.
The Senators are not an easy out right now. They've matched or exceeded opponents' competitiveness levels in most of their recent games, which is why the team rattled off five wins over the likes of Carolina, Tampa and the Panthers. The Flyers need to answer the bell from the outset of this game.
Although the Flyers are 3-0-1 in the last four games, there has only been one game in that span where the team's overall body of work was to the level where they were in firm control for the decided majority of the game. In Vegas last Friday, Hart's play in net and opportunistic offense were the difference. In Arizona the next night, the Coyotes' sloppiness and an awakening Flyers offense overcame some rough patches for Philly.
Coming off a very strong all-around performance in a 6-1 blowout win over the Devils at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday, the Flyers lacked severely in both energy and engagement for the first 22 minutes of Thursday's game in Montreal. It was only due to Hart's outstanding play in net -- beaten only by a deflected puck among a 19-shot barrage in the first period --that the Flyers only found themselves trailing by a goal at the first intermission.
The first two shifts of the middle frame were also atrocious. After Couturier lost the opening faceoff, the Flyers -- who were guilty of 14 turnovers (12 charged giveaways, two takeaways credited to Montreal) in the first period alone -- got hemmed in their own end for 40 seconds. The next shift was also spent almost entirely in the Philadelphia zone. Luckily for the Flyers, they withstood it and Willman's goal that capped a strong forechecking shift, tied the game at 1-1 and helped bring a desperately needed jolt of energy for the Flyers. They went on to win the second period on the scoreboard, 2-0, and to hold a shot advantage.
In the third period, the Flyers started out on a good course to nail down a win; outshooting Montreal by a 7-4 margin over the first 11 plus minutes. The Habs, however, were the better team over most of the remainder of regulation. A lost faceoff by Couturier in the defensive zone and a broken-play sequence in which Travis Sanheim blocked a Ben Chiarot shot attempt but the puck caromed to where Dauphin could stash it home to make it a 2-2 game.
Despite the Senators' overall record this season, they've recently outplayed the Flyers over their respective last seven games. The Sens defeated a series of clubs on the upper end of the standings that dealt defeats to Philadelphia. The Flyers had better come out ready to skate and compete against the Senators, if Philadelphia is to improve to a 4-0-1 run.
Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who leads the team in scoring with 24 points (10g, 14a) in 28 games, did not record a point in Thursday's game in Montreal. Returning home for this game on Saturday, he remains on the brink of two major milestones:
* One point away from tying Hockey Hall of Fame left wing Bill Barber (883 career regular season points) for second on the all-time franchise scoring leaderboard; two points away from sole possession. Franchise icon Bobby Clarke (1,210 points) holds the all-time mark.
* One assist away from 600 for Giroux's regular season career. Giroux is already 2nd in franchise history in assists. Clarke is the all-time leader (852).
Another milestone within reach for Giroux this season: After recently surpassing Clarke for the franchise's all-time record in power play points, he needs seven even-strength points to tie Flyers Hall of Famer Brian Propp for third in even-strength points (539) in team history.
Lastly, Giroux is currently 29 games away from reaching the coveted 1,000 games milestone for his regular season career. Presently, the Flyers 1,000-game "club" consists of only one member. Clarke suited up in 1,144 regular season games as a Flyer between 1969-70 and 1983-84.
While Giroux himself is more focused on the Flyers' winning this game than whether he catches Barber on his second crack at tying the career point mark, it's also true that a good game for the captain would portend well for the team as a whole.
3. Inside the Numbers
The Senators typically play with a lot of energy and physicality. Their 28.25 average of credited hits per game lead the entire NHL. Not surprisingly, Brady Tkachuk (94 credited hits) tops the team in that category. The Flyers are in the middle of the pack in the NHL in the hit category, ranking 16th (21.81 hits per game). Equally unsurprising is the fact that Rasmus Ristolainen leads the team (88 hits).
The Senators' aggressiveness is a double-edged sword. They can get undisciplined at times, and are the fourth most-penalized team in the NHL so far this season.The club ranks 25th in the NHL in PK efficiency at 77.3 percent. The Flyers, who are the 13th most-penalized team, have improved significantly on the PK since last season. The team enters the game ranked 12th in the NHL at 81.3 percent success on the PK.
Philadelphia's power play had seemed to be settling into something of a good groove of late for the first time since the opening week of the season. However, the Flyers did not receive any power plays in the blowout win over New Jersey and did not step up in going 0-for-2 in Montreal including a 4-on-3 opportunity in overtime. Overall, the Flyers enter this game ranked 26th at 16.3 percent efficiency on the power play. The Senators check in at an even 20.0 percent to rank 12th.
The Senators are a team that is willing to pay the price to block shots; this was an indispensable part of some of the upset wins the team has recently pulled off. Ottawa ranks third in the NHL with an average 15.70 blocked shots per game.Artem Zub's 53 blocks lead the team. The Flyers come in ranked 8th in the NHL with 14.43 blocks per game. Justin Braun leads with 62 blocks followed by defense partner Provorov with 60.
Ottawa ranks last in the NHL in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt differentials (44.86 percent team Corsi), while the Flyers rank 8th from the bottom (47.76 percent). In terms of shot quality differentials, the Sens rank 29th (45.89% Expected Goals share) and the Flyers are 30th (45.89 percent).
4. Behind Enemy Lines: Ottawa Senators
The Senators are a young team with some fast-rising talent on the roster. There are still holes to fill (the club is presently a bit top-heavy with suspect depth) and there is a lot of learning to do in terms of two-way consistency but there's a lot of long-term upside.
After a breakthrough season offensively last year, Drake Batherson leads the Senators in assists (19) and overall scoring (28 points) despite having missed five games in November. He was held off the scoresheet in Tampa but racked up 10 points (2g, 8a) over his previous four games. The 23-year-old has also recorded 53 credited hits.
A first-rate agitator as well as a talented finisher, Brady Tkachuk has scored a dozen goals and 22 points in 24 games played this season to go along with his 56 penalty minutes. He's had some hostilities with the Flyers previously in his career, and will undoubtedly look to stir the pot in this tilt if the chance presents itself.
In his second NHL season, 22-year-old Josh Norris has already tallied 31 career goals in his 86 games in the league. So far this season, Norris leads all Senators with 14 goals among his 22 points. He's not shy about shooting the puck.
Selected with the third overall pick of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Tim Stützle is in his second NHL season. The 19-year-old has shown the expected flashes of high-end upside along with bouts of inconsistency. However, he put together a three-game point streak (1g, 2a) before being largely a non-factor in the 2-1 loss in Tampa.
The Senators enter this game with seven players who have posted 12 or more points. There's a drop off thereafter, and the Sens rank 19th at 2.78 goals per game. The bigger issue has been team defense. The club checks into this game ranked 31st in the NHL at a 3.59 GAA. Only Arizona has been worse at keeping the puck out of their own net.
Projected lineup (subject to change)
7 Brady Tkachuk - 9 Josh Norris - 16 Drake Batherson
10 Alex Formenton - 18 Tim Stützle - 28 Connor Brown
13 Zach Sanford - 71 Chris Tierny - 63 Tyler Ennis
21 Nick Paul - 27 Dylan Gambrell - 16 Austin Watson
72 Thomas Chabot - 22 Nikita Zaitsev
5 Nick Holden - 2 Artem Zub
29 Dylan Heatherington - 98 Victor Mete
31 Anton Forsberg
32 Filip Gustavsson
5. Players to Watch: Couturier and Norris
Sean Couturier seems to be playing through some sort of physical ailment (beyond needing to recently play with a full face shield and sustaining a relatively minor skate cut to his arm). After starting out of the season with 12 points through the first 12 games, the former Selke Trophy winner (2019-20 season) has been inconsistent on the defensive side of the puck and largely struggled offensively. He's only scored one goal since Nov. 6 (Dec. 10 in Vegas).
Over his last 19 games played, Couturier has only five points (2g, 3a) and is a highly out-of-character minus-nine. Frustration has seeped into his game at times and he's taken a team-high seven minor penalties in that span.
The Flyers need Couturier to rediscover something much closer to his accustomed form. Likewise, after Travis Konecny seemed to be on the brink of a goal-scoring breakthrough heading into the Montreal game, TK came away empty in Montreal. Goalless in 13 games, the Flyers need more from the 2019-20 NHL All-Star Game selection than the one goal, seven points and minus-10 that he's posted in the last 19 games.
It will be interesting to see how Yeo approaches the matchup against the recently red-hot top Ottawa line centered by Norris. Will the Flyers mix-and-match and spread the shifts with the last change among Couturier, Kevin Hayes and possibly even a few with Patrick Brown on the ice? Or will they get Couturier out there as often as possible?