"Other than the one game, they've been hard-fought and very competitive," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said. "It goes down at the end of the game [to execution and details on single shifts]. Can you make a defensive play? Can you make an offensive play? Are you getting that save? I expect Boston to play extremely well. I expect us to play extremely well, and play hard. They're always tough games, and it's going to be another tough one on Sunday."
The Flyers did not have defending Selke Trophy winner Sean Couturier available for any of the first four meetings this season. His presence might have made a difference in at least one or two of the Flyers' failed closeout opportunities. However, it should also be noted that Boston was missing world class sniper David Pastrnak in the first two games and had other notable injuries when the season series shifted to Philadelphia.
Right now, the Flyers will be forced to go into their second straight game while missing five key starting forwards -- team captain Claude Giroux, center Scott Laughton plus wingers Jakub Voracek, Travis Konecny, and Oskar Lindblom -- and starting defenseman Justin Braun. All six players remain on the COVID-19 protocol list and were not able to make the trip with their teammates. On Thursday, the Flyers took away one point from a 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Rangers at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Bruins, by comparison, have a relatively full lineup at their disposal. There are no Boston players in COVID protocol. The most notable injury-related absences are those of veteran second-line center David Krejci and defenseman Matt Grzelcyk; neither of whom is expected to be available by Sunday.
"Their top line [Patrice Bergeron centering Brad Marchand and Pastrnak] has obviously been on the best lines in the NHL for quite awhile now. They're tough to play against, and they're a big challenge. Obviously, they have some good goaltending. Put all that together. They're a well-coached team, pretty balanced. We'll have to bring our A-game and show them what we've got," Couturier said.
For the Flyers to pull off an upset win on Sunday, the Flyers know that "all hands on deck" has to be a reality, and not just a buzz phrase. Here are four keys to victory despite playing severely shorthanded.
1. Hold their own on special teams.
The Bruins were scorching hot on the power play when they last played the Flyers, and filled the net repeatedly against Philly. Boston has cooled off more recently, but they still stand at 29.8 percent for the season (8th-best in the NHL) after clocking in at an eye-popping 35 percent through the Feb. 3 game in Philadelphia. Head-to-head this season, the Bruins have gone 7-for-13 (1-for-3, 3-for-4, 3-for-4, 0-for-2) on the power play against the Flyers.
Meanwhile, the Flyers are coming off an 0-for-5 night on the power play against the Rangers on Thursday and have dropped to 19.2 percent (ranked 18th in the NHL) after sitting at over 24 percent on the season through 10 games. Head-to-head with Boston, the Flyers have gone 3-for-14 (2-for-5, 0-for-2, 0-for-2, 1-for-5) on the man advantage.
2. Minimize or avoid the wear-down effect.
Shift discipline and execution are vital factors against any tough opponent but even more critical in a game played in the 6,224-foot altitude of Lake Tahoe. The depleted depth on the Flyers' side adds yet another layer of challenge to the task; Philadelphia can ill-afford to get hemmed in their own zone repeatedly due to failed execution on breakouts and zone clears
Even if a team survives these situations for awhile with getting scored upon, there is often a wear-down effect. Third periods have not been kind to the Flyers in their meetings with Boston this season.
Carter Hart took a shutout -- the team itself a 2-0 lead -- into the third period of the Jan. 21 game at TD Garden before the Bruins scored four times to two for Philadelphia. The Flyers trailed, 3-1, entering the third period of the next game before Boston pulled away and turned the game into a rout with three unanswered goals.
The Flyers' 4-3 home overtime loss to the Bruins on Feb 3 saw the Flyers hold a 3-1 lead midway through the third period but then self-destruct with bad penalties as Pastrnak scored two late power play goals before Bergeron won the game on a 4-on-3 power play in OT. Most recently, the Flyers took a 1-0 lead early in the third period before goals at 12:01 by Marchand and a seemingly stoppable Sean Kuraly goal at 12:28 beat Brian Ellliott as the Bruins won, 2-1.
All totaled, the Bruins have outscored the Flyers by a margin of 11-3 in third periods. With the Flyers playing without nearly half their normal forward rotation, they need to give themselves the maximum chance to avoid getting worn down and potentially setting up another third period debacle.
3. The Patrick line must step up.
If the severely depleted Flyers are to deliver an upset win over the Bruins on Sunday, it's a given that they will need the Couturier and Kevin Hayes lines to deliver. Starting goalie Hart most have a standout performance for 60 minutes, and not just portions of the game. The Flyers may also need the defense corps to generate some offense in joining the attack and perhaps an unlikely hero or two to step up.
Third-line center Nolan Patrick is a particularly important player for the Flyers come Sunday.
Even without Krejci, the Bruins still stack up Bergeron and Charlie Coyle down the middle in their top six. The Flyers will need Patrick (along with linemates Connor Bunnaman and David Kase) to deliver productive shifts with Couturier and Hayes having their hands full contending with the top end of the Boston lineup.
Defensively, Patrick is playing fine. He's working hard without the puck and, in the offensive zone, is competing to keep plays alive. Offensively, though, he's taken a step backward from what he was doing in training camp in making plays. The Flyers need him to be more assertive with the puck and get himself and the puck below and between the dots.
On Thursdqay, Patrick was forced to take a penalty in overtime to muffle a point blank chance for Pavel Buchnevich. The Flyers three skaters got a little mesmerized by the puck and didn't see Buchnevich getting open until it was nearly too late. That penalty came out because the Rangers' 3-on-3 unit was taking it to their Philly counterparts.
Because the Flyers have gotten scoring from many different sources this season, and with James van Riemsdyk and Joel Farabee in particular getting red hot before the four straight postponements, Philly has been able to be patient as Patrick and Lindblom have tried to find their offensive games. Now, though, the Flyers could really use a breakout game from Patrick against the Bruins, especially because he's part of the power play.
In the Rangers' game, Patrick's underlying numbers in 15:55 of ice time were OK (53.33% Corsi at 5-on-5, although only a 37.50% Fenwick due to all the shot attempts the Rangers were blocking). By the eye test, though, he had room to be more assertive even on a patchwork line with Bunnaman and Kase that was playing together for the first time.
Patrick opened the regular season with five points (2g, 3a) in his first seven games but is pointless in his last seven games. The two-way effort has been fine, and it hasn't been any sort of a work ethic issue but the Flyers need him to be more of an offensive difference-maker come Sunday if they are withstand all the lineup absences.
4. Nothing stoppable can go in.
Hart's ugly numbers against the Bruins this season are more the product of the Bruins, especially on the power play, creating chances that the Flyers goalie has little to no chance to stop than due to the goalie himself. However, in two of his three starts against Boston, there's been at least one goal that, while not outright soft, has also not been unstoppable.
In the first meeting with Boston, Hart would have liked a second crack at the Coyle goal that tied game at 2-2. In the next game -- the one in which Hart uncharacteristically smashed his goalie stick at the end -- a short-side power play goal by Marchand from the right circle stuck in the goalie's craw. In the third game, Hart had no chance on any of three Pastrnak goals -- one of which bounced in off Ivan Provorov, the other two of which were point blank with no time to get over including a bad bounce off a partially blocked shot that went right to Pastrnak in point blank range -- or the Bergeron winner.
Most recently, Elliott played well right up to the point the Bruins tied it at 1-1 by outworking Philadelphia around the net. The Kuraly goal that won the game, however, was one that Elliott absolutely needed to stop. It was wired but was clear-sighted for the goalie and came from above the left faceoff dot.
With two of the four games thus far going to overtime (one shootout) and three of the four decided by one goal, the Flyers can ill-afford to give up even a single goal that the netminder has a fighting chance to stop.