London, Ontario – Simon Gagne recorded a hat trick, Jon Sim scored twice and Mike Knuble, Turner Stevenson and Kim Johnsson also added goals as the Flyers held off the Atlanta Thrashers at the John LaBatt Centre in their preseason opener, 8-6.
Gagne tallied Philadelphia's first two goals of the game. First, he stole a pass in the neutral zone, skated in on net on a two-on-one with Stevenson, and lifted the puck past Thrashers goaltender Michael Garnett at 7:28 to open the scoring.
After Atlanta's J.P. Vigier tied the game, Gagne scored on the ensuing faceoff to give Philadelphia back the lead. Eric Desjardins found Gagne alone in front of the net and he had time to make a move on Garnett and flipped the puck in at 11:09 to give the Flyers the lead for good.
He added an empty-net goal with 16 seconds remaining to cap the scoring.
Sim, who led the Phantoms in goals last season with 35, took advantage of the new NHL rule of removing the red line to make it a 5-1 in the second period. Johnsson found Sim with a pass from the Flyers' defensive zone all the way down to the opposing blue line to spawn a breakaway goal. Sim also added a third period tally, when his wrist shot from the high slot through a screen found daylight between the pads of goaltender Mike Dunham.
Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki split time in goal for Philadelphia. Esche surrendered two goals before being relieved by Niittymaki with 9:55 left in the second. Niittymaki gave up third period goals to Vigier, Brad Larsen, Brian Maloney and Mark Popovic, but the Atlanta rally fell short.
"I think the positive is, first of all, that for long stretches, especially the last half of the first, all of the second and the early part of the third, we did a lot of things really, really well," said Ken Hitchcock. I think that's got to be our focus. We went to sleep with the puck and it cost us three goals in the third period, but I thought we did a number of really good things.
"There's a lot of excitement in the game, but it is a different game, though," said Esche. That's something that a lot of us have to realize. The game in general is just completely different. It's exciting. It's nothing to fear, it's something to be excited about. We'll see how the rest of the preseason goes. I don't even know all the new rules right now (laughs).
Both teams were without several of their newcomers. Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje all did not dress for the Flyers, while Atlanta's Peter Bondra, Bobby Holik and Marian Hossa also did not play.
Two new Flyers who did play, however, were Stevenson and Knuble. Stevenson made it 3-1 in the first period with a goal during a two-man advantage. After winning a battle along the boards, he skated the puck towards the net and forced it past Garnett at 14:53.
Knuble gave the Flyers a 4-1 lead on the power play just 54 seconds into the second period, when Mike Richards found him cutting to the slot and he redirected it past Garnett.
Garnett played the first two periods, surrendering six goals, before being replaced by Dunham.
The Thrashers' Jim Slater scored at 4:45 of the second to make it 5-2, but Johnsson's power play goal later in the period gave the Flyers a four-goal cushion at the second intermission.
"I don't think the score of the game or the way the game was had anything to do with the rules," said Hitchcock. I think it was preseason, and there was some really good stuff and there was some mistakes out there. That's why the first game of the year you saw some guys, to me, that looked like they played all year and finished up and then started early. Then, you saw some guys who haven't played hockey in a year.
The Flyers continue their preseason schedule on Wednesday, September 21, when the face the New York Islanders at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, NJ.
FLYERS NOTES Regardless of score, every NHL preseason game will end with a shootout. The Flyers won the shootout, 1-0, when Richards scored on the fifth shot after Gagne, Sim, Patrick Sharp and Jeff Carter failed to convert. Niittymaki stopped all four shots he faced in the shootout. … Each team finished with 35 shots on goal. … Not making the trip for the Flyers were Rathje, Hatcher, Forsberg, Michal Handzus, Sami Kapanen and Joni Pitkanen. … Several players from each team played in the 2005 Calder Cup Finals when the Phantoms defeated the Chicago Wolves, the AHL affiliate of Atlanta. … The attendance of the game was 8,421. … Individual game tickets for all 41 Flyers home games went on sale Saturday morning.