In preparation for Saturday's rare October matinee game at the Wells Fargo Center against the Edmonton Oilers, the Flyers returned to practice on Friday. Despite a tight-checking 1-0 loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday, the team felt good about its overall play through the first three games of a five-game homestand.
Saturday's game, however, will be an important one. It will go a long way toward determining the ultimate success of the homestand. If the Flyers beat Edmonton, they will ensure a winning record with a subsequent opportunity on Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks to end the stretch with eight of 10 possible points. Lose on Saturday, and a homestand that started out with great promise will take on a far less satisfying outlook heading into the final game.
Video: Players on facing a talented Oilers team
Here are five notable developments from Friday's practice:
McDAVID COMES TO TOWN
At age 20, Oilers superstar Connor McDavid is already the NHL's reigning Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy winner. While Edmonton has other dangerous players in its lineup, especially Leon Draisaitl (who made the road trip with his team despite an eye issue and concussion-like symptoms), McDavid is one of the few players who can almost single-handedly carry a team on his shoulders.
"Everywhere [the Oilers] go, they've got reporters asking the other team about how to play against him," Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott said. "He's just a unique talent, and you have to be aware of him at all times."
McDavid's combination of blinding speed, puck skills and ice vision at which even All-Star caliber NHL players marvel make him a threat every time he touches the puck. He also makes the players around him better, such as former Flyers farmhand Patrick Maroon.
Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning unwittingly got caught up in controversy over a play two seasons ago in which McDavid got injured after careening into the end boards. The situation then carried over into a heated confrontation last season and, later, a fight in Edmonton with Maroon. Manning said on Friday that the issue is over and done as far as he's concerned. Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol added that, among the factors he's weighing into lineup decisions and game strategy for Saturday afternoon, the possibility of further psychological carryover was not among them.
LEADERSHIP THROUGH ADAPTABILITY
It is getting tough to deem "experimental" the combination of Claude Giroux on left wing of a line centered by Sean Couturier with Jakub Voracek on the right wing. Even in the games where the line has not scored, they've generated scoring chances and shifts with extended offensive zone pressure.
At Friday's practice, Hakstol said that there were various considerations that went into the initial decision. The team's depth at center, with veteran Valtteri Filppula, rookie Nolan Patrick and Scott Laughton anchoring other combinations in whom he has trust, was one factor. So, too, was an estimation that, based on Couturier's core strengths (two-way hockey sense, puck possession prowess, size and strength down low), there was a good chance he would combine effectively with the skill levels and Giroux and Voracek.
However, not even these areas were the single biggest determining factor, according to Hakstol.
"Every time you make a decision, you start with what's best for the team closely paralleled with what's best for the players," Hakstol said. "The biggest factor for me, to be honest, was the type of person G is. You talk about what's good for the team. Well, when your captain, who has played in the middle in the National Hockey League for (seven-plus) years as one of the best centermen says to you, 'If that's going to help out our team, I'm all in,' that's the biggest factor."
THE RIGHT WAY TO CHANNEL ADVERSITY
By his own estimation, Flyers rookie defenseman Robert Hagg did not have one of his stronger games in Tuesday's 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers. On Thursday, he bounced right back and had perhaps his best shift-in and shift-out night of the young season. Hagg played airtight gap-control defense, showed a quick defensive stick, played a physical game (three credited hits), had a good keep at the point in the offensive zone and generated a couple of shots on goal.
The player said on Friday that he learned a lot from the adversity he went through during his first two seasons in the American Hockey League, especially the second year when he was a healthy scratch a few times before things clicked late in the season. While he's always been one too stay on an even keel, he also learned how to turn bumps in the road into genuine learning experiences.
"You can't just say, 'Oh, I had a bad night but it's going to get better,' you have to get a little [angry] at yourself and look what you did wrong and what you can do better. Then you have to learn from it. I think that, my second year, I turned a corner. It was an important year for me," Hagg said.
When he has a tough shift or a rough game, Hagg is proactive in taking corrective action. At the same time, he also doesn't get complacent after a good play or strong night.
"I think [Thursday] went pretty good for me, but now I have to get ready for the next game," he said.
A similarly mature outlet has helped fellow Flyers rookie defenseman Travis Sanheim to stay focused early in the season. He's had some adversity within games, as well as showing significant hints of the high upside to his game. After being out of the lineup for the first two games of the homestand, Sanheim excelled in all three zones in Thursday's game and earned third-star honors. Not every shift went perfectly, but there was immediate bounceback after mistakes here and there.
WEAL STILL DAY-TO-DAY
After missing the last game with a day-to-day upper body injury, second-line left winger Jordan Weal practiced in full on Friday. Officially, he remains day-to-day and a decision will be made on Saturday morning about his availability to play against the Oilers. Wayne Simmonds and Taylor Leier took maintenance days on Friday, according to Flyers general manager Ron Hextall.
Veteran forward Matt Read, recalled on Thursday afternoon from the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms, skated in Simmonds' usual spot in Friday's practice as the right winger on a line with Weal and Filppula. Jori Lehtera, who made his Flyers debut on Thursday in substitution for Weal, skated on Friday in Leier's left wing spot on a line with Scott Laughton and Michael Raffl.
Video: Head Coach on playing tough Oilers team