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Three Down, One to Go

What we learned from California, what needs to be done in Nashville

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com/

The Flyers' annual California road trip came right off the bat this season, and produced much more favorable results than most of the team's Pacific Coast swings in recent years. Over the course of a whirlwind three-games-in-four-nights journey through the Golden State, the Flyers collected two wins. 

The Flyers had been 2-10-5 overall in their previous 17 games against the San Jose Sharks. They also entered the season with an eight-game winless streak (0-5-3) against the Anaheim Ducks with a 1-7-4 overall record dating back to the 2009-10 season. 

This time around, however, the Flyers came out on top of both teams.

Philly sandwiched a 5-3 victory on opening night in San Jose on Wednesday and a 3-2 overtime win in Anaheim on Saturday around a hard-fought 2-0 loss on Thursday to the LA Kings. With four points in the bank and a chance to make the four-game trip a smash hit if they can win in Nashville on Tuesday, here's what we learned from the California portion of the trip and what the Flyers need to bring a 3-1-0 record into the home opener at the Wells Fargo Center on Oct. 14:

1. The Flyers team speed has been upgraded

During the first three games of the season, but especially in San Jose and Anaheim, the Flyers' showed excellent team speed through the neutral zone to set up line rush opportunities or get in deep to set up a forecheck. 

There are several factors that have been at work. The mobility and first-pass ability of the Flyers' young defense corps provides more chances to attack with speed. Secondly, the speedy new fourth line of Scott Laughton centering Taylor Leier and Michael Raffl has provided a charge to the entire team. Lastly, the Flyers have exhibited a strong level of physical conditioning. Now fully healthy, team captain Claude Giroux has been getting around the ice with much more quickness than for much of last season and Jakub Voracek's early season energy level is comparable to the first half of his career-best 2014-15 season.  

Case in point - The third period of the final game of a three-in-four stretch is notoriously tough sledding for teams around the NHL. However, in the third period of the Anaheim game, it was the Ducks rather than the Flyers who looked like the leg-weary team. The Flyers outshot the Ducks, 22-10, over the final 41 minutes of the game including a 15-4 edge in the third period.

True, it is very early in the season and the Ducks were missing seven key regulars from their lineup. Nevertheless, the Flyers took on three of the biggest and heaviest teams in the NHL right off the bat and fared quite well overall. Much of that was owed their skating legs.  

The Flyers will have to be similarly up on their skates to handle Peter Laviolette's Predators. As Philly fans well know, Laviolette's attack-based system is predicated on players keeping their feet moving and aggressively pursuing the puck. The Predators will also be running high on adrenaline. Tuesday's game will be their home opener and there will be a pregame celebration of the team's first-ever Western Division championship from last season. Off to a slow start at 0-2-0, Nashville will be especially hungry to rebound from a 4-0 loss on Saturday to the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

2. Top line puck possession time

Critics of the Flyers' new top line look with Sean Couturier at center, Giroux moving to left wing and Voracek in his familiar right wing role have focused on a variety of potential negatives while ignoring one very big positive: Not only is Couturier a very solid defensive center, he is also a very good puck possession player. So are Voracek and the smaller-framed but crafty Giroux. 

There have been stretches in all three games to date, but especially in the Anaheim game, where the Flyers opponents have had all sorts of trouble taking the puck away from the top line at five-on-five. They've scored two even-strength goals on the trip so far: one by Giroux in San Jose and another by Couturier in Anaheim. Voracek earned primary assists on both tallies. 

Couturier's individual puck possession abilities have seldom stood out more than they did in the overtime 3-on-3 in Anaheim. Sudden death lasted 44 seconds and the Ducks did not have so much as a single second in control of the puck. Most of that time was spent trying in vain to separate Couturier from the puck. He protected the puck by muscling off defenders, refusing to force low-percentage plays and eventually dishing to Wayne Simmonds for what turned into the game-winning goal.

3. Room for improvement in limiting counterattacks

For the most part, the Flyers did a good job of taking care of the puck during the first three games of the road trip. Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement in future games, starting in Nashville.

In the opener in San Jose, the Flyers coughed up an early 1-0 lead on a sequence that started with a Sharks counterattack after an initial Flyers scoring chance at the other end. Joe Thornton button-hooked in the Flyers' zone, and passed to Joe Pavelski. The Flyers never fully got reorganized and Kevin Labanc eventually bunted home the rebound of a Brenden Dillon point shot.

In LA, a neutral zone turnover by Scott Laughton rapidly became a short-ice counter by LA. Trevor Lewis skated to the outside of Travis Sanheim, took a cross-ice pass from Nick Shore and beat Michal Neuvirth to break a scoreless tie at 6:16 of the second period. Late in the third period, Sanheim pinched in the offensive zone (not a bad play trailing by a goal at that stage of the game) but LA worked the puck up ice for a goal on odd-man rush goal by Tyler Toffoli. 

In Anaheim, the Flyers had a chance to put a third period stranglehold on the game with a power play opportunity. Instead, a lost puck up high in the offensive zone resulted in an unassisted shorthanded goal by defenseman Cam Fowler. Earlier in the game, Shayne Gostisbehere had to take a penalty on a Ducks counter that canceled out a Philadelphia power play.

The Flyers paid a price during the ensuing four-on-four. A breakdown in communication led to all four Flyers being caught on the same side of the ice and Antoine Vermette scoring a too-easy backdoor goal before Brian Elliott could get over to make a save.

4. Second power play unit a bonafide threat

Pretty much all of the Flyers power play success in recent years came via the top unit (with holdovers Giroux, Simmonds, Voracek and Gostisbehere being the constants the last few years). The second unit typically saw the ice for about 30 seconds of a two-minute advantage, and power play goal contributions were scarce. 

The biggest change thus far under new power play coach Kris Knoblauch, apart from adopting a four-forward and one defenseman setup on the second unit as well as the first, has been substantially more plays generated from down low in the offensive zone. The second unit looked better than the top unit for much of the preseason, and both units have shined at times on the current road trip.

The Flyers went 3-for-3 on the power play on opening night, with second unit forward Jordan Weal scoring the first one and Simmonds tallying a pair. Although the Flyers finished the opener 3-for-5 and did not score a power play marker in either LA or Anaheim, they generated good puck movement on several power play chances.  

In Anaheim, the Flyers first goal of the game came one second after the expiration of a power play (so it technically went down as a five-on-five tally). On the play, Patrick earned his first NHL point as he feathered a perfect saucer pass to Provorov, who blasted a shot home from the top of the left circle. 

5. Simmonds in midseason form

Any concerns that a preseason illness that slowed Simmonds down for a few days would result in a slow start to the regular season were quickly laid to rest by the defending Bobby Clarke Trophy winner. He racked up a hat trick in San Jose and scored in OT in San Jose. 

With two game-winning goals in the first three matches, the clutch-scoring power forward now has 29 for his Flyers career. The OT goal on Saturday moved Simmonds past the late Ilkka Sinisalo and tied with Scott Hartnell for 14th place in that category on the Flyers all-time leader list. 

Another big offensive night from Simmonds would go a long way toward the team coming up with a win in Nashville to end the trip. He skated on a five-on-five line with Weal and Patrick in the first two games. In the third game, Valtteri Filppula switched places with Patrick to reunite his late-season unit with Simmonds and Weal from the 2016-17 campaign.

Skating with Travis Konecny and Dale Weise, Patrick came within a whisker of converting a Konency pass into his first NHL goal. Late in the third period, Patrick nicely set up Konecny for a potential game-winner. However, Anaheim goalie John Gibson dialed up two of his best saves of the game.

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