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Flyers' Gostisbehere knows he can be better

Rookie defenseman expects more from himself in Game 2 against Washington

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- From the moment Shayne Gostisbehere joined the Philadelphia Flyers' lineup Nov. 14, the rookie defenseman had been making his transition to the NHL look easy.

That might be why it was so surprising to see Gostisbehere appear a bit unsettled at times during the 2-0 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round on Thursday at Verizon Center.

It was evident during the Flyers' first power play when the puck hopped over Gostisbehere's stick at the left point and he had to head back to his zone to retrieve it. Apparently not expecting pressure from behind, Gostisbehere was surprised by Capitals forward Justin Williams, who raced past him to grab the puck and create a shorthanded scoring chance. 

There were similar moments throughout the game as, for a change, the confident player teammates have nicknamed "Ghost" looked like a 22-year-old rookie in his first Stanley Cup Playoff game.

"It was definitely a different feel from a regular-season game," Gostisbehere said Friday. "But it's fun out there. There's excitement, of course, and you've got those little jitters. But, you know, when the puck drops it was all good."

Game 2 is Saturday at Verizon Center (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC, CSN-PH).

Perhaps it was the increased intensity of the playoffs. Everything picks up a notch, including the speed and the physicality. Young players often need time to make the adjustment and deal with the jitters that come with the higher stakes. 

"I think there were a few nerves," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. "That probably comes with the territory, whether it's nerves or it's a new situation. There's only one way to gain that experience. Ghost, he's not only a confident young man but he's a very intelligent young man. He evaluates his game pretty honestly and pretty truthfully. He's got one experience under his belt and I'm sure he'll use that going into Game 2."

Gostisbehere said he can make some better decisions with the puck. 

"Everything happens so quick, and quicker decisions make it easier on yourself," he said.

Usually adept at getting his shot through to the net, he had three attempts blocked and three others that missed the net, contributing to the Flyers going 0-for-4 on the power play.

Video: Flyers react to loss of injured F Sean Couturier

"I can definitely start finding my teammates a little more and maybe even shoot off that a bit," he said. "It's the playoffs. Everything is on the line. So you know [there's] desperation and you know there's going to be a lot of shot blocking."

Gostisbehere brought a much-needed presence to the Flyers' defense during the regular season with his skill in handling the puck, aggressive creativity in the offensive zone and his shot from point. His impact is demonstrated by the Flyers' production increasing by 0.73 goals per game with him in the lineup and their power play improving from 12.5 percent to 20.5 percent with him.

His 17 goals were the most by a rookie defenseman since Dion Phaneuf's 20 with the Calgary Flames in 2005-06, and Gostisbehere set an NHL record for rookie defensemen with a 15-game point streak from Jan. 19 to Feb. 20.

In the playoffs, however, teams game plan to take away their opponent's strengths, and it was clear in Game 1 that the Capitals are intent on limiting the chances Gostisbehere gets to shoot the puck, particularly on the power play. 

"A little bit, but as soon as they cover me it opens three other guys," Gostisbehere said. "So if they want to keep doing it, more power to them. But if I get a chance to shoot, I'm going to shoot the puck and I know everyone else is on the unit as well."

With Gostisbehere lacking some jump of late, there have been questions about how he's holding up physically after playing 64 regular-season games, the most he's played in any season going back to high school. During his three seasons at Union College he never played more than 42 games a season. As a first-year pro in 2014-15, a torn ACL in his left knee limited him to seven games -- two with the Flyers and five with Lehigh Valley of the American Hockey League. 

So playing a combined 78 regular-season games this season with the Flyers and Phantoms was a significant increase. Hakstol said he felt Gostisbehere's energy level was back up later in the regular season after battling through some fatigue, but had him sit out practice Tuesday for some extra rest.

"I'm fine," Gostisbehere said. "It's a grind [but] you can't complain. Everyone is in the same boat here so you've just got to keep pushing."

Gostisbehere is far from the only Flyers player who needs to make adjustments for Game 2. They had eight shots on goal after the first period, partly because they were busy trying to kill off five power plays. They were fortunate to allow one power-play goal, but that goal, scored by Washington defenseman John Carlson, proved to be the game-winner.

That the Flyers will be missing center Sean Couturier, one of their best defensive forwards and penalty killers, for two weeks because of an upper-body injury will make staying out of the penalty box even more important against the Capitals, who had the fifth-best power play in the League during the regular season. 

"I think we'll look to improve some individual things, improve a couple of things strategically team-wise and overall just try to execute a little bit better," Hakstol said. "It's a fine line right now. I loved our effort. We came up a little bit short and we didn't come here to come up a little bit short."

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