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Once in a while, when a Philadelphia Flyers game is particularly eventful, it warrants special coverage treatment.
In other words, it’s time for a throwback style of story: the classic 10 Observations piece.
For 60:28 minutes, the Flyers and New Jersey Devils battled it out, in a contest that included penalty controversy, a surprise benching, and a combined 82 shots on goal between the two clubs. The Flyers may have ultimately lost by a 4-3 score in overtime. But the fans in attendance at the Wells Fargo Center certainly go their money’s worth in terms of entertainment value, despite the outcome.
1. A good loss, or a missed opportunity?
On Thursday night, the Flyers faced off against a club viewed as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender at the start of the season, fell behind 2-0 after one period and 3-1 in the third, and still stormed back to tie it up.
Then, they lost just 28 seconds into overtime, due to a poor Travis Sanheim decision with the puck and a perfectly executed 2-on-1 by the Hughes brothers (Jack and Luke), keeping the Flyers winless through 11 games when allowing the first goal.
So, was it a laudable comeback against a quality opponent, or a frustrating missed opportunity?
“Yeah, that’s a good question,” Laughton admitted. “We battled, I thought, battled to the end.”
He’s not wrong. The Flyers could have easily folded in this one, especially after Garnet Hathaway was called for a five-minute boarding major late in the first period with the score already 2-0 Devils. (More on that later.) Instead, they stabilized, and during the final 40 minutes, they were at the very least the equals of New Jersey.
That said, let’s not pretend that the Flyers outplayed the Devils in aggregate. The first period still happened, with both goals against looking very reminiscent of the breakdowns that led to the Black Friday debacle. And it’s not like the Flyers carried play in the second and third periods, either. Sure, they outshot the Devils by a 40 – 27 margin. But per Natural Stat Trick’s expected goal model, the two teams produced near-identical xG totals — 3.86 to 3.85 in favor of New Jersey. Credit the Flyers for not collapsing, of course, but it’s worth remembering that the Flyers didn’t blow the doors off New Jersey over the final two-thirds of regulation. They simply matched them, and then took advantage of a seeing-eye distance point shot by Sean Walker and a two-man advantage game-tying tally with less than a minute remaining to send the game to overtime in the first place.
The Flyers showed in this one that they can hang with New Jersey over long stretches of play, and if they can clean up the slow starts, perhaps they could match them punch for punch over a full 60-minute game. But not yet. For now, this goes down more as a good loss than a disappointing defeat.
2. Farabee benched, Torts largely mum on why
When the final buzzer sounded, Joel Farabee had just 56 seconds of total ice time. But it wasn’t injury that kept him off the ice; in fact, he spent all 59:32 of the other minutes in this one sitting on the Flyers bench, just a few short steps away from the man who had removed him from the rotation: John Tortorella.
Yep, Farabee ended up in the Torts doghouse in this one.
It all seemed to stem from Farabee’s second shift, which ended in Alexander Holtz’s game opening tally. Farabee, playing left wing at the time, crossed over to the other side of the ice (where both of the other forwards already were), in an attempt to disrupt the Devils’ breakout. He missed the puck, and then was the last player back on the backcheck.
So what was the mistake that apparently so irked Tortorella? Was it the backcheck, a major team-wide issue last Friday that the coaching staff has placed an emphasis upon this past week? Maybe a blown assignment in terms of neutral zone structure? It’s impossible to know for sure, because Farabee chose to decline comment in the wake of the game, and Tortorella provided little more than his player did in his postgame press conference.
“Because he didn’t listen,” Tortorella responded when asked why Farabee was benched.
“None of your business,” he snapped, after he was asked to elaborate on what specifically Farabee had ignored.
The surprise in this case was less that Farabee was punished for an on-ice mistake; Tortorella has a long history of doing so, both in Philadelphia and at every other stop in his coaching career. The real shock was that Torts kept Farabee stapled to the bench even after Hathaway was thrown out of the game for his hit, which meant that for the final 40 minutes (and 28 seconds of overtime), the Flyers purposely used just 10 forwards.
Was the benching the right move? That’s an impossible question to fairly answer without knowing the details of Tortorella’s reasoning. However, one can posit that playing Farabee would have given the Flyers a better chance to win this particular game — after all, Joel Farabee is a good hockey player in the midst of a step-forward season. As a short-term, win-now move, the benching was counterproductive.
As a developmental move, though? Perhaps it can have value. Farabee is still just 23 years old, far from a finished product. If Tortorella saw bad habits creeping into Farabee’s game and believed this kind of drastic, embarrassing measure was needed as a wake-up call to the youngster for his long-term benefit, then perhaps it can serve a positive purpose — even if it almost certainly hurt the Flyers’ chances of victory on this particular night.
3. The Hathaway major
OK, let’s talk about the Garnet Hathaway major penalty.
Hathaway’s hit on rookie Luke Hughes was undoubtedly a mean hit. Given his relation to the boards, if Hughes takes an open-ice hit in that spot, he’s almost certainly crashing into the boards very hard. It’s a nasty hit, with Hathaway initiating the contact knowing full well that it’s going to hurt. And it did hurt — Hughes immediately rushed off the ice and up the tunnel holding his shoulder, even if he did quickly return.
But mean, nasty hits are allowed in hockey, as long as they adhere to all of the other rules in the book. And for the life of me, I can’t find a rule that Hathaway broke, beyond “he hit Hughes really hard.”
Hughes has just touched the puck, so it’s not late. The contact is shoulder-to-shoulder. Hathaway doesn’t fully leave the ice with his skates. It’s not a hit from behind. Hathaway didn’t charge into the hit. It’s just a massive check delivered by a physical veteran on a skinny rookie still getting a handle on the NHL, as impressive as he’s been so far in 2023-24.
For that, the officials didn’t just penalize Hathaway. They gave him a major and a game misconduct.
In truth, the hit only happens because of the failure of the officials in the first place. Hughes was chasing down a puck that was almost certainly going to lead to an icing, which probably played into why he put himself in such a defenseless position — he was expecting a whistle to be blown. Instead, the linesman hesitated, and the whistle is instead blown just as Hathaway is making contact. Had the whistle blown sooner, Hathaway likely pulls up, or at least tries to soften the blow to Hughes. Instead, the whistle was late, Hathaway played to that whistle, and then he was thrown out of the game for it.
“Yeah, it’s a terrible call,” Cam York bluntly stated.
“It’s a clean hit,” Tortorella added.
So in conclusion, the Flyers had to kill off a five-minute major and play a man down for 40 minutes because the linesman was slow to blow his whistle and the officials chose to punish the result of a hit that never would have happened had the crew done its job in the first place. Good show, gang.
4. Penalty kill excels again
But the Hathaway penalty didn’t bury the Flyers; in fact, it served more to wake them up and provide a springboard into the final two-thirds of the contest. That wouldn’t have been possible, however, if the Philadelphia PK hadn’t shown up in a big way to hold down the fort and kill off the five-minute Hathaway penalty.
“Not sure how that is a five-minute penalty, but we trust our PK,” Cam York said after the game. “Our PK’s been dynamite all year.”
He’s not wrong. After Thursday’s 4-for-5 showing, the Flyers’ penalty kill ranks 10th in the NHL, and it entered the evening as the league’s best four-on-five SOG suppression unit, and the second-best at preventing shot attempts.
The PK certainly had its moment of high-effort clears and big blocked shots on Thursday. But the 21 scoring chances that the Devils generated on the PP points to goaltender Carter Hart as the primary hero, with his diving stop on Holtz the highlight of his night, and probably his season.
“Second period on the PK there, he makes one of the best saves I’ve seen,” Scott Laughton said. “You see him do it all the time.”
There was no way the Flyers were going to keep the Devils’ power play — the best in the league so far this year — from creating quality chances, especially given the fact that they finished with over ten minutes of PP time on the night. They were always going to have to lean on Hart.
5. How good was Hart?
It didn’t take a hockey expert on Thursday to recognize that Hart was in peak form. But the numbers lay bare the extent of Hart’s workload on the night, and how impressive he was in withstanding the barrage.
Hart may have only faced 35 shots — as opposed to Akira Schmid, who was peppered with 47 on the other side of the ice — but they were far from gimmes. Natural Stat Trick estimated that Hart faced 4.97 worth of expected goals; Evolving-Hockey pegged their end-of-game total at 5.47. In other words, Hart gave up four goals and still stopped one more shot than expected.
It was easily the worst defensive performance of the season by the Flyers, in terms of expected goals allowed, yet Hart’s play allowed the skaters to nab a standings point anyway.
6. Zamula returns in up-and-down performance
After two games out of the lineup, Egor Zamula returned, this time paired with Rasmus Ristolainen as Marc Staal took a seat to accommodate him.
“I just want to see a more determined personality on the ice,” Tortorella explained. “Everything about his game is just… I want it with pace. Pace isn’t always with your legs, pace is with your mind, pace is with your hands, pace brings in determination. That’s what we’re working with him on, and it will not be cured overnight.”
It certainly wasn’t on Thursday. Zamula actually got off to a solid start, using his reach and his passing ability to get the Flyers going, and showing early chemistry with Ristolainen. At least until he was completely turnstiled by Michael McLeod in the second period in a sequence reminscient of when he was burned by Paul Cotter in Las Vegas, with the only difference being that Hart bailed out Zamula this time.
With 23 games in the books, Zamula has started 18 of them, so the Flyers clearly are committed to giving the young defenseman a real chance to develop into a quality NHL blueliner — even scratching Staal to do it. But the inconsistency in Zamula’s game remains.
7. Frost scores, helps his case?
The 6-to-8 week absence of Noah Cates certainly isn’t a positive development for the Flyers. But it does create opportunities for other forwards — forwards who have been battling for ice time, or even their place in the lineup.
Forwards like Morgan Frost, for example.
On Tuesday, Frost didn’t showcase the urgency one would expect from a player staring at a golden opportunity to reestablish himself as an every-night starter. Thursday was much better in that regard, as Frost got himself back on the scoresheet with a key second period goal which put the Flyers right back in the game. He did take two penalties — one legitimate, one ticky-tack — but then drew the whistle on Jack Hughes’ late third period tally, which kicked off a sequence of events that concluded with the game-tying goal.
Frost is still facing an uphill battle to end up being viewed by the front office as a lock to be part of the long-term solution in Philadelphia. But scoring goals certainly can’t hurt.
8. York back on PP
After four straight games without a power play goal, the Flyers finally lit the lamp with the man advantage — in fact, they did it twice, with Frost breaking through in the second period and Tyson Foerster deflecting a Laughton shot in the third to tie it up.
One key difference with the PP on Thursday as compared to the rest of this recent stretch? Cam York was back, on a unit with Frost, Foerster, Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny.
Not only did York pick up an assist on Frost’s PP tally, he also led the Flyers in power play shot attempts with five — a clear indication of his bombs-away mentality. But not even that was enough to satisfy Tortorella, who was channeling his inner Kylo Ren in the postgame press conference when it came to his evaluation of York’s PP work.
“Very good side-to-side. I’d still like to see him shoot more,” Tortorella noted.
Still, this was the most effective the Flyers’ power play has looked in at least a week — York likely bought himself a bit of PP security due to his work on Thursday.
9. Walker continues to impress
Worried that Sean Walker is going to slow down? Thursday provided even more evidence that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. In just 23 games, Walker now has more goals (four) than he scored in 70 appearances last season, and he once again ended up at the top of the five-on-five advanced stat charts (63.93 percent xG share per Evolving-Hockey).
Calgary got back a 2024 fifth round pick and a 2026 third round pick for Nikita Zadorov on Thursday night, setting a clear floor for Walker’s trade value, given the fact that Zadorov requested a trade (cutting down on his value), had fallen down the depth chart with the Flames (18:24 minutes per night as opposed to Walker and his 21:23), and is a lefthanded shooting defenseman as opposed to a righty like Walker. If the Flyers do end up shopping Walker, they’re totally justified in contending that Zadorov price would be far too low for their rental blueliner.
10. A new nickname for Michkov?
Matvei Michkov might still be a ways away from playing for the Flyers. But in discussing the team’s shift in playing style this season prior to the club’s optional morning skate on Thursday, Tortorella tossed a nickname possibility out into the ether.
“You get to the future, you start moving away a couple of years from now when the Mad Russian comes over here & you start bringing in maybe some UFAs when the time’s right w/some more offensive skill. I want that to fall into place when they come in. I want to stay w/this style,” Tortorella noted.
It’s an interesting quote on its own, with Tortorella admitting that a big part of the reason why he has his club playing a more rush-oriented, risk-taking game is so they’re ready to accommodate the high-end talent players that they plan to integrate into the mix over the next few seasons. But “The Mad Russian?” Come on. That’s going to catch the attention of everyone. It sounds like the name of a wrestling heel.
We’ll see if it sticks.