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1. Flyers opened it back up, for better (and worse)
Philadelphia Flyers head coach John Tortorella has been open about the fact that he wants his club to play a more risk-taking, offensively oriented style this year as compared to last.
Against Los Angeles last Saturday and in San Jose on Tuesday, they very much did not, scoring a combined one goal across 120 minutes of play.
On Friday versus Anaheim, however, the new-look Flyers were back — if not quite the best version of themselves.
What stood out over the previous two games was the Flyers’ inability to make plays, both on the power play (obviously) but at five-on-five as well. Versus the Kings, they gained the offensive zone with control of the puck on just 42.6 percent of their entries; against the Sharks they reached a new season-low of 33.96 percent.
After a lethargic first four minutes reminiscent of their previous two contests, the Flyers finally woke up. A strong shift from the entire Sean Couturier top line — Tyson Foerster in particular stood out with his board work — ended with Couturier popping home a rebound off an Egor Zamula shot that Cam Atkinson deflected. From that moment on through the end of the period, the Flyers took control, moving the puck through the neutral zone with speed and peppering Lukas Dostal with shots. Even their rightfully-maligned power play nearly scored on a couple of occasions. It appeared the Flyers were poised to roll, with Sean Walker’s apparent goal in the second period with the score 3-0 looking like the finishing blow.
But Walker’s tally was disallowed due to a clear kick, giving the Ducks life. And that’s when it became clear that the Flyers’ offensive outburst came with a drawback — a relative lack of discipline and defensive soundness, at least in comparison to the Flyers’ best work in 2023-24.
“I feel defensively, I thought we let up a little bit tonight,” Sean Couturier admitted after the 6-3 win. “There’s a fine line between creating that extra offense, and being in the right positions. We’ll have to maybe adjust a little bit.”
Entering Friday night’s game, Philadelphia had averaged just 26 shots on goal allowed per night. The Ducks cracked that by the end of the second period, finishing with 38 in total. And while the Flyers were generating lots of entries with control at five-on-five, so were the Ducks, and they were doing it more often than Philadelphia was, finishing with 26 on the night, while the Flyers managed only 21.
“We were trading chances,” Tortorella noted. “I love some of the offense that we brought, but we were beat up the ice quite a bit tonight. One of the few games we’ve given up a ton of odd-man rushes. We can’t lose sight of that.”
And then, there were the penalties — three straight in the second half of the second period from Atkinson, Morgan Frost and Cam York, and all unnecessary. It let Anaheim back into a game that the Flyers easily could have put on lockdown.
“We want to take chances, and I’ve said that from the get-go,” Tortorella added. “But I thought we were sloppy tonight away from the puck.”
In the end, the offensive explosion on the part of the Flyers was enough to overcome their defensive deficiencies. But don’t think they went unnoticed by the players, and (especially) the head coach.
2. Ersson provides the difference
So how did the Flyers overcome their defensive issues on Friday night? Via their goalie, of course.
Sam Ersson may not have had the start to the season that he wanted, as he struggled to adapt to his new backup role and the limited starts that came with it. But with Carter Hart still on the shelf — initially due to his lower back injury, now because of illness — Ersson has been able to get into a rhythm, and the results are reflecting his increased comfort level.
“Tonight he just looked so much more calm,” Tortorella said. “This was certainly his best game that he’s played for us this year.”
Statistically, Ersson merely finished with good stats, not great ones — 35 saves on 38 shots and a solid 0.921 save percentage. But Ersson’s real value on Friday came in the form of his timely saves. His point-blank stop of Mason McTavish early in the first period came the shift before Couturier turned the game irreversibly in the Flyers’ favor with his goal. After Walker’s goal was disallowed in the second, Ersson prevented it from becoming a quick momentum-shifting two-goal swing by slamming the door shut on Frank Vatrano. And then, there was Ersson’s ridiculous glove save on Leo Carlsson, which kept the Ducks from cutting the lead to one goal early in the third period.
Ersson acknowledged after the game that he had this particular contest circled, due to his struggles against this very club back on October 28, when he allowed seven goals on 25 shots.
“This was a game with a little bit of pride for me,” he explained.
Ersson’s full-season metrics still don’t look great. But he’s on a clear upward trajectory, to the point where he is beginning to make a case for a larger share of the workload even after Hart does return to action. If Ersson is struggling with the long layoffs that come with serving in a traditional backup role — well, there’s one way to address that, and it’s giving him more starts, regardless of the specifics of the depth chart.
“I think you’re seeing him, the more games that he’s getting in here, he’s starting to get more comfortable,” Travis Sanheim said.
3. Farabee and Sanheim’s bounceback seasons continue
Last season, the only debate that might have included both Travis Sanheim and Joel Farabee was regarding which of their 2022-23 campaigns was more disappointing.
On Friday, however, the only debate was about which of their highlight reel plays was more impressive.
Farabee set the bar high in the second period with his setup of Louie Belpedio for his second goal as a Flyer. Farabee didn’t merely get the puck around one oncoming checker — he maneuvered it around two, in rookie defenseman Pavel Mintyukov and veteran center Adam Henrique.
Not going to top that, right? How about with a power move to the net and a confident dangle around netminder Lukas Dostal, courtesy of one Travis Sanheim?
Both players are thriving in 2023-24. Sanheim is now the Flyers’ big minutes, No. 1 defenseman, and he’s posting sterling advanced metrics while currently leading the team in points with 14 (two goals, 12 assists) in 14 games. Farabee has been no slouch on the points side, either, with six goals and six assists in 14 games, in addition to a stellar 65.68 percent on-ice expected goal share at five-on-five.
“This is the Joel Farabee that everyone knows,” Sanheim noted after Friday’s win.
As for Sanheim, he’s completely earned the trust and respect of his head coach, after struggling to do both in 2022-23.
“He’s a different person,” Tortorella said. “I didn’t get a sniff of that last year. That’s who he’s become. He’s tried to make a difference every time he steps on the ice.”
So which was the more impressive play? Personally, I lean towards Farabee’s pass, just from a degree of difficulty standpoint. But expect this not to be the last time Sanheim and Farabee battle it out for highlight play of the day in 2023-24.
4. Tippett finally breaks through
Or maybe it wasn’t either of them who had the best individual play of the night for the Flyers. Owen Tippett, after all, delivered a worthy candidate as well, at the expense of Frank Vatrano.
“I gave him that, do-do-do, do-do-do, the SportsCenter Top 10 (sound),” Cam Atkinson cracked after the game.
Unlike Farabee and Sanheim, however, Tippett did not disappoint in 2022-23. Tippett, in fact, was one of the Flyers’ breakout players last season, which made his slow start to 2023-24 all the more noticeable. He was racking up the shots, leading the team with a whopping 95 attempts entering Friday’s game, but had managed just two goals.
He doubled that total on Friday night, via his stellar individual effort and then a late empty-netter.
“He’s a hell of player. When he’s physical, good things happen,” Atkinson continued.
5. Foerster and Zamula impress as well
Tyson Foerster and Egor Zamula may not entered the highlight reel competition with Farabee, Sanheim and Tippett. But both of the youngsters stood out.
Zamula made his presence felt early, picking up a secondary assist on Couturier’s goal by getting a point shot through to Dostal (with the help of an Atkinson deflection) and then helping Garnet Hathaway to draw the Flyers’ first power play of the game after finding him with a slick neutral zone pass. Foerster did the same, helping to set up Couturier’s goal with strong board work below the goal line.
Foerster remains in pursuit of his first goal of the season, while Zamula was recently dropped to the third pair. But on Friday, both showcased why the Flyers are intent on giving them every chance this season to seize long-term NHL roster spots.