1) The Flyers have a complete off-day today. They will resume practice on Friday before playing weekend back-to-back afternoon road games against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday (1 p.m. ET) and Sunday (3 p.m. ET).
Originally, the Flyers planned to have six players skate today but will instead regroup with a full practice on Friday. Jakub Voracek is eligible to exit the NHL's COVID-19 protocol today and, as an asymptomatic case throughout his required quarantine, the Flyers' list should be down do three players by tomorrow barring any new additions. Justin Braun, who exited the protocol yesterday to skate for the first time, is aiming to be ready to play on Saturday in Buffalo.
With Voracek, the question is whether a single practice will be enough to sufficiently recover his game conditioning enough to play on Saturday. There will not be a morning skate on game day due to the early start time.
Oskar Lindblom and Scott Laughton are eligible to exit the protocol on Saturday, and Travis Konecny on Sunday. The Flyers play three straight games in Pittsburgh on Tuesday (March 2), Thursday (March 4) and Saturday (March 6). The Thursday game seems like a potential target for their respective returns, as it will allow for at least one practice plus at least one morning and/or pregame skate.
2) You would never know it by how he played last night in recording three assists, racking up eight shots on goal, winning eight of 11 faceoffs and stripping New York defenseman Brendan Smith of the puck to force a desperation penalty with the Flyers' leading by one goal in the third period, but Flyers captain Claude Giroux said after the game that he didn't feel energetic in his first game back off COVID-19 protocol.
"Didn’t feel that great, but when you come back from a long time off like that, you’re trying to keep your shifts short, keep it simple. You don’t want to get caught out there. It turned out good tonight," Giroux said.
Giroux, who said he had several rather rough days early in his bout with the coronavirus but soon felt better in terms of day-to-day recovery, only had one practice plus a morning skate ahead of playing. Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault, however, did not bother to ask the player if he felt up to playing last night. Vigneault already knew what the answer would be.
3) Last night, as he did in practice on Tuesday, Vigneault moved Nolan Patrick from third line center to play right wing on a line with Giroux and Kevin Hayes. I thought Patrick played a solid two-way first period, including a pair of shot attempts and a couple of nice plays he made with the puck. His off-puck work the rest of the night remained solid (as it usually is) but he was scarcely involved offensively again over the final 40 minutes.
Giroux made a point of praising Patrick's performance in his postgame media availability, saying he's "getting there" in terms of nearing a breakout from what is now a nine-game point drought with just four shots on goal in that span and a lot of perimeter play. The captain said Patrick had a couple pucks bounce on him -- which was true in the first period -- with him in good shooting areas. He also praised Patrick's puck support for the line as a whole.
Truth be told, if the Flyers keep Patrick on a wing with Giroux and Hayes for a bit longer, he could build offensively from the early portion of last night's game. But taking Patrick out of the middle creates a different problem while Voracek, Laughton, Lindblom and Konecny remain unavailable to play.
The issue: Connor Bunnaman has really struggled in his two games in the top nine of the lineup (at center last night and on left wing in Lake Tahoe). Bunnaman has done reasonably well in a fourth-line center role and the Flyers could alternatively get by with Andy Andreoff at fourth line center in a given game. But having Bunnaman in the top nine plus Andreoff at the 4C plus other Taxi Squad players (Samuel Morin in the last three games, Carsen Twarynski last night, Maksim Sushko last Thursday and Sunday) makes the Flyers far too top-heavy.
Last night, the top half of the Flyers lineup had their way with the equally depleted Rangers. Michael Raffl, who can hold his own anywhere in the lineup on a given night but is first and foremost a high quality fourth liner (as is Nicolas Aube-Kubel) quietly played a whale of a game on third-line left wing. Nonetheless, the drop off from the top six to the bottom six on the whole has been precipitous. Even when they're not on the ice, it causes the top six to burn the candle at both ends to try to generate momentum or simply regain equilibrium.
This situation is going to continue for at least two more games. It exacerbates with Patrick removed from the 3C spot, even though he's not creating much offensively.
4) Phantoms update; The Lehigh Valley Phantoms improved to 4-0-1 on the young season after earning a 5-4 overtime road win in Newark against the Binghamton Devils on Thursday night. The Phantoms saw a 3-1 lead after the first period turn into a 4-3 deficit by early in the third but Scott Gordon's team pushed back to force OT and then win it.
Max Willman, who is off to an outstanding start for the Phantoms this season after holding his own as a Flyers training camp invite (he's on an AHL contract, not a two-way NHL deal), scored twice in this game, including the game winner. Linus Sandin and Tanner Laczynski, each of whom returned to the lineup over the weekend from injury-related absences each recorded their first points in the AHL. Sandin scored his first Phantoms goal (knotting the score at 4-4 midway through the third period), while Laczynski picked up his first and second assists. Veteran defenseman Derrick Pouliot, just back from a stint on the Flyers Taxi Squad, chipped in two helpers of his own, while Pascal Laberge scored his first goal of the season.
Also getting on the scoresheet on Thursday was rookie defenseman Egor Zamula, who recorded his first AHL assist, and fellow rookie blueliner Linus Högberg (2nd). David Kase, who dressed for the Flyers in last Thursday's game against the Rangers and was a healthy scratch in Lake Tahoe before being assigned back to the Phantoms, got the secondary assist on Willman's OT goals. Rookie power winger Zayde Wisdom did not get a point in this game after generating back-to-back two-goal performances. Wisdom, however, had three shots on goal.
5) Yesterday, Ron Hextall's Pittsburgh Penguins claimed defenseman Mark Friedman off waivers from the Flyers. On my Twitter timeline, I posted my thoughts at length about Friedman's development path and my belief that he could still emerge as a top-six NHL defenseman but is still a work in progress to get to the level of a potential every-game player in the NHL. Right now, he's potentially a viable number seven. There's more that Mark can do to make himself a player who performs at a level that makes it tough for an NHL head coach to take him out of the lineup once he's in.
I am not wild about losing a right-handed defenseman with good wheels and some sandpaper in his game -- even as a depth option -- to a division rival for nothing. But I also don't know that it would have been the right decision to keep Friedman on the NHL roster all season in a No. 8 role on the depth chart.
In hindsight, I wish the Flyers had put Friedman on waivers in camp (when I believe he'd have had a better chance to get through) for purposes of flexibility to move him up and down from the Taxi Squad as needed rather than waiting until now to do so. Perhaps the Flyers thought at the time they might be able to make a move on their blueline mix that would have enabled Friedman to be in the top seven -- wherein they'd absolutely have kept him on the NHL roster all year -- but it didn't pan out.
In the bigger picture, I don't think Friedman is a huge loss for the Flyers or a huge gain for the Penguins apart from third-pair caliber depth. However, the Flyers are still trying to sort out their own third pair. They need to add a bonafide 20-minute presence atop the rotation, which would help Ivan Provorov and would also assist in more properly balancing the three pairs. Those were the two primary benefits of having Matt Niskanen last year, along with leadership by example. In the meantime, the Flyers also need greater game-in and game-out consistency from the second pair duo of Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim. Friedman was not going to be part of answering any of the big-picture questions.
The offseason signing of Erik Gustafsson has been a mixed bag. First and foremost, when you have him in the lineup, he's there to produce offense (especially on the power play). Early on, he was such a defensive liability that it didn't even matter what he produced offensively because he was giving it back and then some in conjunction with struggling partner Robert Hägg. More recently, Gustafsson has generally played adequate defense and continued to post post points. He now has nine points (1g, 8a) in 14 games played. You can't argue with the offense, especially because there's barely a "soft" point in the bunch.
As part of the bigger fit, though, it's still tough to have Gustafsson and Shayne Gostisbehere in the same starting six; and Ghost has played well enough overall (despite going into last night's game with just one point on the season, before notching a goal and an assist) to deserve to stay in the lineup. Even if the Flyers are able to acquire a D-man such as Mattias Ekholm to play with Provorov, the club would still have to balance their other two pairs and figure out which of Gustafsson and Gostisbehere plays with Sanheim and which is with Myers because a Gostisbehere-Gustafsson pairing is only truly viable on power plays and when you are playing from behind in the third period and are trying to generate some instant offensive potential.
6) The other day, Gordon praised the puck-moving ability on the back end and the general commitment and work ethic of his 2020-21 roster. He then proceeded to say that was not the case a season ago, and said that he and assistant coach Kerry Huffman had to spend "more time coaching effort" than systems and the fine-tuning of details.
Gordon did not name any names. The implication, however, was that the majority of the players with whom he was unhappy last season have since exited the organization in one way or another. That's certainly not to say that everyone who was traded (such as undeniably hard-working and competitive Kyle Criscuolo) or otherwise left by normal course (free agency, etc.) was a problem in terms of showing consistent commitment, but it clearly indicates that the head coach feels now that most of his players want to be there, have stayed in shape despite a disjointed offseason and belated start, and have given their all on a daily basis.
7) Yesterday, Rangers defenseman K'Andre Miller was a late scratch from the game against the Flyers after being added to the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list. Teammate Kaapo Kakko went into the protocol this past Saturday. However, there was never any indication that the game was in jeopardy of being postponed.
A few hours earlier, the NHL postponed a game involving the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights after Sharks forward Tomas Hertl was placed on the COVID-19 protocol list. Thus far, Hertl is the only San Jose player on the list.
Several people asked me on Twitter why one game was postponed and not the other. Basically, iit comes down to the nature of the reason a player enters the protocol and the level of concern that an outbreak on the team was potentially imminent.
Unfortunately, the goalposts have a way of shifting suddenly. The Flyers and Capitals game went on as scheduled on Feb. 6 despite Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim -- who tested negative both on that day and in all follow-up tests -- being placed in the protocol. Every other Flyer also tested negative that day. The coincidental postponements of the Flyers' home games against New Jersey scheduled for Thursday Feb. 11 and Saturday Feb. 13 were due to the Devils' huge-scale COVID outbreak at the time, not the Flyers' situation.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9 things took a turn for the worse. The Flyers had their morning skate in DC but the game had to be postponed after both Giroux and Braun tested positive. Then Voracek asymptomatically tested positive two days later. Positive tests for Laughton and Lindblom (less than a year removed from chemotherapy) were confirmed on Feb. 13 and then for Konecny on Feb. 14. In the meantime, the Feb. 14 road game against the Rangers was also postponed, bringing the Flyers' total postponements up to four (two due to their own situation plus the two previously announced ones due to New Jersey's cases).
How did all of this happen if Sanheim tested negative all along? That has never been determined but there was quite possible a close contact exposure of some sort in or around the team that dovetailed into a series of players testing positive. Thankfully, none of the Flyers players suffered more than mild-to-moderate (and seemingly short-term) symptoms. Braun, however, said yesterday that he felt progressively lousier for four or five days before starting to improve and is still trying to get back to full strength. Giroux followed a similar course, only with a one-day shorter recovery sufficient to play.
Injured Flyers rookie center Morgan Frost, who entered COVID-19 protocol on the same day as Voracek, appears to be a separate case (since he was not around the team due to having shoulder surgery) and one that did not involve a positive test. As will Sanheim, he exited the protocol in 10 days rather than the 14-day minimum required for an initial positive test (whether symptomatic or asymptomatic).
To be honest, though, I will be anxiously watching the Rangers' COVID protocol list in the days to come, now that they are two players on the list. Hopefully, both Kakko (who played against the Flyers last Thursday, two days before going on the list) and Miller (who was out last Thursday due to a relatively minor injury) are case paths along the lines of Sanheim or Frost. As long as the Rangers do not have happen what occurred with the Flyers from Feb. 9 to 14 with the number of players in protocol expanding on nearly a daily basis, neither they nor the Flyers should see postponements related to their internal situation.
As for San Jose, the postponement of the game against Vegas and the one-week closure of their training facility has more ominous undertones beyond just "an abundance of caution." It suggests genuine concern that the Hertl case isn't isolated.
8) Today in Flyers History: Feb. 25, 1995
The Flyers dismantled the Montreal Canadiens, 7-0, at the Forum. Recently traded to the Flyers from the Canadiens, John LeClair led the way with a hat trick.
The line of LeClair, Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg forechecked and cycled the puck at will to hem the Habs in their own end all night. The trio registered a combined 11 shots on goal . Lindros also dropped the gloves with Canadiens defensemen Lyle Odelein with the Flyers leading 5-0. Renberg set up two of LeClair's goals.
After the game, Flyers forward Jim Montgomery (himself an ex-Canadien) said of the top line, "They looked like the Legion of Doom out there."
The comparison was made in reference to the pro wrestling tag team of "Hawk" and "Animal" (known as the Legion of Doom or the Road Warriors) manhandling and dominating opponents to project an aura of invincibility.
Montgomery intended the quip to be humorous. He had no idea that "Legion of Doom" would become the line's permanent nickname.
Other names were suggested in the media and by fans on radio talk shows: the JEM Line (John, Eric and Mikael), the Crazy Apes (a play on the former Crazy Eights line), Bob's Big Boys (referring to Bob Clarke acquiring LeClair), the DGZ (Doom, Gloom and Zoom) Line, the UN line (LeClair an American, Lindros a Canadian and Renberg a Swede), and even the Shot Therapy Line.
Flyers TV commentator Gary Dornhoefer simply called them "the big line." Everyone knew which Flyers trio he meant.
It was, however, Montgomery's casual "Legion of Doom" reference that stuck, both at the time and for historical posterity.