The Philadelphia Flyers are 3-2-1 through the first six games of the 2020-21 NHL season. It’s a winning record, good for seven points and a .583 points percentage. That would have been playoff-worthy last season.
But heading into their two-game set against the New Jersey Devils this Tuesday and Thursday, the Flyers sit fifth in the eight-team East Division based on points, and sixth based on points percentage.
Only the top four clubs will earn a playoff berth at season’s end, so Philadelphia is already playing catchup. Somewhat surprisingly, the Devils are one of the teams that they’re chasing.
The Devils Are Dancing
Under new head coach Lindy Ruff, New Jersey is 3-1-1 to start the season. Led by sophomore Jack Hughes, who has seven points and is a plus-three, the Devils started their year by taking three of four points against the Bruins. Then, they edged the Rangers before splitting a pair of games against the Islanders.
And New Jersey’s success has come despite a chaotic goaltending situation. After signing a two-year free-agent contract worth $7.8 million with the Devils in October, Stanley Cup winning goaltender Corey Crawford abruptly announced his retirement on Jan. 9, four days before the regular season began. That left third-year pro Mackenzie Blackwood to carry the load. And he did admirably, for this first three starts. The 24-year-old recorded a 1.90 goals-against average and .948 save percentage, but then landed on the league’s Covid-19 list last Thursday.
It’s not yet known when Blackwood will be able to return. But in his absence, 28-year-old journeyman Scott Wedgewood stepped up against the Islanders. After giving up four goals in his season debut, Wedgewood, who has just 26 games of NHL experience, pitched a 28-save shutout on Sunday.
The Flyers Are Frustrated
As for the Flyers, they’re regrouping after a 6-1 dismantling in Boston that left normally cucumber-cool Carter Hart channeling his inner Ron Hextall at the final buzzer.
Carter Hart shows his frustration after Flyers fall 6-1 to the Bruins pic.twitter.com/Qex6dmtJTu
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) January 24, 2021
No one blames Hart for his frustration — expectations were sky-high for Philadelphia heading into the new season. The stingy club that finished first in shots against and tied for seventh in goals against last season has suddenly turned into a porous outfit that’s giving up the third-most shots and the seventh-most goals.
Do they miss Matt Niskanen? Absolutely. And injuries to key players like Sean Couturier and Philippe Myers haven’t helped matters, but every team faces those challenges.
Flyers fans are also quickly learning something that savvy observers in Edmonton, Chicago, and Calgary already knew: Erik Gustafsson can be an impressive triggerman on a team’s power play, but he can also be an adventure defensively.
Will Gostisbehere Draw In?
Gustafsson delivered two terrific primary assists in the Flyers’ season opener against the Penguins. But in five subsequent games, he has only one additional point, also an assist. And seven giveaways.
Alain Vigneault said he doesn't think Erik Gustafsson has found his game yet, believes he can be better. Isn't expecting a ton of physicality, but an active stick and a guy that can kill plays. Said he talked to Gustafsson and he feels same way.
— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) January 25, 2021
After Alain Vigneault gave his group a day off to regroup on Sunday, Gustafsson skated on a fourth defensive pairing at practice on Monday, when Shayne Gostisbehere returned after completing Covid-19 protocol.
Lines and pairs today:
Patrick not on the ice for practice. Andreoff screams "stand-in," but obv a Patrick absence is notable.
— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) January 25, 2021
Gostisbehere confirmed that he did test positive for Covid-19 during training camp, but is grateful that he didn’t transmit the virus to anyone else. “I feel really good and I’m thankful it didn’t hit me too hard,” he said after practice on Monday. “Hopefully, I’ll be good to go (Tuesday).”
Couturier And Myers Sighted
Sean Couturier, Philippe Myers and Nolan Patrick getting in skill work on opposite ice. pic.twitter.com/7QFMlq7tNa
— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) January 25, 2021
With all the health issues he has dealt with over the last two years, Nolan Patrick’s absence from Monday’s main practice group is notable. Alain Vigneault downplayed it as a ‘maintenance day,’ and said he’s expected to play on Tuesday. Patrick was spotted working on another ice sheet with two players who are recovering from injuries — Sean Couturier and Philippe Myers.
“It was one of those hits I’ve taken probably a thousand times,” Couturier said of the play against Pittsburgh that knocked him out of action on Jan. 15. “The first few days were painful,” he admitted.
And while he’s happy to be back skating, Couturier has not yet set a timetable for his return, which was originally set at about two weeks.
“I feel like I can do a lot of stuff on the ice, but I can’t push it and have to let it heal,” he said.
After a 40-save shutout in his last outing, on Feb. 19 against Buffalo, expect to see Brian Elliott in net for the Flyers on Tuesday night.