All along heading into the round robin of the NHL’s return-to-play 24-team tournament, the storyline was that the Flyers had nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
The latter will ring particularly true Thursday for Alain Vigneault and company at Scotiabank Arena in the Eastern Conference’s hub city Toronto.
The Flyers are set to play the Capitals in their second of three round-robin contests (4 p.m. ET/NBCSP). The matchup could be telling and instrumental in the Flyers’ hopes of a deep postseason run.
We’ll look at that and more in three notables for Thursday:
Making the rounds?
While the 4-1 win over the NHL-best Bruins in last Sunday’s round-robin opener was a statement-like performance, a victory over the Capitals would say much more, especially if it’s in convincing fashion.
Think about it. During the regular season, the Flyers went 3-0-1 against Washington and outscored it 16-8. Two of those victories were commanding decisions at Capital One Arena – 7-2 on Feb. 8 and 5-2 on March 4.
If the Flyers beat the Capitals again, that would be four wins over Washington this year and three over Boston in nine combined matchups against those two top-three Eastern Conference foes. That kind of résumé would be hard to turn away when trying to decipher the Flyers’ status as one the NHL’s biggest contenders for the 2020 Stanley Cup.
Oh, and a victory would go a long way tangibly in the Flyers’ goals. With a regulation win over the Capitals, the Flyers would secure at least the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed in the first round of the playoffs. If the Flyers need overtime/the shootout to take down the Capitals, Washington would still be in play for the No. 2 seed because it holds the tiebreaker over the Flyers with regular-season point percentage. If the Capitals knock off the Flyers in regulation, they would leapfrop the Flyers and jump into the driver’s seat for a better seed.
No doubt about it, this is a big round-robin game.
Here are the current round-robin standings entering Thursday:
1. Lightning – 2-0-0, four points
2. Flyers – 1-0-0, two points
3. Capitals – 0-0-1, one point
4. Bruins – 0-2-0, zero points
Good deal in net
In a few ways, the Flyers will have a different look against Washington compared to the win over Boston.
Firstly, they’ll turn to Brian Elliott in net. It’s a fine play by Vigneault. From the beginning of training camp in preparation for the season’s resumption, the Flyers had plans to play Elliott during the round robin. It gives the 35-year-old veteran a competitive game before the first round and a potential run through the playoffs in which he could be needed. Elliott also went 2-0-0 with a 2.00 goals-against average against Washington during the regular season, so he’s familiar with the Capitals. The Flyers have plenty of reasons to believe in their backup.
“Like we’ve said throughout the season, we’ve got a lot of confidence and faith in both of our goaltenders,” Vigneault said Wednesday in a video interview. “We’ve got three games to play in this sort of pre-playoff tournament, so [Thursday], it’s Brian’s turn. I said that he was going to get a game in and we feel that [Thursday] is the right time to put him in.”
Now, Carter Hart could line up very well for another quality tune-up against the offensively dynamic Lightning, a game that should have implications and will continue to test the 21-year-old.
‘I’m expecting more’
The Flyers will also look different at forward. There was a good chance the Flyers already had plans to play Joel Farabee in the round robin, but an injury to Michael Raffl during the win over the Bruins made the 20-year-old rookie the obvious choice to fill Raffl’s void.
So would Farabee play in Raffl’s fourth-line spot? Vigneault has consistently said he wants to put his younger players in positions that best suit their strengths.
In practice Wednesday at the Ford Performance Centre, the Flyers ran these forward lines:
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Scott Laughton-Kevin Hayes-Travis Konecny
Nicolas Aube-Kubel-Derek Grant-Joel Farabee
James van Riemsdyk/Connor Bunnaman-Nate Thompson-Tyler Pitlick
Make no mistake, van Riemsdyk will play Thursday. If he doesn’t, it would be extremely surprising and not a good move.
It is interesting, though, to see van Riemsdyk on the fourth line. Vigneault is certainly looking for a greater impact from JVR.
“I thought that James, in training camp in our first phase in Philly, looked extremely good,” Vigneault said Monday. “I thought he was skating well, he was making some good plays with the puck. I will say that so far since we’ve gotten here to Toronto in our two games, I’m expecting more. We’ll see here what happens moving forward.”
Vigneault will convey these points to his players before stating them to the media. Players have said they appreciate that communication. Vigneault challenged van Riemsdyk and others in November, asking for more from of his big-money players.
Perhaps this is some good internal competition by Vigneault at a time that he can afford to do it. He could be challenging two rookie wingers in Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Farabee to show him what they’ve got. If they don’t respond well, then van Riemsdyk will climb a line during the game and moving forward. Now is the time to audition his younger players in this environment. It’s also a way for Vigneault to provide van Riemsdyk a little extra motivation ahead of their first-round series.
The round robin gives the Flyers an opportunity to try some things before the real deal. It looks like Vigneault is doing just that.
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