If the Flyers are going to win their first playoff series since 2012, earning a high seed in the round-robin tournament would seem to make the path easier.
They took the first step on that journey Sunday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, where they jolted the NHL-best Boston Bruins, 4-1, in the tourney opener.
Fourth-line forwards Michael Raffl and Nate Thompson set the tone with second-period goals, and rookie defenseman Phil Myers and Scott Laughton also scored for the Flyers. Unflappable Carter Hart made 34 saves and was solid in the first postseason game of his young NHL career.
“Our fourth line was rolling tonight,” Hart said. “Raf opened up with a really nice goal, and then Thommer with a short-side snipe there. They were flying. I think all four lines were clicking, and that’s huge.”
At this time of the season, coach Alain Vigneault said, “you need contributions from your whole lineup.”
The only negative for the Flyers: A limping Raffl had to be helped off the ice after being knocked awkwardly into the boards by defenseman Jeremy Lauzon with 6 minutes, 17 seconds left in the game. After the game, Vigneault said he thought Lauzon used a slew foot to put Raffl into the boards, and added he was waiting for a medical update.
“Hopefully he’ll be all right for us moving forward,” said Vigneault, who figures to use rookie Joel Farabee if Raffl is sidelined.
Four teams are in the three-game mini tourney that will determine the Eastern Conference’s top four seeds.
In the teams’ first real game in 145 days — the regular season was stopped March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak — the Flyers started slowly but took control in the second period.
Counting the regular season, the Flyers have won 10 of their last 11 games.
Coincidentally, the Flyers and Boston played each other in their last game before the season was halted. The Bruins ended the Flyers’ nine-game winning streak March 10, 2-0, as Tuukka Rask delivered a shutout.
Rask, arguably the NHL’s best goalie this season, was sidelined Sunday by an unspecified illness that is not supposed to be serious. He was replaced by Jaroslav Halak, another veteran coming off a quality season.
Boston controlled the game’s first five minutes and outshot the Flyers in the period, 12-6. The Flyers seemed to get their legs midway through the period, and then had two excellent chances – a left-circle one-timer by Claude Giroux that hit the right post while the Flyers were on a power play, and a point-blank opportunity by Laughton that Halak denied.
Their play got crisper after the opening 20 minutes.
“I thought in the second period we played extremely well ... and in the third period, I love the way we started and played in their end,” said Vigneault, whose team had 12 of the first 14 shots in the final period. “We had our foot on the gas. We weren’t sitting back.”
The Flyers got second-period goals from three unexpected sources as they built a 3-1 lead.
Raffl got behind the Bruins’ defense and, after taking a slick feed from Travis Sanheim, put a backhander past Halak to open the scoring with 14:27 left in the second.
About four minutes later, Raffl found Thompson with a drop pass, and the 35-year-old veteran ripped a left-circle shot past Halak, beating him with a high shot to the short side.
“It was a heck of a play by Raf, and I just tried to get it on net,” said Thompson, who, along with Laughton, later went to Raffl’s defense and went after Lauzon.
Boston cut it to 2-1 as fourth-liner Chris Wagner scored on a wraparound that caromed off Flyers defenseman Robert Hagg and past Hart with 69 seconds left in the second.
Just eight seconds later, Myers answered. From the top of the right circle, he whipped a drive high into the left corner to restore the two-goal cushion at 3-1.
“I think Phil’s goal took any momentum they could have built up,” Vigneault said.
Myers was playing in the first postseason game of his career.
The NHL said round-robin stats count as if the games were in the playoffs. Thompson’s goal was his eighth playoff tally in 63 career playoff games, while Raffl scored his second in 20 playoff games, and Laughton had his second in 10 playoff games.
Laughton, sent free on a nice play by Kevin Hayes in the defensive end, made it 4-1 with about 16 minutes left.
The Flyers, who went 2-1 against Boston in the regular season, will now face Washington in their second round-robin game Thursday. The Flyers went 3-0-1 against the Capitals this season.