As the Flyers began their first preseason game, Gritty stood in the stands holding a sign declaring “Welcome to the preseason where points don’t matter and everything’s made up.”
While the first part is certainly true — the number of points at the end of the game don’t affect the regular season — for some players, these games are as real as it gets.
Out of those sitting on the Flyers bench Tuesday night, only a small percentage of the players already have their roles locked in. The rest are fighting to prove they deserve playing time and roster spots.
Leading up to the game, the Flyers spoke about the new energy around the team. That energy wasn’t evident at first in their 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Islanders at the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday night. However, while the Flyers were shaking off the offseason rust, the Islanders were coming off a win over the New York Rangers.
The Flyers just needed one period to get their legs underneath them. After being outshot 12-5 in the first period, the Flyers came out and outshot the Islanders 6-1, with Egor Zamula’s shot finding the back of the net 5 minutes, 14 seconds into the second period.
Carter Hart, who played the first two periods, stopped the first 13 Islanders shots. Shortly after Zamula’s goal, a shot by Adam Pelech found its way through traffic and Hart to tie it. When Hart retired at the end of the second period, he had allowed the one goal on 18 shots, and the game was tied at 1-1.
Just over six minutes after Samuel Ersson stepped between the pipes for the Flyers, Noah Dobson scored a power-play goal for New York. After that, the Flyers returned to first-period form until Maksim Sushko tied it with a wraparound goal off assists from Ryan Ellis and Ivan Provorov with 5:30 left in the third period.
The game went into overtime, but it took the Islanders just 22 seconds to seal the thanks to a goal by Anthony Beauvillier.
The result wasn’t what the team wanted, but the lessons learned were what was really important. Coach Alain Vigneault said he saw positive signs as well as room for improvement as he made assessments and created a list of talking points for when they regroup Wednesday for practice.
After ending the 2021 season with the second-worst penalty kill in the NHL, the Flyers came out determined to demonstrate what they had learned during two detail-oriented practices focused solely on special teams.
Sean Couturier was the first to serve penalty time after he was called for tripping halfway through the first period, forcing the penalty kill into action. Provorov, Ellis, Oskar Lindblom and Connor Bunnaman were the first to step out. While neither they nor the second unit (Nick Seeler, German Rubtsov, Cam Atkinson and Justin Braun) cleared the puck, they effectively killed off the two minutes despite giving up three shots. On the next 5-on-4 situation, they gave up four shots but killed it again. When the Flyers gave up the power-play goal in the third period, three of the four players on the unit were prospects.
The Flyers also got to show off the top two power-play units they had been working with during training camp, with the exception of James van Riemsdyk, who has been practicing with the top unit but wasn’t in Tuesday’s lineup. Claude Giroux, Couturier, Lindblom (in place of van Riemsdyk), Travis Konecny, and Keith Yandle were the first unit out. Ellis, Atkinson, Derick Brassard, Provorov and Tyson Foerster followed. The Flyers’ power play ranked 18th last season, scoring on 19.2% of their chances. Tuesday night, the Flyers weren’t able to prove whether this unit took a step forward, going 0-for-3 on power plays, but Vigneault was able to draw some positives.
“I thought that power play in the first period was a little off,” Vigneault said. “But in the second period, I thought it gave us momentum. It gave us momentum for the first 10 minutes. I really thought we took the play to them, had some real good scoring opportunities.”
In 2015, an 18-year-old defenseman from Russia entered the Flyers organization when the team selected Provorov in the first round of the NHL draft. Three years later, the Flyers signed another 18-year-old defenseman from Russia as a free agent. Although Zamula, now 21, was not a first-round pick like Provorov, the older blueliner sees something in him and has taken him under his wing.
“He’s a great kid, a great player, very poised, lots of skill,” Provorov said before the game Tuesday. “So obviously, you know, I try to help him out with anything that I can and just give advice or just help something off ice, something small. So yeah, he’s a great player, and I’m excited to see how much he grew over the summer.”
Zamula showed off how much he’s grown by scoring the Flyers first goal in the 2021-22 preseason. In the second period, he took aim from the left faceoff circle and snuck one past goalie Cory Schneider’s right shoulder.
The two also had the chance to go out together as a pair following a power play. During that time, Provorov was able to get a shot off as well as deliver a big hit on the Islanders’ Kyle Palmieri. Zamula said after the game that he’s learned a lot from Provorov, as well as Provorov’s new partner, Ellis, and he’s trying to absorb knowledge as fast as he can.
Zamula has impressed more than just Provorov.. Hart said the Flyers “love him in the locker room” for his talent, his intelligence and his character.
“It was great to see him get rewarded there with that goal,” Hart said. “It’s a great shot from the point.”
Braun does his thing
A new face next to Braun on the third pair, veteran Keith Yandle, did not faze him at all. He went out and continued to do what he does best — play defense. While many modern defensemen are focused on creating offense, Braun has always been more focused on keeping the puck out of his team’s net. That attitude paid off for the Flyers as they fought to shake the rust off after a long offseason. The Islanders controlled the puck for most of the first two periods but Braun helped nullify the threat multiple times, with key clearances and blocked shots, including on Islanders’ powerplays.
Yandle, whom the Flyers signed to a one-year deal as a free agent, has been known for his offensive contributions. He’s also left-handed while Braun is right-handed. Braun’s performance with Yandle on the other side of the ice showed the two may be able to play to each other’s strengths. After the game, Vigneault said he saw positives from each of the new pairings as well as things to work on, but it’s the first game, so that’s to be expected.
Couturier, Giroux and Konecny are the Flyers’ first line. After that, nothing is set in stone. Atkinson, Brassard and Lindblom have been the third line, but they have a chance to prove they deserve to be the second. Of the three, Brassard and Atkinson are new to the organization. Brassard made a strong showing, winning 13 of 19 faceoffs, setting up a goal and coming close to scoring one of his own.
Defensively, Provorov and Ellis showed off the chemistry they’ve been working on while Braun and Yandle demonstrated how their skill sets could complement each other.
Beyond those top 10 players, everyone else was fighting for a roster spot. Out of the young players, Zamula stood out the most, helped along by the fact he scored the first goal. Sushko also managed to score during a period where the Flyers couldn’t get much offense going. Max Willman showed fight, playing a physical game with four hits.
However, the players who stood out the most were the players who had the least on the line.
“I’m going in this knowing that from both sides, a lot of guys haven’t played a lot of hockey lately, so I have to show patience,” Vigneault said. “So it was the first game for a lot of them, a first game in a while. I believe that they’re going to get better.”
After taking Monday off instead of Wednesday, the Flyers will return to Voorhees for a practice and an intrasquad scrimmage Wednesday morning. Thursday, the Flyers will head to Boston for a 7:30 p.m. exhibition game against the Bruins. The game will be aired on TNT. The game will feature a different lineup, including Martin Jones in goal for the first two periods followed by Felix Sandstrom.