The Flyers have gained the respect of Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, coach of the team they will face Saturday in a game to determine the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
The winner of the 8 p.m. round-robin matchup in Toronto will get the No. 1 seed and face surprising Montreal in the opening round of the playoffs; the loser will be seeded No. 2 and will meet the Columbus-Toronto survivor.
“They’re an explosive team, they’re a dynamic team,” Cooper said in a Zoom interview with reporters Friday from Toronto. “They’ve got the kid [Carter Hart] in net there who has really matured.”
Cooper noted he has coached a handful of Flyers in tournaments, such as Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, and Travis Konecny, “and I know what their DNA is. They’ve matured as a team, and I think AV [coach Alain Vigneault] has done a really good job in that regard.
“They were always a little bit of a wild card. The emotions of games could take over with them, but from what I’ve seen, there now is a maturity in their game, and you throw in that confidence with some of the budding stars they have on the blue line, we shouldn’t be surprised what they reeled off” at the end of the season. “And most definitely are going to be a force here in the Eastern Conference.”
Both teams will be missing top-line forwards: Jake Voracek and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, who has 23 goals and 43 points in 34 career games against the Flyers.
Voracek, who played Thursday in the 3-1 win over Washington, is out with an unknown injury or illness, and Vigneault is not allowed to give details because of the NHL’s postseason protocol. Stamkos continues to be sidelined by an apparent leg injury.
The Flyers will make several changes in their lineup:
Rookie Joel Farabee will move to the top line, alongside Couturier and Giroux, because of Voracek’s absence.
Left winger James van Riemsdyk, benched in the last game, will return to the lineup and take Farabee’s spot on the third line.
Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere will replace Robert Hagg and will be paired with Justin Braun. Gostisbehere will probably play on the power play. Farabee and van Riemsdyk are other power-play options.
The loss of Voracek weakens the top line and the No. 1 power-play unit.
“Jake’s one of our best players,” Hart said. “… The last couple games, everybody’s been rolling and stepping up. I’m sure we’ll have someone who will step up and play hard [Saturday].”
Voracek has a “unique skill set, a veteran guy that’s been around and played in some big games,” defesneman Matt Niskanen said, adding that the players had to “keep chugging forward with the guys we have.”
Vigneault reiterated that in the round-robin tournament there is a “balance between winning and getting our team ready” for the playoffs, which start Tuesday for some teams.
Getting the No. 1 seed and having the home-ice advantage and the last line change, Vigneault said, “is a fairly important thing.”
The Flyers and Lightning are each 2-0 in the round-robin tournament. Including the end of the regular season, the Flyers have won 11 of their last 12 games, making them the league’s hottest team.
To continue their run, they will have to defeat a Lightning team that won both regular-season matchups: 1-0 and 5-3 (with an empty-netter).
The Bolts are “obviously a highly skilled team,” Vigneault said, and they have “gotten a little bit grittier” than in the past.
In the goalie matchup, Hart, a blossoming player, will face Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, a Vezina finalist and a proven star.
In Tampa’s 1-0 win, Vasilevskiy made 23 saves and former Flyers farmhand Pat Maroon had the lone goal against Hart. It was Game 45 and the first time the Flyers were shut out.
Vasilevskiy went 2-0 with a 1.50 GAA and .946 save percentage against the Flyers. Hart was 0-2 with a 2.61 GAA and .902 save percentage this season against Tampa Bay.
The Flyers defense excelled in the first two round-robin games, a 4-1 win over Boston, followed by the 3-1 victory over Washington.
“We’ve been good and tough without the puck,” Niskanen said. “Our forwards are really working hard to come back and back-pressure. Suffocating [teams]. Teams probably don’t feel like they have a lot of space right now against us.”
Both teams say that the game is important, that they want to finish No. 1 in the seedings. They also understand it’s not critical.