The Flyers’ Robert Hagg had quite a 25th birthday. The Swedish defenseman stood firm as Alex Ovechkin fired hockey pucks at him on Saturday, including a pair of key blocked shots on a penalty kill. Who wouldn’t enjoy a party like that?
“He’s been fantastic,” fellow defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
Hagg’s bravery and steady play contributed to the unlikely 7-2 rout of the Capitals. It also further complicated Shayne Gostisbehere’s place in the lineup. When Gostisbehere came back from injury on Thursday, Hagg was scratched. On Saturday, Gostisbehere was out of the lineup again. Hagg was back in.
Coach Alain Vigneault regretted the decision to play Gostisbehere on Thursday, when the Flyers lost to the Devils, 5-0. The coach said the team should have sent him to the AHL for some conditioning work after Gostisbehere missed nearly four weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery. Said he did him no favors by putting him out there after just two practices.
Hagg played well in Gostisbehere’s absence throughout January and was solid again on Saturday.
“Of course it’s difficult when you don’t know if you’re in or not,” Hagg said. “The only thing I can control is how I play. I can’t control if I’m going to be in or not. I’m just trying to focus on my game, and every single time I get the opportunity I want to make the best out of it. Of course, it’s tough mentally, but it is what it is.”
Hagg blocked four shots, including two lasers from Ovechkin and one off the shoulder from former Flyer Radko Gudas. He is only fifth on the team in total blocks, but that’s because he’s played in just 35 of the Flyers’ 55 games.
“Those are big plays,” said goalie Brian Elliott, who improved to 10-4-2 on the road this season. “That can change momentum in a game. Him coming back in the lineup and providing that for us was massive.”
The Flyers on Monday start a string of three games in four nights. Their next six are against teams in the fight for an Eastern Conference playoff spot, starting with Monday’s visit by Florida. At the moment, the Flyers would be out of the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Add in the Feb. 24 trade deadline and this will be a critical two weeks.
But the Flyers are feeling good about themselves again, having spit out the bad taste of the dismal New Jersey loss with the impressive win at Washington. As he packed his bags Saturday night, Hagg was asked how he would enjoy what little was left of his birthday.
“I don’t know,” he smiled. “The train ride back to Philly, maybe a couple of beers or a glass of wine and a day off Sunday.”
A day off, no doubt, to ice the wounds from one of the most impressive wins of the season. So far.
The Panthers have sputtered since the All-Star break, dropping four of their last five (1-3-1). They entered the break on a six-game winning streak but have been outscored 18-9 since. ... Panthers budding star Aleksander Barkov returned to the lineup on Saturday after missing three games with a lower-body injury. Barkov has a point in six consecutive games against the Flyers. Florida is 5-0-1 in those games.
The Flyers lost the first meeting with the Panthers this season on Nov. 19 in Florida, 5-2. The highlight was Morgan Frost making his NHL debut and scoring a goal. Frost on Saturday played 13-plus minutes in his first game back from the AHL. While he didn’t register a point, the 20-year-old center won nine of 10 faceoffs. ... The Flyers have won nine of their last 10 when one of their players registers a Gordie Howe hat trick like Nic Aube-Kubel did on Saturday night.