Although the team defense has improved steadily over head coach Craig Berube’s tenure (the Flyers rank 10th in goals-against-per-game), the Flyers have not produced consistent sixty-minute efforts in many of their recent outings.
Some of that can be attributed to the ebb and flow of hockey games, but the opening 40 minutes against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night looked awfully similar to the fruitless efforts in Minnesota on Monday.
When the Flyers fell 2-0 to the Wild, they had mustered just ten shots in a fairly lackluster forty minutes. They followed it up with a much stronger third period but ran into goaltender Josh Harding, the NHL’s leading netminder in goals-against-average.
The Flyers may have befallen a similar fate against the Red Wings if it weren’t for the continued dominance of the third line of Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Steve Downie. The trio accounted for four of the Flyers’ six goals en route to victory, extending their current road trip record to 2-1-0.
The Red Wings opened the scoring halfway through the first period, when Andrej Meszaros lost a battle at the boards behind the Flyers’ net. In his defense (or lack thereof), he held up his man for a solid eight seconds, which should have allowed nearby players Luke Schenn and Wayne Simmonds to get into better defensive positioning at the net. Once Meszaros’ man got away from his grip, though, they more or less stood by as Tomas Tatar skated just outside the crease and beat goaltender Steve Mason.
Steve Downie tied the game on the powerplay minutes later, scoring his first goal with the Flyers since being traded from the Colorado Avalanche. Downie is not typically used on the powerplay, but managed to make good use of his sole shift with the man advantage. Couturier and Read earned the helpers.
Johan Franzen grabbed the lead after defenseman Nicklas Grossmann misread which Red Wing to cover while Braydon Coburn was caught pinching. Just when the Flyers needed to calm down and regroup, they reacted with no less than four penalties to close out the period.
The silver lining in the parade to the penalty box is that the Flyers’ penalty killers were able to hold the Red Wings to just one five-on-three goal in that span. Give special teams credit, even if they should never have been in that position in the first place.
Matt Read was somehow able to find some even strength time in that span in which to cut the deficit to one goal (assists to Couturier and Scott Hartnell). It was nothing short of amazing that the Flyers went to the locker room short just one goal to tie.
Just as in Minnesota, the Flyers dug deep in the third period and finally reined in the disciplinary issues that were killing them in the second period. An early Red Wing penalty gave the Flyers their second powerplay of the game and captain Claude Giroux was able to snipe one past goaltender Jimmy Howard.
The Flyers could have fallen into a defensive shell at this point and hope to force overtime, but they continued pressing. Couturier skated to the net at the 8:28 mark and put himself in a position to bang home a pass from his linemates.
The Couturier-Read-Downie line has now combined for 27 points in the last ten games. For a group that regularly faces the toughest competition and zone starts, they can reliably drive the play forward and hold their opponents to limited goals. How much credit goes to Berube for their success is debatable, but a renewed confidence in Couturier (who finished the night with his first four-point effort thanks to an empty net goal) has been critical for the team to maintain any kind of footing in the standings.
It should be noted that the Red Wings were without the services of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Todd Bertuzzi due to injuries. Detroit was literally short a top line and powerplay unit. I don’t think the Flyers leave Joe Louis Arena with any points if Datsyuk is available for any of the seven penalties taken over the course of the game (ignoring the pointless calls made after the game ended).
The road trip continues on Saturday with a game in Dallas. It is their first game against the Stars this season, a club missing top four defenseman Stephane Robidas and equal in the Western Conference standings to the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators. The team should take advantage of the added day of rest before then, as they play four games in six days beginning with the Stars.