Gagne's return a success in Flyers' win over Capitals

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Gagne's return a success in Flyers' win over Capitals

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One of the justifications for using Simon Gagne on a line with Sean Couturier and Max Talbot is that his skillful puck sense might get both of them going.
 
Among the three of them, their goal total going into Wednesday’s game against the Washington Capitals was two.
 
Now it’s doubled after the Flyers' 4-1 victory at Wells Fargo Center that pulled them back into the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with 21 points -- two ahead of Tampa Bay.
 
Couturier’s line was arguably the best the Flyers had with Gagne and Talbot picking up their first markers of the season in what was a complete, 60-minute effort from Peter Laviolette’s club.
 
“He’s fun to watch,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux of Gagne. “He’s a smart player and knows how to score goals.”
 
Gagne, who played 16 minutes, made a difference.
 
“A lot of times you come back into a building you left or were traded to and sometimes the night takes over, but I thought Simon had a real good game defensively and offensively for us,” Laviolette said.
 
“From the first shift, [guys] played hard, played smart and defensively. We got chances in the offensive zone and there was good movement and lots of opportunities.”
 
Ilya Bryzgalov didn’t face a lot of shots but finished with 23 saves, losing his shutout in final 2:09 of the game.
 
“There wasn’t a lot of work -- maybe 10 quality chances,” Laviolette said. “He was sharp early when we needed him.”
 
The Flyers caught the Caps in the tail end of a back-to-back situation -- something teams had been doing to them with regularity this shortened season.
 
Gagne celebrated his return with a power-play goal to erase the bad memories of going 11 games without a goal in Los Angeles.
 
“Sometimes, [Philly] is a tough place to come to and a lot of pressure,” Gagne said. “I know what it takes and maybe I can help the young guys with that.
 
“And maybe I can help offensively. It was a tough situation in L.A. I was in and out of the line up in L.A. so it was hard for me to get my game going when you do that.
 
“I just have to play my basic game every game and help the team get back in the playoff mode.”
 
Gagne was warmly greeted by the crowd even before scoring, while the Flyers chased Caps starting goalie Braden Holtby with four goals.
 
The only “downer” here was another critical injury and even worse, on the banged-up defense.
 
Erik Gustafsson blocked a shot from Washington’s Eric Fehr seven minutes into the second period and did not return. He was hit in the left shin.
 
You really can see how much of an impact a healthy Scott Hartnell can have. Last year’s leading goal scorer, with a career-high 37, Hartnell had two assists on the Flyers' first two goals just 4:04 into the game.
 
That’s three points in three games for Hartnell since returning to the lineup from a fractured bone in his left foot.
 
“I feel a little more comfortable with the puck,” Hartnell said. “I had some chances going down the wing but I didn’t get my shot off the way I wanted to. I think it comes with more games played.
 
“If you want to look at it like an exhibition season on a regular season, it takes three, four or five games to feel comfortable and for not skating for four weeks, I feel a little better.”
 
His first assist was pure #HartnellDown. From his knees outside the paint, he managed to backhand the puck across the slot for Claude Giroux’s seventh goal on the game’s opening shift.
 
Hartnell then drew the primary assist on Wayne Simmonds’ power-play goal at 4:04. Simmonds backhanded the puck under pressure in the slot while falling backward for his eighth goal to make it 2-0.
 
The Caps' only danger these days is on the power play. Not coincidentally, Bryzgalov had two fines saves during a late Washington power play, using his blocker on Nick Backstrom and also stopping Alex Ovechkin, who came into the game six points shy of 700 for his career.
 
“They had a power play [there] and had some opportunities with some tricky plays through the slot, a couple redirects,” Laviolette said. “He was sharp.”
 
Gagne’s first marker at 3:54 of the second period with one second left on a power play made it 3-0. He rebounded a shot from Brayden Schenn.
 
Incredibly, that was Gagne’s first goal since Nov. 17, 2011!
 
Now it took Talbot 22 games to get his first goal of the season, blasting a slap shot from the high slot so hard off the camera inside the net that the puck ricocheted out in a blinding instant.
 
“Feels good to get the win, but personally it feels good to find the back of the net,” Talbot said.
 
“I have been practicing with some new sticks this week. That’s a good excuse, huh? But is worked out good. ... Same company (CCM) but different kind.”

That made it 4-0 with five minutes left in the period and brought on backup goalie Philipp Grubauer.

Bryzgalov had some fine stops on Ovechkin in the third period before losing his shutout to Joel Ward.
 
Obviously, the Flyers need to carry this over to Saturday’s matinee against Ottawa. Historically, the Flyers always have a strong third month of the season.
 
That’s always December but in a lockout-shortened season, it’s March.
 
And it also begins with the start of the game.
 
“The first couple shifts were huge ... to get a goal in there and after that power play, two goals in the first,” Talbot said.
 
“But I thought we played a solid 60-minute effort, which is nice to build on.”

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).

End to End: What adjustment would you make on Flyers' defense?

End to End: What adjustment would you make on Flyers' defense?

Throughout the season, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

With the Flyers on their bye week, let’s discuss a few topics.

Going End to End this week are CSNPhilly.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

Today’s question: What adjustment would you make on the Flyers' defense?

Dougherty
There is not much in Dave Hakstol’s arsenal to significantly improve the team defense with a lineup change. Sure, scratching Andrew MacDonald could be a positive step, but that does not solve the problem here. We can point fingers at the defensive group because the Flyers have allowed the league’s second-most goals at 144. They’re part of the problem.

What is plaguing the Flyers is not just the play of their six defensemen on any given night; it’s their overall team defense. Some forwards are quitting on the backcheck, and not providing enough support in their own zone, missing their own assignments.

The Flyers, I believe, are struggling with the lack of practice time. And while it is true that every team is dealing with the same compact schedule as the Flyers, Hakstol has to maximize the little practice time he gets going forward and preach team defense. Gaps have been a major issue with the current group of blueliners, and that is an area assistant coach Gord Murphy has to fix. Hakstol has singled out the team’s rush defense as an issue, and that’s another area the team has to work on, too.

A lot of the same issues that were appearing in the beginning of the season when the Flyers were struggling are reappearing in their game now. They were able to make adjustments earlier in the season to hone their game defensively. More film study and more coaching are just a couple of the adjustments I’d make with the current options.

Hall
Sometimes it takes a fresh face, some new blood to spark change.

If anything, it sends a bit of a message.

The Flyers have options at AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley and general manager Ron Hextall didn’t rule anything out last Sunday.

But, of course, given the Flyers’ salary cap conundrum, it’s not as simple as just calling up a player.

So, the easiest thing that can be done is change within the current personnel. That means scratching MacDonald from time to time, just how Hakstol has done so with Shayne Gostisbehere, Brandon Manning, Michael Del Zotto, Radko Gudas and many Flyers forwards.

MacDonald hasn’t been as bad as some may think. Oftentimes, his mistakes are magnified more than others. But too frequently do we see him out of position or misreading a play on a goal against. And that’s been true for all Flyers defensemen, yet MacDonald seems to be one of the only spared of the consequences.

Benching MacDonald isn’t a drastic fix and it may not do much at all, but it’s something we haven’t seen since Nov. 19.

Paone
This a really tough question because, to be quite frank, there is no easy solution here to fixing a Flyers defense that has been mired in a state of miserable play and has played a large part in the team's allowing 3.50 goals per game in the 14 contests since the 10-game win streak ended in mid-December. 

It's not like Hakstol or Hextall can push some magic button here and have things fixed in a matter of moments. The Flyers have salary cap and roster issues, so it's going to be tough to bring in a player via trade to help fix things on the back end. Same goes for bringing up a prospect because space on the roster would have to be made first.

This situation leaves the Flyers to fix the problem from within with the defensemen they currently have at the NHL level. They're going to have to play their way out of this. And that's why I'm interested in focusing on the younger defensemen like Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov right now. We know what the veteran defensemen on this team are and they've been through this sort of thing before. This will not be the last team-wide rut the younger defensemen will play through in their careers. It will happen again. They're going to have to learn how to play through this and not let it affect their individual play. That's why I didn't agree with Ghost's benching in Boston last weekend.  Sure, he has not played well this season and the warts to his game have been evident. And there are times when sitting back, taking a breather and watching can be beneficial. But I'm a believer that a young player has to play through his growing pains and grow from them.

This isn't going to be an answer most of you will like to hear, but with the way the Flyers' hands are tied, they're just going to have to play their way out of these defensive struggles with what they have.