Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Flyers Beat Buffalo, Phantoms, Prospect Updates and More

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FLYERS VS SABRES WRAPUP: FLYERS SHUFFLE OFF WITH 2 POINTS

It wasn’t easy or pretty but the Philadelphia Flyers did just enough to hand the Buffalo Sabres their 10th straight regulation loss in a 4-3 decision on Saturday night at the First Niagara Center. Shut out in each of their two previous games, the Flyers trailed 1-0 at the first intermission before scoring a pair of second-period power play goals and two even strength tallies in the third period.

Four is the magic number for the 2014-15 Flyers: that is the number of goals the team needs to score in order to win. The better teams in the NHL find ways to win with three or even two goals. The Flyers have scored four or more goals in 16 of their 46 games to date, boasting a 14-1-1 record. When scoring three or fewer goals, however, the team is 4-20-6.

Saturday night’s game in Buffalo was hardly an inspiring performance by Philly but they will take any sort of win they can get. The Flyers shook off a sluggish first period and turned up the pressure thereafter.

Power play goals by R.J. Umberger and Mark Streit in the second period were supplemented by Chris VandeVelde and Michael Raffl goals to build a 4-2 lead. Zemgus Girgensons scored a late first-period goal directly off a faceoff and a late third period power play goal. Tyler Ennis scored from in close on a scramble around the net to tie the game at 2-2 heading into the third period.

Rob Zepp made his fourth start and fifth appearance for the Flyers, picking up his third win. Zepp played well enough to stop 24 of 27 shots. His best and most important save was denying Girgensons on a shorthanded breakaway in the second period. For Buffalo, Michal Neuvirth turned aside 28 of 32 shots.

The turning point of the game was the Flyers’ sixth-ranked power play striking on each of their first two tries against Buffalo’s 29th-ranked penalty kill (only Philly’s own PK has been worse). The Flyers’ penalty kill managed to yield a late-game goal to the Sabres’ bottom-ranked power play (9.4 percent) but survived two previous disadvantages. Both teams scored two goals at five-on-five to essentially cancel out in the end.

Ending a stretch of eight-plus periods without a goal by the Flyers, Umberger’s eighth goal of the season was a deflection in front of a Matt Read shot from up high in the zone at 3:51 of the second period. It is possible that Read’s shot was a double-deflection. Michael Del Zotto received the secondary assist. The goal was originally credited to Read (from Del Zotto and Vincent Lecavalier) but the scoring was changed shortly thereafter.

Streit’s sixth tally of the year was a center point shot through a Wayne Simmonds screen and other traffic in front of Neuvirth at 7:49 of the second period. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek received the assists. Through Saturday’s games, Voracek’s 53 points still lead the Art Ross Trophy race and his 36 assists tie him with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby for the most in the NHL.

VandeVelde’s fourth goal of the season was scored after Lecavalier sprang him on a breakaway. It wasn’t artistic but counted just the same. VandeVelde lost the handle of the puck as he moved in close but the puck slid into the net through the moving Neuvirth. Carlo Colaiacovo was credited with the secondary assist at 5:54 of the third period.

Raffl’s 12th goal of the season was the game-winner. The sequence started with Zac Rinaldo and Raffl winning a battle behind the net and Raffl sending the puck around the right side boards to Luke Schenn at the right point. Schenn made a point-to-point pass to Del Zotto. As Del Zotto shot the puck toward the net, Raffl slipped past young defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to claim the rebound and stash it home from point-blank range at 8:39 of the third period.

The Flyers generated 25 of their 32 shots in the second and third periods. The first period could best be described as “sleepy.” Perhaps the wakeup call came when the lowly Sabres scored with 1:09 left in the opening stanza to take a 1-0 to intermission.

Brian Flynn beat Giroux on a left circle faceoff in the Philadelphia zone. After Chris Stewart funneled the puck to Girgensons above the hashmarks, the Latvian forward ripped a shot inside the left post. Screened by defenseman Nick Schultz, Zepp never moved or reacted until the puck was already in the net.

After the Flyers took a 2-1 lead in the middle stanza, Ennis tied the game just 55 seconds before the second intermission — a second wakeup call of sorts. On the play, Zepp was not quite able to hang on to a shot by Ristolainen, which was dug free just behind the right post by Matt Moulson and finished off in front of the scramble by Ennis for his 10th goal of the season.

Buffalo made things tense with 69 seconds left in the game. With Lecavalier in the penalty box for holding Ristolainen’s stick, the weakest power play (by far) in the NHL scored against the worst penalty kill the NHL. The Sabres had multiple cracks after an initial point shot missed the net and came out in front. Finally, Girgensons chipped a backhander upstairs from a tight angle. Moulson and Stewart received the assists.

Buffalo was not able to get the equalizer to force overtime. The team fell to 14-29-3 on the season. The Sabres and Oilers are tied for the fewest points in the NHL (31) but Buffalo’s six wins via shootout (i.e., eight wins in regulation or overtime) are one fewer than Edmonton. As such, the Sabres wake up on Sunday in 30th place in the NHL. Put another way, the Sabres would be guaranteed of landing either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel via the NHL Draft lottery if the season ended today.

The Flyers busy slate of games before the All-Star break continues for the next few days. The club has a short practice planned for Sunday, heading into a Monday afternoon matinee in Uniondale, NY, against the New York Islanders. On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Penguins pay a visit to the Wells Fargo Center. POSTGAME NOTES

* Flyers head coach Craig Berube shook up the line combinations and defensive pairs for Saturday’s game on the heels of back-to-back shutout losses and an off-day on Friday. The lines were as follows: B. Schenn – Giroux – Voracek, Umberger – Couturier – Simmonds, Rinaldo – Raffl – Read, and VandeVelde – Bellemare – Lecavalier. The defense pairings had Nick Schultz with Streit, Del Zotto with Luke Schenn, and Andrew MacDonald with Colaiacovo.

* Read was considered questionable to play in the game due to illness. He ended participating in warmups and giving it a go in the game.

* The Flyers recalled Jason Akeson early in the day from the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Reportedly, he got bumped off his flight and someone drove him from Allentown to Buffalo. He was on hand with the team for the game but was a healthy scratch.

* During the NHL All-Star break, there will be blogs on topics ranging from the challenges and opportunities of being a “seller” at the trade deadline to the issues with the Flyers’ penalty killing this season.

* Speaking of penalty killing, if the Flyers’ current 73.4 percent penalty killing rate were to hold up the remainder of the season, it would be the worst by any NHL team since the 1993-94 Ottawa Senators — a team that went 14-61-9 for the season — killed just 73.3 of its penalties.

*Per the Flyers via the Elias Sports Bureau, the Flyers’ scoreless streak of 168:50 was the fourth-longest scoreless stretch in franchise history.

************ PHANTOMS UPDATE: A GOOD THING GOING IN ALLENTOWN

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms won for the fifth time in their last six games as they downed the Binghamton Senators by a 5-1 count in front of a legitimate standing-room-only crowd of 8,907 on Bobby Clarke Night at the PPL Center in Allentown, PA.

Nick Cousins notched a hat trick and an assist to spark the Phantoms, opening the flood gates with a goal just 14 seconds after the opening faceoff. Before the game was 22 minutes old, he already had two goals and an assist. The second-year pro completed the hat trick in the third period.

The Phantoms also got goals by tough guys Zack Stortini and Jay Rosehill. Both were deflection goals. Stortini re-directed a Brandon Manning point shot for a power play goal at 15:55 of the first period (Cousins got the secondary assist). In the second period, Rosehill deflected a point shot by Ryan White for an even-strength goal that was somewhat similar to the goal R.J. Umberger scored in the Flyers’ game in Buffalo.

Martin Oullette got the start in goal for Lehigh Valley on Saturday. The rookie pro, who was recalled from the ECHL’s Reading Royals when Rob Zepp joined the Flyers, showed fast feet and good competitiveness in stopping 28 of 29 shots. His most spectacular save came in the second period on a play where he looked to be down and out but stuck up his glove and made a desperation snag. The lone goal he yielded came off a defensive breakdown that turned into a two-on-one down low.

Cousins’ first goal of the night was a sniper’s shot from the left slot against Andrew Hammond (32 saves on 37 shots) just 14 seconds into the game. Andrew Gordon (two assists) picked up the lone assist.

The second goal came at the 33-second mark of the second period. On this play, Cousins cruised to the net, had a juicy rebound come right to him and he stashed it home from near the right post. Gordon and Manning (two assists) got the helpers.

Cousins completed the hat trick at 14:44 of the third period. This was another line rush goal, but scored from the right side of the ice. Eric Comrie earned the lone assist.

The game saw numerous third-period fights as well as a first-period fight between the Phantoms Derek Mathers and the Sens’ Guillaume Lepine immediately after stepping out of the penalty box on coincidental delay of game minors (the two had previously dropped the gloves, cast off helmets and stood studying each other until the linesmen moved in and broke it up before they could get started with the fight).

Phantoms rookie defenseman Robert Hägg played one of his best all-around games of the season, despite not registering a point. Paired with Manning, Hägg made several subtle but sound plays with his stick and body positioning in the defensive zone, made a couple pinches with support in the offensive zone and registered four shots on goal while finishing the night at plus three.

The Phantoms lineup was missing Jason Akeson (recalled to the Flyers), Blair Jones (injured in Friday’s game) and Darroll Powe. Rookie defenseman Jesper Pettersson was once again a healthy scratch for Lehigh Valley.

Without question, part of the reason for the packed house was the presence of Clarke, who was recognized for his role as the general manager of the Philadelphia Phantoms teams that won the Calder Cup in 1997-98 and 2004-05. The Hockey Hall of Fame inductee spent 45 minutes before the game meeting fans and signing autographs.

However, Clarke’s presence was not the only reason why the building was full. The Phantoms have been drawing very well all season — this game was not even the most attended, and it was a standing-room only sellout. The PPL Center itself is part of the draw because of its newness and because it is basically an NHL-like arena scaled-down to AHL-appropriate size.

The other part of the reason is that Terry Murray’s team, while not loaded with offensive firepower and dealing with an array of key long-term injuries (including Shayne Gostisbehere and Mark Alt) and NHL callups (Scott Laughton, Zepp), plays a structured and competitive brand of hockey. There are nights where things go awry and the structure is lost — Friday’s game being the most recent time — but the club is resilient.

There is also good veteran leadership group in place this season in the dressing. Gordon, Stortini, Manning, Jones, Oliver Lauridsen and Zepp prior to his callup have been exceptional tone-setters both on and off the ice. Powe is also a positive presence. The team has overachieved to this point in part because the team in the room is kept focused.

The Phantoms return to action on Sunday. The team has a 5 PM game in Hershey. In other Flyers’ farm system news:

* WHL: Travis Sanheim, the Flyers’ first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, missed Saturday’s game for the Calgary Hitmen with an upper-body injury. He is considered day-to-day. Teammate Radel Fazleev, the Flyers’ sixth-round pick in the 2014 Draft, was minus-two without a point in Calgary’s 4-1 loss to the Victoria Royals. Jake Virtanen (Vancouver’s first-round pick in 2014) was also out of the Hitmen lineup due to an upper-body injury.

* QMJHL: One day after recording a five-point night (two goals, three assists, plus-five) for Val-d’Or, Flyers 2014 second-round pick Nicolas Aube-Kubel was back in action as his team took on the Rimouski Oceanic. The Oceanic, featuring Flyers 2013 first-round pick Samuel Morin, skated off with a 5-3 win. Aube-Kubel scored his 22nd goal of the season on a bit of a gift by Rimouski netminder Louis-Philip Guindon. Morin took care of business in his own end and also finished the game with an assist and four shots in goal with a plus-one at even strength. Aube-Kubel was minus-one with three shots.

* SHL: Flyers 2014 fifth-round pick Oskar Lindblom, who has played both wings for Brynäs IF this season, skated on the right wing of Jonas Nordquist’s line flanked by Daniel Brodin in Saturday’s home game against Skellefteå AIK. It was a forgettable night for BIF, as the 10th-place team got smoked, 7-2, by the top team in the SHL. Lindblom did not record a point and was minus one.

* WCHA: Flyers 2014 third-round pick, Bowling Green freshman defenseman Mark Friedman chipped in an assist and was plus-one in his team’s 3-2 win over Michigan Tech on Saturday.

* ECAC: Flyers 2012 fourth-round pick, Cornell junior defenseman Reece Willcox, was minus-one as his team got shut out, 3-0, by RPI on Saturday.

* NCAA inter-conference: North Dakota senior right winger Michael Parks, the Flyers’ fifth-round pick in the 2010 Draft, scored two goals in his team’s 5-0 win over Niagara on Saturday.

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