The Flyers find themselves in position to win the Eastern Conference round robin tournament and they have Kevin Hayes to thank for it.
Hayes made exceptional plays on all three Flyers goals on Thursday, leading the team to a 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
The Flyers, 2-0 in the three-team competition, will face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday for the No. 1 seed in the East.
The question now becomes: How seriously do the Flyers want to win this competition versus just continuing to work and fine-tune their game for when the real Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week?
“It’s about preparing the team and it’s about winning obviously,’’ coach Alain Vigneault said during a Zoom call after the game. “But there’s that fine line. We haven’t played for a long time. If you do expect your team to have a long playoff push, things have to fall into place.
“I think structurally so far we’ve been pretty good. In the three games we’ve played, counting the exhibition (vs. Pittsburgh) we haven’t given the opposition a lot. I thought we played well with and without the puck. . .we made the high percentage play. I think we’re playing smart hockey and that has to continue moving forward.’’
Goaltender Brian Elliott recorded the win in goal and had a shutout bid foiled by the Caps’ late goal.
Hayes set up the first of two goals by Scott Laughton in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead and another in third to make it 3-0. In the second period, he sent a pinpoint backdoor pass to defenseman Travis Sanheim for a deke move past goalie Braden Holtby for Philadelphia’s second goal.
On the first Laughton goal at 13:03, Hayes stole a puck from ex-Flyer defenseman Radko Gudas and relayed to Travis Konecny, who wheeled and found Laughton in front.
Hayes also figured prominently in the Flyers’ second goal at 11:30 of the second.
With the teams skating four on four, Hayes cut across the high slot and found Sanheim pinching down low. Sanheim caught the pass, executed a stop-and-go, then lifted the puck over Holtby’s right shoulder.
On the third goal at 8:37 of the third, Hayes once again spotted Laughton cutting to the net and made the connection.
The Caps scored just 12 seconds later on their first shot of the period when a shot by Travis Boyd eluded Elliott.
Sean Couturier echoed Vigneault’s comments about the importance of playing good structural hockey while at the same time aiming for that No. 1 seed.
“I think it’s important to play the right way,’’ Couturier said. “Keep building on this momentum we’re gaining right now. We want to win, we want to finish the highest possible seed.
“But I think as long as we’re at our best, once the real playoffs start, that’s the biggest thing I think.’’
Elliott liked the way his team played sound defense in front of him. The Flyers limited the Metro Division frontrunners to just 17 shots and Alex Ovechkin was a nonfactor.
“(Our) guys were taking away seams with their sticks and skates,’’ Elliott said. “They’re a team that kind of looks for that extra pass. I thought we did a really good job coming back and getting in the right spots.
“Sometimes when you have a layoff of just a week, let alone months, those are things you really have to focus on. I thought we did a really good job of that today.’’
It’s early but are the Flyers feeling like they belong in the Stanley Cup conversation?
“I think we have to continue to build on our game and get better,’’ Laughton said. “We’ve got a huge game coming up against Tampa and that’s what we’re looking forward to. We don’t really get caught up in the talk. We’re going to continue to roll here and keep going.’’
The Flyers kept Ovechkin off the scoreboard for all five games this year. Quite an achievement and perhaps indicative of the Flyers’ improving team defense.
“He’s one of the best goal-scorers to ever play the game,’’ Hayes said. “You have to know when he’s on the ice. Everyone of us kind of plays the right way when they see him come over the boards. If he doesn’t score, I guess we’re doing it the right way.’’
>Van Riemsdyk scratched
James van Riemsdyk was a healthy scratch and replaced in the lineup by Connor Bunnaman, who played on the fourth line. Joel Farabee saw his first postseason action and played on a third line with Derek Grant and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
The Flyers kept the Capitals’ power play off the scoreboard and have not allowed a goal on their penalty kill in round-robin games against Washington and Boston, plus a preseason game against Pittsburgh. . .Including the regular season, the Flyers are now 4-0-1 against the Caps this year. Three of those wins were recorded by Elliott.