PHILADELPHIA — Perhaps it was just the chance to reset that changed the game. After a scrambly, unbuttoned first 10 minutes had the Philadelphia Flyers looking like a team about to get blown out by the Buffalo Sabres in their own building Wednesday night, Carter Hart’s injury timeout and subsequent departure — and backup Sam Ersson’s entrance — resulted in their outplaying the Sabres for the final 50 minutes.
No, they still didn’t win. Despite the ice being tilted in the Flyers’ direction for much of the final 2 1/2 periods, Owen Power and Tage Thompson took advantage of maybe the only two high-danger chances the Sabres had after Hart left, turning a 2-2 game into a 4-2 lead and an eventual 5-2 victory after adding an empty-netter.
The previous time Ersson played at Wells Fargo Center was Saturday’s 7-4 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. He allowed all seven on just 24 shots. On some of the late-game saves he did make after the damage had been done, sarcastic cheers rained down from above. John Tortorella was displeased with them. “What Sam had to go through with the Bronx cheers out there? Bulls—,” the coach said. “The game does not fall on one guy, the goalie. It belongs to all of us.”
It would stand to reason that Ersson’s teammates didn’t want him to go through that sort of ugly situation again. Might that have been why they suddenly started playing much cleaner hockey, allowing Buffalo just 10 shots on Ersson after the midway point of the first period, after he came in?
“I think we understand that Ers is a great guy, (and) you want to play well in front of him,” Scott Laughton said.
Or, maybe not.
“We weren’t happy with how we started the game. It didn’t really matter about the goalie change,” said Travis Sanheim, who had the primary assist on both Flyers goals. “We just wanted to tighten some things up. I thought we started to play better and generate quite a bit.”
Regardless, there’s a chance Ersson will be seeing the crease much more regularly in the immediate future. Tortorella didn’t provide any update on Hart after the game, which in itself is reason for concern. Hart has been arguably the Flyers’ best player so far, with a .913 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against average in eight games. It appeared he was shaken up a little more than five minutes into the first period after Kyle Okposo fell on him in the crease, and after trying to stay in the game and allowing two goals in the process (one of which was overturned on an offside challenge), Hart eventually had to retreat to the dressing room.
So in came Ersson, who wasn’t challenged hardly at all until Power’s goal at 3:03 of the third period broke the tie and turned out to be the game winner. Ersson allowed two goals on just nine shots, and the Flyers outshot Buffalo 40-15 for the game.
Tortorella didn’t seem overly upset with the loss. After all, the Flyers had essentially double the number of scoring chances the Sabres had, according to whatever internal metrics the coach looks at after the game.
He was, though, a bit less forgiving this time when it came to Ersson. Just like in that Ducks game, Ersson couldn’t come up with a stop when his team desperately needed one, even if it was two of Buffalo’s most dangerous shooters who beat him from prime scoring areas and after some Flyers defensive errors.
“I see a lot of good things in how we’re playing,” Tortorella said. “And how we’re playing, the aggressiveness of our play, we’re going to have some breakdowns. And I’m not laying it on the goalie, but we’re going to need some saves along the way, too. That’s just the way we’re going to go about this, this year. I believe we’ll get there.”
Said Ersson, who has a .763 save percentage and 4.91 goals-against average in three games: “I just want to win. That’s really it. It’s tough. Tough game. Don’t get to see a ton of pucks. I just want to win, really, is what it comes down to.”
Giving him more goal support would help him achieve that. Because though Wednesday night was encouraging for the Flyers in terms of their ability to limit Buffalo’s chances, it was also a reminder they don’t have the kind of finishers the Sabres do. Power’s and Thompson’s shots in the third period were from players who can score by taking advantage of what might be few opportunities.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 2, 2023
The Flyers haven’t been able to do that. In the minutes before Thompson’s goal gave the Sabres a two-goal cushion, they were coming in waves at the Sabres but couldn’t get a third puck past Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. There was a two-on-none pass from Laughton to Garnet Hathaway that Luukkonen read all the way, a Cam Atkinson shot toward a yawning cage that was knocked away by defenseman Henri Jokiharju, and a Tyson Foerster wrist shot from the slot midway through the third that the goalie got just enough of, too.
“Our start was pretty bad the first 10 or 11 minutes there, and kind of found our way at the end of the first,” Atkinson said. “I know that the result wasn’t what we wanted, but I thought we played a pretty decent game.”
Said Laughton: “It’s tough. Outshoot them, played a pretty good game for 50 minutes, and don’t get the result. Go back to the drawing board.”
The Flyers canceled practice Thursday, likely as a result of this stretch of three games in four nights. They visit Buffalo on Friday for the second of the home-and-home, and host the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday at Wells Fargo Center.
Already, Ersson was surely scheduled to get one of those two weekend games. Now that Hart’s status is up in the air, he might be getting a whole lot more on his plate than just a spot start, or in a back-to-back situation.
Tortorella has praised the 24-year-old Ersson’s mental toughness in the past. Depending on Hart’s availability, that’s potentially about to be put to the test, which, really, is what this Flyers season is all about, anyway.
“Sam has showed us many times that he can bounce back,” Tortorella said. “I’ve listened to him talk to you guys (the media). I think he self-evaluates really well. That’s a really important part of a player, their self-evaluation. I think he’s very strict with that, as far as how he feels about himself. I think that will get him through.”
(Photo of Sam Ersson: Kyle Ross / USA Today)