Last Sunday, Shayne Gostisbehere made a play so savvy that, if he were able to repeat it going forward, would elevate him from an offensive defenseman to an elite-level one.
In the second period against Buffalo, Gostisbehere read a mid-ice pass, stepped a few feet forward and intercepted it, then flicked it ahead to Jori Lehtera for what would eventually lead to the tying goal in the Flyers' 4-1 win.
The read and subsequent interception were impressive, as was the quick wrist shot moments later that Gostisbehere – who followed the play as a trailer — unleashed for his ninth goal of the season.
But what really warmed the hearts of his general manager and his coach was how it was played.
Rather than skate full force and commit to intercepting it as he might have in his first two seasons, Gostisbehere held his position on the ice, taking just a stride forward. He called it "risky'' later, but the risk, really, was small. Should the puck have taken an unfortunate bounce and found its intended receiver, the third-year pro likely would still have been in position to defend a rush the other way.
"I am just trying to have a good stick,'' said Gostisbehere, 24, who is listed at 5-11, 180. "Just eliminate time and space. I think that's the biggest thing for myself. Don't let forwards have room to make plays. If I close that down, it is going to be harder for them."
Sunday's example was glaring, but there have been subtle plays throughout the season to illustrate that point, and particularly since he was paired with Ivan Provorov after a lifeless loss to Buffalo on Dec.23. One example: During the Flyers' 5-1 loss to the Penguins at the start of their recent four-game homestand, Gostisbehere repeatedly thwarted Sidney Crosby's playmaking with an active stick.
"I think he is really trusting his reads,'' coach Dave Hakstol said. "As you grow in terms of experience — some of that confidence is trust in what he sees. 'Ghost' defends so well with his feet, with his stick and because he reads plays, he's a little bit ahead [mentally]. He breaks up a lot of plays that don't really have a chance to get going. For me, up ice in the neutral zone, that's where he's doing a great job.''
With nine goals already, he has eclipsed last season's total of seven, and he is seven short of last season's point total of 32. A season removed from extensive surgery to repair core-muscle injuries and a hip issue, Gostisbehere has returned to being the agile, shifty player of his rookie season, and might have even improved upon it.
A minus-21 a year ago, Gostisbehere is plus-1 this season. He was plus-8 over 64 games as a rookie, but back then he was not often assigned to defend the other team's best. Being paired with Provorov has made it more noticeable perhaps. But the growth, said general manager Ron Hextall, was noticeable well before that.
"Without a doubt,'' Hextall said. "There's been a gradual improvement of his read and his stick positioning, and his angling. All those things have gotten better.
"I think the importance of the defensive game is hitting him. I think his whole life, he's had the puck and been an offensive player. I think the magnitude of the impact he can [have] as a two-way player rather than a one-way player has hit him. So I give him an awful lot of credit for that.''