Yikes folks. Just… yikes. The Flyers played the Boston Bruins last night in Beantown and eventually lost in the shootout, 5-4. Jake DeBrusk managed the only successful attempt by either team. Why am I acting so miserable about a loss to a talented team in the latest fashion possible? This was a close game, right? If you didn’t tune in, I regret to inform you that the score of a Philadelphia Flyers game was yet again incredibly deceptive. I know it’s shocking to hear, but let me explain why in this Pod Street Postgame.
The Flyers have looked like crap this year, and if I’m being honest they’ve largely looked like crap since they first set foot on the ice against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. Why does a team that was rolling before the pause lack the speed, tenacity and (most importantly) defensive soundness that made them a threat every night? The answer can be broken down into three components, each of them tying directly into this loss.
I hate using effort as a crutch to explain why a team isn’t performing well. It’s often the tool of reporters with vendettas against certain players (like a certain hater of Jakub Voráček). Still, I can say with absolute certainty that the Flyers looked sluggish tonight against Boston, much like they have against every other team they’ve encountered. One might chalk it up to a lack of conditioning due to the shortened training camp and lack of preseason games, but other teams around the league don’t look this slow. The effort difference isn’t something that I think is born from laziness, but rather from a stale system; more on that later.
Last night Philadelphia struggled to match Boston’s speed and forechecking tenacity at even strength, something that bothers me considerably more than the loss. The Bruins hadn’t scored a single goal at 5v5 in their first three games, yet the Flyers allowed three, all coming in the third period. Added context needed to twist the knife a bit more? Philly had a 2-0 lead headed into the final twenty minutes of regulation. After getting shelled all game when at five aside, the Flyers decided the best course of action was to sit back in a heavy shell and turtle. The forechecking tailed off, the pace of play plummeted from an already low bar, and everything went to shit rapidly. This is an exacerbated example of what’s been plaguing this team in every game this year. In the wins over the Penguins, the Flyers were largely outplayed and benefitted from goaltending and superior talent; in the series with Buffalo, we saw similar factors carry them and the disastrous results when those two variables (both of which are incredibly volatile) couldn’t be depended upon. If this team wants to contend for a Stanley Cup, I need to see them give a more consistent effort when they don’t have inherent advantages.
Alain Vigneault needs to wake up before this becomes a serious problem. As a Nashville Predators fan, I’m getting powerful deja-vu from the recent trajectory of Peter Laviolette. A coach comes to a team at the right time and leads them to immediate success, gets too comfortable with his system, and becomes stubborn and actively bad for the roster’s overall results. Vigneault favors the chip-and-charge variant of transition and emphasizes drop passes, a heavy forecheck, and getting the puck out of your own zone as quickly as possible. This all sounds good in theory, but in reality it doesn’t fit the current state of this roster at all and teams have learned how to exploit these tactics. The chip-and-charge stratagem only works if you have a lineup flush with speed and players who can forecheck expertly. The Flyers lost Tyler Pitlick in the offseason and Sean Couturier to injury, leaving them ill-equipped to execute on this method. Drop passes are archaic and most of the best teams in the league have largely phased them out, yet the Flyers insist on using them on the powerplay even though they telegraph exactly where the puck carrier is going to go. On a team with this much skill, Vigneault continues to ingrain a tendency to just throw the puck out of the defensive zone without any thought. This leads to ludicrous amounts of icing calls and high-leverage face-offs.
All of the above is highly counterproductive to this team’s success, and we saw it last night. The Flyers couldn’t get anything going in Boston’s offensive zone, struggling to enter cleanly and establish possession. Philadelphia struggled initially on the powerplay and only really got things going with the man advantage because Boston gave them repeated opportunities to do so; the drop passes were a key factor in the Bruins stopping those units. Lastly, Boston had little trouble peppering Carter Hart in the third period because everyone on the team was so keen to ice the puck. Y’see, it all ties in to the result of this game.
I’m sick of watching Robert Hägg. It’s incredible to me that he has so many hardcore defenders as a player when he’s consistently a step behind the play, but to each their own I guess. Every time “Bobby Big Hits” is on the ice I clench my cheeks a little tighter, and for good reason. He epitomizes everything wrong with Philly’s blue line right now. He treats the puck like a bomb in his own end, he picks inopportune times to shoot in the offensive zone, and to top it all off his positional awareness (his reputed “best skill”) is frequently embarrassingly bad. He gets caught puck watching more than any defender I’ve ever seen. These traits have all been seen at some level in the other two messes on the back end: Justin Braun and Erik Gustafsson. The defenders haven’t had the easiest of lives because of the aforementioned system issues, but Gustafsson and Braun have been brutal in net front coverage and gap control the entirety of this year. Small sample sizes can often be deceiving, but Braun hasn’t exactly been great in a Flyers uniform and Gustafsson has a reputation for being “Shayne Gostisbehere, but 100x more infuriating” for a reason. The two simply aren’t top four NHL offerings at this point. The loss of Phil Myers has only exacerbated this problem.
The good news is that in last night’s performance, Travis Sanheim looked the best he has all year, something that’ll be key to buoying this defensive group in Myers’ absence. The bad news is that only he and Provorov looked like they belonged in the NHL; Hägg, Braun and Gustafsson all made brutal mistakes that directly caused goals against. Braun failed to stop a Bruins entry, Gustafsson blew a neutron coverage, and worst of all Hägg turned the puck over on a pathetic clearing attempt before getting turnstiled. Boston scored all of their goals in the net-front area, somewhere the Flyers kept pretty clean last year. Matt Niskanen’s absence is felt more and more every day.
This game was chaotic. The Flyers were outplayed in pretty much every conceivable way, yet James Van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux managed to put the Orange and Black up 2-0 headed into the third. Philly squandered away that lead by turtling and barely scraped to overtime on the back of a weak Travis Sanheim goal and a beautiful tip by JvR for his second of the game. The Flyers played very well in overtime but were ultimately shut down by Tuukka Rask. Carter Hart and JvR looked really good, but everything else needs a lot of work. I need to see more from this team in their next game on Saturday.
Photo Credit – Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire